The art of excellent feedback
- Best practices for giving and receiving advice at work -
Please Note: We’re talking about the interactive and informal sharing kind of feedback that happens at work daily, and not the periodic, organisational performance review. An annual performance review must never be a substitute for informational, collaborative, everyday feedback interactions.
oo often what feedback means is a once-a-year performance review in many work cultures, and is assumed to have its time and place mainly in that context. A feedback-rich work culture, on the other hand, fosters constructive, interactive feedback that enables team members to collaborate and get better, more satisfying results from the work they do.
Do you remember the last time you got constructive, solid feedback from a colleague or superior that helped you improve on your daily task or look at the subject of your work with a fresh perspective? If you had to think about it for more than a few seconds, it was most probably too long ago.
Workplace feedback is colored with unique challenges based on where it's coming from and is pertaining to whom. Feedback at work can come your way through varied sources such as:
Customers - One of the few things agreed upon in any business is that the ‘customer is king’. Even in fields that don't deal with direct-to-customer goods/services, the people you interact with - the ones you do your job for, are of paramount importance. As such, these individuals are the most valuable source of feedback. Feedback collection can be done through surveys, having a working complaint and feedback channels, customer visits or focus groups.
Leaders - Managers, supervisors and team leaders are the most abundant source of feedback at work since employees report to them. Their experience, know-how and knowledge contributes in having a good understanding of the company’s goals, policies, requirements and priorities. Since leaders are an important part of the feedback process, it is paramount for them to deep-dive into what constitutes constructive feedback, and how to give it in a conscious and collaborative manner.
Peers - At the end of the day, your colleagues and peers at work are closest to your situation and everyday work feedback to colleagues is usually as real as it is insightful. Their perspective not only takes into account your lived experience, but also fosters a feedback culture where individuals collaborate and learn each other’s best qualities. After all, the beauty of having a team is that people with varied talents and strengths come together to grow the organisation towards success. Peer-to-peer feedback needs more props and encouragement in corporate cultures as it is a one-way-ticket to goal fulfillment, collective adaptability and organisational success.
Subordinates - Feedback is a two way street and not just a trickle-down process. As in every healthy work culture, subordinates and members of the team must be given an equal, fair and safe space to voice out their honest feedback on the practices, policies and management of their team leaders and upper management. By making way for constructive feedback to go upwards as well, a team culture of learning, mutual respect and unprecedented growth can be generated.
Receiving feedback can be daunting, especially in work cultures where it has been used in unhealthy ways, as a mask or a weapon to cover up systemic issues. However, many professionals are also highly aware of its benefits when done right.
A ton of detailed studies and research has been done on the impact feedback on workplace successes. In a survey conducted by HR Arrow, 65% of employees say that they want more feedback on their work.
Knowledge is power - Whether you are on a demanding career journey, in the midst of a job change, interested in up-skilling or learning something new - amassing the required knowledge on how to achieve your goals inevitably involves taking constructive feedback into account. An exchange of feedback that aids in understanding areas that need improvement and a fresh set of eyes to go over details, is paramount to getting empowered in any subject and becoming well-versed in the topic of interest. As they say - ‘Knowledge is power’.
Clarity in communication - Sharing feedback regularly among team members, colleagues or as a leader, is key to generating clarity in communication, setting and managing the right expectations, and avoiding misunderstandings in everyday functions. It cleans up communication channels and fosters productive progress that’s heading in the desired direction of fulfilling goals.
Bonded work relationships - Good working equations, bonds with colleagues and a workplace that encourages and sets a tone for mentor-ship is only possible with a frequent and healthy exchange of feedback. Given through appropriate channels and conditions it can also pave the way for increased conflict resolution among colleagues. It provides an unique opportunity to get things out in the open so that issues can be resolved and bridges can be built.
