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A framework for giving and receiving feedback gracefully

Giving and receiving feedback is vital, even if you don't love it

Why is regularly giving and receiving feedback in the workplace so crucial? Because it's virtually impossible to escape having, or being subjected to, personal bias! Everyone has their internal and very unique views of the world around them. These opinions get formed by our upbringing, education, beliefs, social circumstances, values, etc. Biases can be conscious or unconscious, but we rarely openly express them.

Now you might be wondering what giving constructive feedback has to do with bias. Plenty, in fact. Bias affects everyone for top leaders to entry-level staff – irrespective of age or experience. Business leaders, in particular, can fall prey to the false consensus effect where they assume that everyone thinks as they do and everyone's on the same page.

Startups can be very vulnerable to this. The founder surrounds themself with likeminded people in the original team. All are working towards the same goal, ideas get shared within a small group, and every one offers equal input. However, as the business starts to scale, the small like minded group splits into different teams, and new people come on board. 

Success depends on giving and receiving feedback constructively

Changing group dynamics brings new ideas, but also varying attitudes and motivations. No matter how well structured and refined our hiring system is, we still never know for sure what someone else is thinking. To get around that takes effort and it must come from leadership and be filtered down to every level so that employees are encouraged to express themselves.

Getting to know what people are thinking requires creating a safe space that inspires open and constructive communication. (And this safe space isn’t a corner somewhere in HR.) The entire organization must adopt a culture of respectful communication and constructive feedback. That way, the business benefits and individuals grow and thrive.

Feedback on-the-go must become the norm within teams, across departments and at the executive level. That doesn’t mean that more formal approaches to feedback and people management aren’t necessary though; it means that it becomes an ongoing, collective process rather than an annual or bi-annual function.

Performance management relies on continuous feedback

Many businesses are opting for performance management systems and dumping outdated annual performance appraisals. The concept of a performance management system is that it delivers real-time results that includes employees. It must also be agile enough to yield results in an ever-evolving environment.

The only way a performance management system can succeed, though, is if the company embraces a culture of giving ongoing feedback to employees. Honest and constructive feedback allows team members, team leaders, managers and executives to understand one another and to align attitudes and motivations with company goals. 

F4S is a revolutionary people analytics platform that allows you to identify individual strengths and blind spots and offers real-time coaching to improve. It also identifies team dynamics by comparing individual traits for you to compare and streamline teams to get the best results.

Over time, leaders and employees can gauge the success of constructive feedback that’s been accepted and improved on. People analytics enhances performance management and offers insight into attitudes and motivations in a way that wasn’t previously available.

Why people don’t give feedback

Despite the new approach adopted by many organizations, most people don’t feel comfortable giving or receiving feedback. Giving constructive feedback is a skill! It’s something that we can be taught. And the best way is through receiving positive and negative feedback on the job via mentoring and coaching. So that takes responsibility for creating a nurturing environment to give and receive feedback straight back to leadership.

Business leaders must understand and convey the importance of continuous feedback and begin by sharing and asking for feedback from one another. Feedback must be encouraged from peers, subordinates, business partners and even customers. 

If we don’t know what we’re doing right or wrong at any level, how can we keep on improving? Managers and employees who don’t get feedback will never fully understand the company vision nor its evolving goals. They might think they’re doing an excellent job when they’re not. Or they could have hidden potential that doesn't ever see the light of day. Either way, the business loses out.

Lack of timely feedback leads to negative consequences

If we’ve not been coached in the art of giving feedback to employees or peers, we’ll either put it off or try to overlook issues. Most people don’t know how to give negative feedback in specific. But that won’t solve any problems for the organization or individuals. Plus, bottled up frustrations will always find a way to surface, and that way is usually reactive at best and destructive at worst.

If someone keeps doing something poorly and team members are left to sort it out, or they have an annoying habit or attitude that gets overlooked, you can’t blame them. It’s up to the team leader or members to point it out. Maybe the person is unaware, or they’re pushing their luck – but it won’t stop until it’s addressed. 

The last thing any team needs is a blow-up, followed by a walk-out that leaves those remaining feeling demotivated, upset and often divided. A high turnover rate doesn’t only impact hiring and training costs; it also destroys team morale and can harm your business brand.

