The Art of Giving Feedback
Have you ever left a performance review feeling caught off guard? Or felt like your input wasn't being heard on a team project? Has a direct report ever reacted strongly during their performance review? All of these experiences are symptomatic of a breakdown in communication, and run the risk of dampening morale and motivation.
Effective feedback is an important aspect of any team environment. Having a process for it allows team members to communicate openly and honestly with each other. However, many people are uncomfortable giving it, and even more are uncomfortable being on the receiving end. In order to get the most out of feedback, team members must learn how to give and receive it effectively.
Let's start with a definition
It's a common misconception that all feedback is negative feedback, or automatically means constructive criticism. This is one of the toughest hurdles to overcome. Feedback is simply a way for team members to communicate with each other about their individual and team performances. It can be either positive or negative feedback, but it should always be helpful and help the person grow.
Why giving feedback is difficult
The feedback process can be difficult for a number of reasons. First, you may worry that they will be offended or defensive. Second, you may not be sure what to say, or how to say it. And finally, you may not want to hurt their feelings. However, if you avoid giving feedback altogether, your employees won't know where they stand and will not be able to improve their performance.
In our radical candor blog post, we explored the two primary components of good constructive feedback: caring personally, and challenging directly. While this seems easy enough in theory, it can be a lot harder in practice. So, we're giving you a crash course of our best tips on giving constructive feedback.
10 tips for giving better feedback
Be specific and provide examples
When giving feedback, it's important to be specific. General comments and observations about the employee are easier to shrug off. You need to give specific examples of the behavior or action that you're referring to. This will help the person understand what behaviors you'd like them to repeat or improve.
Constructive feedback should be given in a timely manner and shouldn't be limited to performance reviews. Adult learning is improved when responses are immediate. The more immediacy, the greater the direct impact. When we wait weeks to give employee feedback, everyone is less likely to remember the details.
Managers, don't wait for performance review season to give employee feedback, especially if it's positive!
Set a positive tone
Tone is just as important as content. Your team needs to know that you're supportive and want them to succeed, even if the conversation is about something that needs improvement.
Avoid using "you" statements
It's important to avoid using "you" statements. For example, "you need to be more assertive" sounds like you're attacking the person, and they're likely to become defensive. Try using "I" statements instead, such as "I appreciate when you speak up in meetings." This will help them understand that you're not criticizing them.
Focus on the issue, not the person. Your feedback should be free of judgment about who the person is. You give it hoping that they will improve because it will be good for them, not because (for example) it will be less annoying for you.
Don't order the feedback sandwich!
'Tis the Subway sandwich of employee feedback; cheap and easy. This is a technique where a criticism is "sandwiched" between two positive statements to soften the impact.
In reality, this method often misses the mark. It can come across as insincere or manipulative, and employees can see through them. Try something else on the menu instead.
Be aware of your nonverbal communication
It's important to be aware of your nonverbal communication. This includes your facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture. Your team will pick up on these cues and it can influence how they receive what you're saying.
Give the other person space to react
Give your employee or teammate time to process what they've heard. Emotions can be strong, especially when it's regarding a person's performance. Although it's meant to help, feedback can be difficult to hear. This is where caring personally comes in. If they know that support is there, it will be easier to digest.
Hint: Not like this.
Encourage their feedback
As a manager, it's easy to forget this is a two way street! Employees should feel comfortable letting you know how the working relationship is going. Give them a chance to give input during a feedback session.
Remember, this is an ongoing conversation that we should make time for on a regular basis-it instills trust between everyone on the team. Be open to constructive criticism during your feedback session.
When in doubt, ask before giving feedback
It's never a bad idea to ask before giving feedback, you don't want to catch someone off guard. Getting unsolicited advice can be jarring and stressful, so make sure you give them a proper heads up so they're in the right headspace.
Thankfully, Radical Candor also provides a great framework for evaluating your feedback sessions. Use this guide to assess how well you do at giving constructive criticism, and also getting it.
To help you understand how to place yourself on the scale, we've broken each category down to four levels.
Level 1: I am unable to receive most feedback.
It is very hard for me to hear critical feedback and when I do, I take it badly. I may:
Become defensive (e.g., "No, I don't.")