Cultivates a growth mindset - Productively given, and positively taken feedback is the road map to cultivating a mindset of growth, a culture of smart-work and productivity. Consider this - If no one ever gave you their honest opinion on something that they know you could do better at, in a cordial and constructive way, you wouldn’t know how to grow in that area or improve yourself from any one else’s perspective but your own!. A growth mindset is like a road map to the stars.
Clearly, the benefits of feedback are numerous and varied. However, these benefits only come with the art of giving and receiving feedback in a non-biased and constructive manner. And it is so unbelievably easy to do the exact opposite of that without even realizing!
Here’s a fictional example:
Preeti, an otherwise enthusiastic employee with significant contributions, has been having a tough work quarter because she feels like her role is getting stagnant and she isn’t learning as much. During a feedback session with her manager on ways to improve her output, timelines and deliverables, her reporting boss tells her that her priorities are all wrong, her approach is unfocused and her performance is insignificant.
She is then handed a printout of a mandatory, multi-step process to meticulously follow (or else) - without allowing for any input whatsoever from her side on how expectations can be managed. Preeti is then asked to sign a PIP agreement to fulfill a certain quota of output by the next quarterly along with a weekly check- in with her manager for an ‘accountability checklist’. Preeti is then sent back to work.
The thing is, Preeti's boss is right. Preeti has been heavily focused on the aspects of the job that she likes, because those are the ones she feels give her avenues for growth and learning. In the process, things she used to be more meticulous at, slide off the radar and her work priorities are getting mixed up. But with the style in which the feedback for this has been given and discussed, her boss is mistaken in thinking that she would be motivated to improve.
Preeti is now scrolling through job postings.
Patterns of communication and what feedback means in organisations is ever so often as illustrated in the above fictional example. These mishaps in communication can happen in smaller ways and be based around micro-topics as well - small things that accumulate over a larger period of time to create insecurity, resentment and a job-hunting fever, that does nothing for no-one and costs the company a great deal over time.
On that note, let's explore ways in which the feedback ‘giver’ can make the most of things, be heard with a positive mindset and can even give tough advice or negative feedback in a productive way:
Be specific - Instead of saying ‘This was great’ or ‘Your work isn’t meeting standards’, give your feedback to colleagues and subordinates with specific notes and examples so that the person who is receiving it can understand where you are coming from, how they can improve and what went right or wrong with clarity and precision. This also ensures that the feedback stays specific to the topic at hand without digressions.
Focus on what went right - A 2019 HBR cover story, ‘The Feedback Fallacy’, makes excellent points on how, and more importantly why we give and receive feedback. It states that if our objective is to allow for excellence and true innovation, then considering the subjective nature and hidden biases within any feedback given, it would be much more constructive to focus on ‘what went right’ - to point it out and encourage more of that as often as possible. Merely pointing out shortcomings, identifying failure as seen through the feedback giver’s human lens, and focusing on how to avoid it, would be inadequate. To foster excellence through our feedback, we must mention the wins (big or small) and analyse what went right - not just to appreciate that success, but also to create more of it.
Be open to perspectives other than your own - In today’s information age of heightened and frequent communication, one must at all times be open to receiving feedback as much as one is interested in giving it. Thus during the course of discussion, it is possible to receive counter feedback that should not be dismissed immediately. Context is always important and the feedback receiver’s voice must be respected equally.
Maintain the level of discretion that the situation demands - This is particularly important in terms of giving tough feedback that might include topics of discussion sensitive to the receiver. Maintaining privacy and discretion when giving feedback can matter immensely - can also often be the deciding factor on whether it is received as intended.
Don’t take the ‘sandwich’ approach to feedback - If the feedback that needs to be given isn't easy to hear or complimentary, do not approach it with the ‘sandwich’ theory - where you try to mask the tough words within compliments and more appreciative language. This method is an obsolete and ineffective way to give feedback and only serves to confuse the receiver, breaks trust and ends up sounding fake and filled with ingenuity. It derails your agenda as a giver - while clearer, tactful and emphatically given feedback would have served the purpose much more efficiently.