You don’t want these issues to be raised in a bad performance review weeks or months later either. If someone is unaware that what they’re doing is wrong or disruptive, you’ll catch them blindside. The news won’t be well-received, and you could lose an employee who had the potential to be a great asset.

Constructive feedback must be given and received in real-time, in real conversations with the intention to improve the situation for all parties involved. You want to create a win-win situation; the days of punishment versus reward in the workplace are a relic of a bygone era.

What you want to achieve through ongoing feedback

Progressive HR executives and business leaders have realized that the old, authoritarian style of managing from the top down doesn’t work anymore. Society has changed, business practices have changed, and technology has upended everything that was the norm even twenty years ago.

Although too many organizations still buy into that leadership style and many employees still expect it, successful companies have brought a sense of humanity back into their corporate culture. Effective management processes recognize that staff are people first, and then employees. Win over the person, and you’ve got a loyal and productive employee.

Through giving and receiving feedback, we create opportunities to learn and grow. We also open pathways to personal progress and uncover latent talents by building confidence. But there’s a process to this! Development doesn’t happen as a result of being told how to do things, or what we’re doing wrong. It builds as a result of guidance and being given room to expand, make mistakes, recognize them and then correct them.

Working off a tick-list is great. How many times have you heard someone say “I can do this with my eyes closed”? They’re doing their job, they’re pushing out results – but how much more could they contribute and how happy and engaged are they in what they’re doing?

Positive feedback provides vital reinforcement for someone to step outside of their comfort zone and experiment. Negative feedback is an opportunity to understand their actions better, how it impacts their environment and to learn new ways of doing things.

The human mind only knows what it knows, and there are many blind spots that we are unaware of. Unless we’re made aware of blind spots, we don’t know they exist. Once we recognize and accept them, however, we can take action to change.

Uncovering blind spots versus lack of skill

When faced with a situation where someone lacks the skills to get their job done properly, the solution is straightforward. Get them some additional training and make sure they have enough peer support to help them until they’re up to scratch.

However, if you’re dealing with an attitude problem, it’s much more challenging to resolve. Possibly the person does just have a bad attitude, and they’re not a good match for your organization. But don’t jump to that conclusion right away. (Actually, don’t ever jump to conclusions when it comes to people management; you’re likely to come from a place of bias and be totally wrong.)

Whether you’re dealing with rebelliousness or apathy, constructive criticism can cut to the core and expose a real gem. Lack of challenge or having your ideas or creativity stymied are just two common reasons why people either act out or lose interest. 

Another biggie is withholding critical info and plans from teams or individuals. If someone is doing something without knowing where they’re headed, you can’t expect commitment and enthusiasm. Not sharing pertinent business goals and only issuing instructions is a relic of the outmoded authoritarian approach.

Because of the lack of big-picture insight, the employee might not even realize that their contribution is highly valued and without it, the team struggles.

Giving feedback

Whether negative or positive, you want to foster an environment of constructive feedback throughout your organization. You do that by writing it into your HR policies and procedures, your company culture and through leading by example. If leadership embraces giving and receiving feedback and makes it an opportunity for progress, the rest of the company will fall in line.

As employees see that both positive and negative feedback are a chance to learn and develop, they’ll be more forthcoming. When people realize that feedback isn’t something to become defensive about, they’ll also be more willing to ask for feedback.

How to give positive feedback

Positive feedback can be done in public, so it's easy for most people unless you’re dealing with a narcissist boss. But even positive feedback must be thought through and planned. For example, if the company got accolades from a client for a job well done, don’t rush out and praise the team leader only in your excitement. Consider everyone involved, including different teams as well as outside service providers who contributed.

Write a well-worded congratulations and send it out to all concerned and then make it public. That way, everyone gets to bask in their success, and other teams feel motivated to strive as well. 

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-esteem, which embraces confidence, achievement, respect of others and the need to be a unique individual, ranks second from the top.

Spontaneous, positive feedback has a very definite place, though too. When you see that an employee is really putting in effort in an area where they were struggling, praise them. Allow the situation to dictate whether it’s private or public. If they approach you in private to ask for feedback, keep it there. If their improvement is evident to everyone – say so in front of the whole team.

