How to Give Authentic Feedback
More than any other issue we hear about in our consulting work with companies, feedback - and all the pitfalls, breakdowns, and inefficacy that typically go along with it - tops the list.
Effective, accurate, well-crafted and fully received feedback is essential to ensure a workplace that is supportive, aligned, and trustable for everyone up and down the org chart. Good feedback creates a pathway for people to make adjustments in their participation and contribution to objectives so that teams operate efficiently and in concert with each other. Consistently delivered feedback ensures that recipients can continue evolving toward actualizing their highest, most productive, and most engaged potential.
Let’s first take a look at the most common ways the feedback cycle breaks down.
Feedback without Connection
Often, the person delivering the feedback will launch right into the feedback without first taking the time to prioritize connection and rapport. Receiving feedback is already a delicate experience, prone to producing defensiveness or emotional activation. When feedback providers skip the step of slowing down enough to first establish connection - and the sense of ease, relaxation, and openness that comes along with it - the risk of triggering defenses is much higher, pitting the provider and receiver on opposite sides of the table and creating an atmosphere of conflict rather than collaboration.
Feedback as Blame
No matter how well-intentioned the feedback provider might be, sometimes all the recipient hears is some version of, “You didn’t do this right, you messed this up, you keep doing this thing wrong, you’re the reason why this isn’t working, you’re a bad person and if this keeps happening, you’re going to get yourself fired.” Many people find it difficult to separate a referendum on who they inherently are as human beings from what choices they might have made or ways they have behaved, and common styles of feedback often trigger the conflation of the two so that recipients hear feedback as who they are as a person rather than what they did or didn’t do.
Triggering any kind of blame response from the recipient is going to undermine the ability of the recipient to hear feedback as actionable, and it will have the reverse effect of producing more disengagement and resentment.
Feedback as Overly Positive
We often see in certain workplace cultures a preference for friendliness and amiability. Something in the cultural field implies that we’re all friends here and that a friendly workplace culture is one that rides above the petty and competitive environments of other workplaces.
While well-intended, the unfortunate downside of this value for friendliness is a resistance or avoidance of delivering hard or challenging feedback for people, thereby denying them the opportunity to improve and contribute more effectively.
Feedback as Criticism
Sometimes, providers of feedback focus too heavily on what an employee did wrong or what they didn’t like about how the employee conducted their business. It’s all too easy for employees to receive this style of feedback as a judgment of their character, and they will likely shut down or become defensive. Even if they don’t respond in this way, critical feedback doesn’t provide a way for the employee to see how they can improve since it’s backward-looking and based on what was or wasn’t done rather than on what could be done.
The single most important element of a good, healthy feedback cycle is for connection between the person offering the feedback and the person receiving it.
Now let’s explore how feedback can be most effectively offered and received using the skills and tools of authentic relating.
Connection over Content
The single most important element of a good, healthy feedback cycle is for connection between the person offering the feedback and the person receiving it. With generous attention given to the connection, then trust, rapport, openness, curiosity and mutual respect all naturally arise.
There are several ways to cultivate connection, and the onus is on the person delivering the feedback to ensure that connection is established and maintained.
Focus on human connection over content
Don’t rush into feedback - Take some time to have an open conversation. Ask some genuinely curious questions about the other person, let them know something personal about yourself, and generally take a moment to just be human together.
Ask for consent - When it’s time to deliver the feedback, ask if the other person is open to it first.
“Hey John, I’d like to offer you some feedback, would you be open to hearing it?”
This gesture gives the recipient a sense of empowerment over the process rather than being a slave to it, and also provides them with an opportunity to delay receiving the feedback if they are genuinely not available for it. Maybe they had a rough morning or had a recent death in the family, in which case they aren’t in a position to fully receive the feedback.
Even if they say yes, take a moment to notice their nonverbal communication. Does their body and face seem open and at ease, or can you perceive tension or constriction that might indicate that they aren’t actually available? If you notice anything like this, check in with them to see if they would prefer to reschedule.
“John, I noticed you seem a bit tense and distracted… Are you sure you’re feeling available right now? I’m fine rescheduling to another time if that seems better for you.”