Disagree immediately (e.g., "I actually think I did a really good job overall on this.")
Shrug it off (e.g., "It wasn't that bad. It's no big deal.")
Take it too personally. (e.g., "I actually think I did a really good job overall on this.")
It may not always be my immediate words that indicate my difficulty with feedback. Sometimes, my body language, facial expressions, or overall demeanor show that I've been hurt and don't welcome the feedback. In rare cases, I hold the feedback against the person who gave it.
Conceptually, I know that feedback is essential for my growth, but that doesn't make it any easier for me to receive it.
Level 2: I can receive some types of feedback:
I can receive candid feedback on certain parts of my performance or my work. These tend to be the areas in which I have the most confidence. When I get feedback in these areas, I remain calm and objective and fully expect to do something about it. If, however, the feedback veers into an area where I have less confidence or am more sensitive, I exhibit Level One behaviors. My colleagues pick up on this distinction and may steer clear of these more sensitive areas, denying me the opportunity for improvement.
Be honest with yourself about the areas that make you sensitive and ask yourself if anyone has given you feedback in those areas. If the answer is no, it is likely that your teammates are aware of and don't feel comfortable addressing those areas. We often think our weak spots are hidden from others when in reality they come through clear as day. In a way that is comforting because it means you don't need to keep the secret.
Level 3: I can receive all feedback
Take your best shot. I am ready for candid feedback on any part of my performance or my work. Yes, some bits of feedback may sting more than others but I am able to let the feedback giver know that I appreciate it anyway and they believe me because of my actions. Those actions include genuinely thanking the giver for the feedback and often taking steps to improve based on the feedback. It may also include thanking the giver more publicly to show my appreciation and encourage others to give me and their other teammates feedback.
One way to assess whether you are Level Three is to track how often you are given critical feedback. We are all in need of improvement so a lack of feedback probably means that your teammates aren't comfortable giving you feedback. If, on the other hand, your teammates regularly let you know ways, small and big, that you can improve, it's safe to say they assume you are a good receiver.
Level 4: I actively seek out feedback and improve
As a Level Four, I can receive all feedback like a Level Three, but I go a step further and make it easier for others, including those who may be less comfortable giving feedback, to give me candid feedback. I do this by actively and regularly seeking it out as well as really listening to it. I am adept at rewarding feedback with genuine gratitude and I almost always make visible improvements to my behavior. Lastly, I don't assume that I've gotten it right. I'm comfortable going back to the source at regular intervals to make sure they feel that I've improved as much as I do.
You can tell you are a Level Four if you regularly get feedback in response to your requests for it. It should be a mixture of mild and more stinging feedback but you're comfortable with that. Your teammates seem to almost relish giving you feedback because they've seen how you've handled it in the past and they're excited to be a part of your professional growth.
Your Personal Way of Receiving Feedback
Not everyone receives and processes feedback in the same way. Some folks like to talk it out immediately while others prefer to step away and think about the information for a while. We should be open with our teammates about how we process feedback and they should be respectful of that.
If, for example, you like to step away and digest feedback, you can simply say “Thank you for that. I wasn't aware of it. Let me think on it a bit and follow up with you later to discuss it in more detail.”
Tips for Improvement
Some ideas that members of our team have found helpful for improving their ability to receive candor.
You are not your idea. You are not your code. You are not your design. In other words, don't take it personally!
Being wrong means taking risks and it shows a willingness to push it to get to the best outcome.
To get to the best idea or product, we need to experience conflict about what is the best idea or product.
Give yourself space.
When feedback happens say thank you and ask for time to process. It can be much easier to think things through on your own.
Ask for feedback. This is the best way to get more of it.
The key, though, is to show that you can handle it. If your body language shows that you are in deep pain, the feedback giver is likely to become nervous and soften the feedback or discard it altogether.
What if I don't agree with the feedback?
That's okay. Not all feedback is going to be 100% accurate. Sometimes feedback says more about the giver than the receiver. What's important is that your teammate or direct report feels comfortable giving it to you and you're open to receiving it.