Keep things professional while coming from a place of empathy - Well delivered feedback always comes with the intention of helping improve a situation, creating innovation or aiding the progress of a task or a person. However, it is important for it to come from a place of empathy, kindness and to strictly not get personal at any point of time. The matter at hand - whether positive, negative or neutral; must be dealt with in a professional and objective manner - avoiding any form of personal commentary or unnecessary impositions of the giver’s personal ideologies.
Follow up with the receptor of given feedback: Merely giving feedback without following up on it, is counter productive to the agenda of giving it in the first place. In a non-intrusive way, check-in on the strategy for implementation and actualization of that advice.
Giving advice or feedback in a manner that creates productive results from the conversation or fosters a sense of well-being is most certainly the art of a good leader and team manager. On the flip side, so is receiving feedback. Every professional’s career is incomplete and gets stagnant without receiving feedback in an open and constructive fashion that helps bolster growth, learning and newer understandings.
Receiving feedback, however, is not always an easy task. Especially where intentions are unclear, or when disagreements occur. It can be quite a jarring experience depending on the circumstances and stakes involved.
The benefits of receiving feedback can be effectively harnessed by aligning with healthy mindsets and a few best practices:
Listen deeply, without too many preconceived judgement - We know, it's easier said than done. When you are about to receive feedback, it is very easy to overthink the matter or outcomes of the discussion before it has even happened. Step back emotionally and try not to have too much judgement before you have given the feedback your complete attention and practiced deep listening during the course of the conversation. Have a meticulous listening ear - and respond to the discussion in the present moment rather than reacting based on past events, discussions or expectations based on pre-made judgement.
Acknowledge given feedback and points made by the giver - Contrary to popular opinion, it is an equally vital and energy-consuming task to give feedback effectively, as it is to receive it. Be sure to acknowledge the feedback giver’s points and their perspective regardless of whether or not you completely agree. Thank them for taking the time and indicate that you have heard them in some way - small or big, depending on the situation at hand.
Ask to probe and elaborate if needed - When feedback is given to you, you would be expected to follow up on that and do the needful moving forward. Hence, clarity of expectations and the points mentioned is paramount of you to gain anything fruitful from the discussion. Don’t be afraid to politely probe or request and elaboration on points that need better clarification. If the person giving feedback is doing so for the right reasons and in the appropriate manner, they will most certainly appreciate your precision in listening and your willingness to understand more deeply. Even if the feedback is positive, ask “What went right, according to you?” - the answers might bring you a surprising level of insight that you can use to further build on your success.
Consider the kind of feedback you are receiving - Not all feedback given is constructive or healthy. We certainly understand that as human beings, none of us is perfect and even leaders and managers can sometimes make missteps in communication. The key is to try not to take things personally and use best judgement as well as professional intuition to evaluate whether the advice or criticism given is constructive or needless.
Maintain clarity and a growth mindset - A clear mindset of growth and learning is the best zone to be in when receiving feedback. This sort of mindset is able to milk ideas, clues on how to progress, innovate and improve from even the harshest and least constructive of feedback. In this mindset, you are able to step outside the ego and objectively understand where the silver lining lies. Click here to know more about how to harness a growth mindset in your career and work life.
Introspect on a strategy to actualize - Finally, once you have actively listened, acknowledged, clarified and considered the nature of the feedback without judgement and with a mindset of growth - comes the last & perhaps most vital step - Planning on how to actualize the discussed feedback. Depending on your situation, come up with a simple but effective game-plan to apply the given feedback and to take the best from it. Once you have that in the bag, show up with action.
Feedback is a two-way street and a continual process. It can be a medium of learning, progress and growth in an organisation or a factor that drives precious talent away and daunts the workplace into a stupor. Sounds like a super-power, doesn't it?
Use it wisely!
Author: Neha Sane - September 2020