Go slow - Take your time delivering feedback and keep checking to see if they are still present and open to connection. If at any time you notice or perceive that they are shutting down or reacting, stop and check in with them before going any further. Going slow also gives you time to make sure you’re being accurate and deliberate in your delivery of feedback, and gives the recipient time to hear and digest what is being expressed.
Check for impact - After you have delivered the feedback, ask the recipient how they feel after hearing it.
“I just want to check and see how all that landed for you… How are you feeling now?”
Checking for impact supports the openness of the connection, and demonstrates to the recipient that you care about their experience on the other side of hearing the feedback. Checking for impact also gives you an opportunity to make sure that the recipient heard the feedback as intended.
Plus/Delta feedback ensures that the recipient feels praised and acknowledged first, before hearing what they could be doing differently.
The best kind of feedback balances both what the recipient has done well and is worthy of praise, along with what the recipient could do differently or better going forward. We use a feedback model called Plus/Delta as a way of balancing these two threads of feedback.
Plus feedback focuses on what the employee is already doing that they should continue doing.
“I want to commend you for being so prepared for meetings and making sure you’re on top of the material.”
“I really appreciate how you’ve gone the extra mile on your accounts and reaching out to the clients to keep them updated.”
“I’ve noticed how helpful you’ve been to the rest of the team when they needed to make the project deadline.”
Delta focuses on what the employee could adjust to be more effective going forward. The key to effective Delta feedback is to make sure that it is forward-looking and constructive.
“I’d like to see you taking more time with clients on calls and making sure they really feel heard.”
“For your presentations, I’d appreciate if you could focus on the big themes first and then get into the details.”
“I think if you take some time at the beginning of meetings to get a pulse on how people are feeling, they’ll be more engaged.”
Plus/Delta ensures that the recipient feels praised and acknowledged first, before hearing what they could be doing differently. It also accentuates feedback that is directly actionable, reducing the chance that the recipient could misinterpret the steps they need to take to accommodate the feedback.
It often is the case that the people delivering feedback don’t want to hurt the recipient’s feelings or don’t want to be seen as the bad guy, so they skirt around the issues and try to come at it sideways. This leads to confusion, misinterpretation, and even resentment over the long run as the feedback isn’t being correctly applied.
You should be straight, concise, and direct in communicating your feedback to employees. To support the recipient in being more open to receiving this kind of feedback, you can apply a skill we call Setting Context. You can make it explicit at the beginning of the feedback conversation that you want to offer the feedback directly and accurately.
“John, before we get started, I just want to mention that my intention is to be straight and direct with you and not try to beat around the bush, to make sure that I can be as clear and accurate as possible and so that you’re clear on what steps to take based on this feedback. How does that sound?”
Notice that at the end, there is a request for buy-in. This is another way to empower the recipient and have them voluntarily agree to participating in the proposed context. Empowerment and openness go hand-in-hand in this style of feedback.
Focus on Actions, not the Person
A critical distinction between effective feedback and feedback that falls apart is to notice if the focus is on the action or on the person. Actions can be modified, not people. Notice the difference between these two statements:
“When you didn’t submit the assignments in on time, it delayed the team and frustrated the client. I’d appreciate it if you could make sure you submit your assignments on time going forward.”
“When you weren’t on time with your assignments, it delayed the team and frustrated the client. Can you please be on time going forward?”
The first version will be much more easily received since the recipient can adjust the action that the feedback is about, while in the second version the feedback is about their character and can lead to shame and resentment since they are likely hearing that they are a bad person.
Many of these feedback skills are centered around seeing the other person as a human doing their best to be valuable and worthy. They recognize that feedback is most likely an emotional experience that can trigger deep-seated stories about oneself and can severely backfire if time, skill, and care aren’t taken to ensure that connection and openness are online throughout the conversation.
Slow down, prioritize the connection, be constructive, check for impact, focus on actions, and be clear and direct. Together, these skills will ensure a positive experience for everyone involved and that feedback is acted upon and integrated into the work environment effectively and sustainably.
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