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Team Development

The 6 pain-free steps of constructive feedback

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Giving feedback can be a challenge if you want to be both heard and respected for giving it. It’s hard to predict how a person will respond, but some methods are definitely more effective than others.

“You’re doing it all wrong.”

“Do you need any help with that?”

Which phrase would you rather hear?

Giving feedback can be a challenge if you want to be both heard and respected for giving it. It’s hard to predict how a person will respond, but some methods are definitely more effective than others. So what can we do to take the pain out of giving and receiving feedback and make it a more natural and comfortable task?

I worked in a creative department where design feedback and writing edits were expected, requested, and delivered multiple times a day. We had a culture of feedback; we expected it. Of course, we often disagreed with the feedback and sometimes we made the changes and sometimes we didn’t. 

What made this culture possible? And what can we do to take the pain out of giving and receiving feedback and make it a more natural and comfortable task?

1. Ask permission

Our team expected feedback; permission had already been given by the nature of the job. Sometimes we would say that something wasn’t ready to be viewed by a teammate and that was OK, too.

We understood the parameters of our permission. I could tell a designer how I responded to a design, what it reminded me of, or how it made me feel, but I couldn’t tell her she was using her tools incorrectly. I respected her knowledge of her craft and tried to offer feedback she could act on. If she didn’t act on my feedback I assumed she had heard it and respected it, nevertheless.

When attending a facilitated training recently I noticed that the facilitator asked permission before offering observations based on our team’s behavior or discussion. She didn’t assume permission; she asked for it. That showed respect for our process.

In a truly collaborative team, all members need to know they have permission to give feedback. It’s not just the role of the leader. Great leaders welcome feedback from their subordinates, but they sometimes need to pull or tease it out of people who might fear negative consequences.

2. Establish trust

Feedback is easier to hear and offer if the individuals trust each other. Both sides of the feedback equation are vulnerable.

For example, when I offer you feedback I want you to take it as an expression of support, and I expect you to seriously consider what I offer. If I’m receiving feedback I want to trust that you have my best interests at heart. Unguarded feedback can be more timely, specific and genuine.

As a DiSC C style, I also want feedback from people who know enough to give me good feedback. I will ignore a simple “good job,” especially from someone outside my field. But I will eat up specifics about why something I did had positive measurable results from someone who gathered that data. I’ll even review the data if it shows poor performance on my part as long as I have input into any plan for improvement.

“…it’s nothing personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”--Michael Corleone, The Godfather

3. Personalize it

There is really no way to give or receive feedback that doesn’t feel personal. Feedback is relational. It’s part of how we learn to work with each other. And as common as it is, it can still be hard because so many people do take it as personal criticism. As we learn from DiSC, people with different priorities want to receive feedback differently. We’re each motivated in different ways. That’s why it’s important to ask for permission to give feedback and then ask how people prefer to receive it.

Performance review forms routinely violate this principle. No one responds very well to receiving a checklist of their deficiencies once a year. Many forms just highlight how little the manager and staff really know each other, and how little they actually provide mutual feedback during regular meetings and communications.

If you’re only giving feedback on an employee’s performance once a year, you’re failing in your role as a manager. The brilliant book, The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, is still the classic reference for giving feedback right. This is not to say that structured reviews can’t support constructive feedback. A checklist or form might be valuable to the extent that it makes clear how someone’s work will be judged. A regular check-in with a team to facilitate discussion about their performance can be helpful. And post-mortem reviews of projects can bring up important issues that wouldn’t be addressed otherwise.

4. Make it practical

If you’re giving feedback and want to see a change, make it clear what that change is. And let the person know how important they are in shaping that change. Do they need to change an end result but can choose their own route there? Or do they need to do something tactical like exactly following a checklist?

Be clear what you’re trying to achieve through your feedback. What does a positive outcome look like from the change in behavior? Are you expecting a difference in team cohesion, reduced customer complaints, fewer errors, what?

5. Practice it

Designers, programmers, animators, writers, and other people in creative occupations learned to survive the critiques and edits of their schooling or apprenticeships. They learned that they could survive a harsh evaluation and go on to produce something better. They learned to separate their egos from their work.

Teams and individuals can improve their feedback experiences by simply doing it and discussing how well they’re doing. It’s one of the great things about going through the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team facilitation: you get to practice talking about hard stuff like conflict and trust and accountability.

If you’ve just asked for a lot of feedback, like from a 360 review, you might want to ask a coach or a mentor to help you receive it. A few days after giving difficult feedback, discuss the matter again with the recipient. Ask about what the experience was like for them, how they’ve responded, and how they might prefer receiving such feedback in the future.

6. Try the sandwich approach—or not!

You’ve probably read or heard about sandwiching negative feedback between positive feedback. But have you actually known that to work out well?

Often the recipient will only hear what confirms their self-image or shatters it, depending on their personality. While it’s possible to be encouraging while giving negative feedback, the sandwich technique has its drawbacks.

Another approach is to bring up a problem and then express confidence that the recipient of the difficult feedback can do better. Ask what support they’ll need to change or what other choices they could make. If you’re positive, encouraging and supportive, most people will respond in a positive way.

Final feedback

Sometimes the feedback you need to give is that your relationship must end. Perhaps you need to fire a person or reassign them. If you know that you’ve been giving them relevant and actionable feedback before you got to this point, you’ll be in a stronger position to make it feel like a purely business decision.

The more you practice giving feedback in different ways, the less likely you should have to practice your “final feedback” message.