Feedback is one of those career development ‘tools’ that is so well known and accepted, there is a danger you dismiss this column before I can convince you otherwise. But wait. If you really think about it, how often do you actually get useful feedback? And, if you’re honest, do you always give that level of high-quality feedback to other people? I know I don’t.
Too often, we tell people they did ‘a really great job’, without being specific about what they did well. We avoid telling our peers and managers about our perception of things that were ineffective because we assume it’s not our place, or that someone else will, or simply because we don’t want to rock the boat.
There are also issues with how effectively people ask for feedback. I’ve seen this in every company I’ve worked in and every team I’ve led. People generically ask for feedback or submit requests via internal systems and get generic responses back that, though well-intentioned, are not helpful for the individual in taking action.
Therein lies the reason why feedback is so important. Taking action from effective feedback is one of the most powerful ways an individual can continue to grow and develop. It’s therefore one of the most powerful ways a company can grow and develop, so why are we so rubbish at it?
The main reason people back away from giving feedback is that they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Giving a difficult message can seem hard and may result in conflict that a lot of people seek to avoid. So we skirt around the message and the individual maintains the behaviour that could be holding them back.
This type of feedback is termed “ruinously empathetic” by Kim Scott, in her book Radical Candor, where she advocates for a more effective position of caring personally but challenging directly. Her premise is that by being too kind, you are setting the person up to fail.
The only person you are serving in this situation is yourself, so you don’t feel awkward or mean, but the outcome is that you hold an individual back. And, when you think about it, you also hold yourself back by not developing the ability to deliver clear messages to other people. This situation is a lose-lose, yet it’s very often the default feedback setting that operates in most organisations.
In addition to the avoidance technique, organisations are also rife with the ‘praise sandwich’ – giving negative feedback between positive comments – and cycles where the only feedback is annual feedback. Both of these distract from and delay key messages being heard by the individual. We are all accountable and able to make a change in how feedback happens at work; and whether you’re a manager or not, developing your ability to give and receive effective feedback will increase your impact and value.
There are some specific, simple and transformative ways we can start to address the feedback issue.
The first is to change your feedback frame of mind. Recognise that you are being selfish by not delivering a clear message to the individual. Find the right balance between caring and challenging.
The second action is to be specific. Most people recognise the need to do this with more ‘challenging’ feedback but forget that the same level of detail should apply to positive feedback.
You should put as much thought into how you articulate positive feedback as you do challenging feedback, but most of the time we simply say ‘great job’ and move on. Next time you hear yourself saying this, follow-up with the specific actions you thought were impactful. This will increase an individual’s self-awareness as well as their self-belief.
Thirdly, find your feedback phrase. Many people struggle to give feedback in the moment and one of the barriers is that they don’t know where to start or how to phrase it. Take some time to develop a way of asking and giving feedback that feels unique to you. Mine is to simply ask or share thoughts on what worked well and what could be even better.
It’s a phrase that was shared with me some years ago, which has made asking for and giving feedback far easier. In a meeting, I’ll ask a group to give me feedback in that framework in the moment, so I can build and improve. I’ll ask it over email or in one-to-ones and I’ll use it as a simple starting point when I believe I have a reflection that can help others. Of course, there are levels beneath this that you can probe to get deeper insight, but what you’re looking for is a confident starting point for the conversation.
Fourth, focus on your frequency. The annual review is often the only point in the year where people receive feedback, and in doing so means that the idea of feedback is met with a sense of anxiety, fear and uncertainty. However, the more frequently you can give and ask for feedback, the less sensitive people become about it and the more they come to expect and to value it. Create a habit of asking for and giving feedback at least once a week.
Finally, the fifth action is to approach feedback with a growth, rather than fixed, mindset. Ask yourself if you get defensive about challenging feedback or flippant about positive feedback. Be aware of your reactions in the moment and create some space to reflect by listening, acknowledging and responding with your thoughts after you have fully absorbed the feedback. This gives you an opportunity to ask reflective rather than defensive questions.
You don’t need to act on all five actions at once but start by being honest about what you do well today and where you could develop and prioritise accordingly. If you don’t know, it’s a great starting point to get some feedback. If we can all model these behaviours more, we will create stronger cultures and climates for growth for ourselves, our colleagues and our organisations.