Keep praise consistent for it to be positive feedback. That’s essential to good leadership. If you only notice and praise certain people and overlook others, it will lead to resentment and a lack of engagement. Feedback must always be unbiased and never be personal. Maybe you don’t really like one of your team members. That’s okay; we could never like everyone we meet. But we can work well with people we don’t really like if we always keep it professional and avoid being personal. We hire people for their talent, skills and contribution they can make to the success of the organization – not to be our friends.

How to give negative feedback

Here’s where most people get stuck, and things can get ugly if not handled properly. Negative feedback must always happen in private. Giving negative feedback constructively requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. You must practice a high level of analytical thinking, keep your anger in check and never make it personal.

Keep with the facts of the situation and address the issue as quickly as possible. Having said that, though, don’t rush in when emotions are running high. Wait until everyone is calm and then discreetly call the person aside to a private place where you can speak openly.

When preparing to give feedback, especially if it’s negative, ensure that the person views you as trustworthy and in a position to provide feedback. Always come into a negative situation in good faith and with the intention to offer helpful input and accept valid responses. Allow the meeting to be interactive.

Hard and fast rules for giving negative feedback

  • Avoid opening sentences that begin with “you”; they sound accusing, and you’ll get a defensive response. Instead of saying “you messed up”, ask “what happened”.
  • Never speak in collective terms by saying things like “we all decided…”, or “the whole team…” That will appear as if everyone is ganging up on the employee or they’re seen as a weak link. If that idea sinks in, they’ll become insecure within their environment.
  • Be willing to listen and don’t jump to conclusions. Hear the person out and establish if there were any factors beyond their control.
  • Focus only on behavior, actions and results. Leave all personal traits out and avoid statements like “if you weren’t so…” and instead say “the consequences weren’t good, right?”
  • Confirm that the person understands their role in the big picture. If they can’t see that they’ll repeat the same mistake or behavior.
  • Analyze what they’re saying and then repeat it back to them to confirm that you both understand. Reflective listening goes a long way in avoiding misunderstandings.
  • Once you have a clear picture of their perspective, it’s time to pitch yours. Showing vulnerability is tough for many leaders, but it’s necessary. (People are more inclined to have respect and show loyalty to leaders who can be vulnerable than they are to those who are cold and authoritarian.) Tell your employee how their action made you feel or the effect it had. Something like “I’m really disappointed because we worked hard to win that project” will get you much further than “you’ve gone and lost us…”
  • Ask what can be done to prevent a recurrence. Be genuine when listening and ask the person to make suggestions. If you implement their solutions, you not only make them feel heard, but you also give them ownership.
  • What if there is no viable solution? The only option may be for the employee to exit the team. But even that can be done constructively. Focus on their strengths (their weakness has already been exposed). Build the person up rather than breaking them down. An example would be “so we agree that the pressure of deadlines makes you lose focus, but that’s likely because you’re very detail orientated. Let’s chat with HR and see if there’s a position where you’ll be happier.”

The backbone of giving and receiving feedback 

Learning how to give constructive feedback takes time as any skill does. There’s no one-size-fits-all because every situation and person differs. What might roll off one’s back can hurt someone else profoundly; always keep that in the forefront of your mind. Messing up at work isn’t great, but it doesn’t deserve someone to lose their confidence.

Giving and receiving feedback requires sound, interpersonal communication skills. It needs a good dose of intrapersonal intelligence too. Being aware of the impact of our words and body language as well as admitting our biases is crucial to providing and getting feedback constructively.

Most of us know how to give good feedback; it’s the negative that’s a stickler because it can become emotional. Many people support the “sandwich approach” of layering strengths and positive reinforcement between negative feedback. In my years in HR and providing and getting feedback, that model can come across as false and protract an unpleasant experience. Kind of like – in one sentence you flatter me, and in the next, you kick me up the butt.

My advice: cut to the chase! The person knows they’ve done something wrong and they’re unsure of the consequences. By immediately opening the conversation with the issue at hand and allowing them to give their side first, you put them at ease. Focusing only on the problem and discussing how it can be mitigated in future builds far more positive reinforcement than loads of compliments or positives that are irrelevant. Employees are adults; acknowledge their standpoint and treat them respectfully, and you’ll get the same in return.  

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