Giving feedback is one of the most important skills a team can have. It's also one of the most difficult. A lot of people are afraid to provide feedback because they're afraid to hurt feelings, but it's a necessary part of well-functioning teams and can be a powerful tool for improving employee performance.
Level 1: I do not give feedback
I rarely give feedback of any kind, praise, or criticism to my fellow employees, my manager, the company as a whole, or myself.
This may be because I'm not comfortable doing so. It may be because I don't care or because I believe it won't have an impact. It may simply be that I'm not paying enough attention and don't notice areas for improvement or celebration.
Whatever the reason, it's just not there.
Level 2: I give positive feedback.
I frequently give positive feedback to my fellow teammates. Sometimes this is generic like “Great job” or “I really love working with you.”
Sometimes, when I'm at my best, it is specific, labeled praise. I say “Thank you for taking the time to review my presentation. It went so much better with your help.” or “I'm really impressed with how quickly you solved that bug.”
Level 3: I give feedback to teammates who are good at receiving it.
In addition to praise, I am able to give critical feedback to my teammates and managers. This includes both labeled praise (i.e., I'm able to articulate why I think something is well-done) and critical feedback (i.e., I can communicate thoughtfully about what I think could be improved).
At this level, my critiques are limited to those who I believe can “handle it.” For those people, I give regular feedback and am happy to see them take it. I'm aware that I'm helping them grow and value my role in that growth.
When it comes to those that I deem, for whatever reason, to be less able to receive feedback, I tend to steer clear. I avoid uncomfortable conversations and prefer to just let sleeping dogs lie.
Level 4: I give feedback to any teammate
I provide both labeled praise and non-judgmental feedback easily and often. I do this with anyone I work with, not just those I assume can take it. This includes Level One receivers, Managers, the CEO, and people working projects other than my own. I understand that my feedback is essential to my teammate's growth and the success of the company overall. So, I take it upon myself to pay attention to how they and we are performing and how improvements can be made. When an opportunity for praise arises, I give it in a specific, labeled way. When a critique is necessary, I don't shy away from conflict. I'm patient with the people receiving my feedback and open-minded when I hear their responses, whether they agree or not.
Here are some of the reasons why people shy away from implementing the radical candor framework:
They don't want to hurt someone's feelings. (Fear)
They don't want to be labeled as “mean” or some other negative thing. (Fear)
They don't think it's worth the bother. The other person won't do anything. (Apathy)
They're worried the person will strike back with feedback of their own. (Fear)
They don't notice something should receive feedback. (Apathy)
Getting Past the Blockers
Fake it 'til you Make it.
Just start by giving feedback on anything. Even if it is all positive. It will get you used to that kind of conversation and it will get others used to hearing feedback on their work and performance. It will feel unnatural at first, but all of a sudden it will come easily.
If you catch yourself saying something behind someone's back, say it to that person next.
The first time you do this, it'll be scary. But it's another action that will get less scary with time.
If someone comes to you with a complaint about a fellow employee, encourage them to bring that complaint to the employee themselves.
Remember that everyone needs to improve at something. For each person on your project team, ask yourself: what one thing could this person improve to make their work or their performance better.
Encourage forcing functions that get people to make time for candor on a project. For example, stop/start/continue.
Candid relationships are much harder to come by if it is not given the time and space to flourish.
Start by critiquing yourself.
If you can be candid with yourself and see your own weaknesses clearly, you'll be more comfortable hearing feedback from others. That, in turn, will make it easier to start giving feedback.
How Best to Give Candor
Giving Radical Candor is a personal and individualized experience, but there are some good rules of thumb.
Give it from a place of caring.
Know how that individual processes feedback and work with them in that way.
If they like to talk it out, be ready to do so. If they need space, offer it before they even ask.
When in doubt, give feedback the way you would like to receive it.
Imagine yourself on the other side of the feedback and act accordingly.
How'd you do on your assessment? It's okay if there's room for improvement, everyone starts somewhere. Take this framework and try it with your own team. If you want to dig deeper, we've collected a few related resources you can check out.
Further Reading and Listening
Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
What Good Feedback Really Looks Like by Craig Chappelow and Cindy McCauley, Harvard Business Review
The Feedback Fallacy by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, Harvard Business Review
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher