We should be so good at doing feedback nowadays. Most companies hope to create an environment where two-way, constructive feedback can sit comfortably. It doesn’t always happen. We start with the best intentions – to give regular feedback and be open to receiving it too – yet when the pressure is on, we forget to make it a priority and fall back on a familiar work culture of speedily pointing out the flaws and staying quiet when people do a good job. We also worry that we have don’t have the right to give feedback – to team members, colleagues and bosses. Not only is it our right to give it, it is their right to expect it and to give us feedback in return. It just needs to be done with a modicum of skill, compassion and common sense.
The first thing to get you started on the right road is to examine your motive. What is compelling you to want to give the feedback in the first place? A genuine desire to help someone grow and develop, the need to stop someone who is behaving in a way that is holding them back and a wish to tell someone something you feel they do really well and the positive impact it has – these are all honourable motives and are likely to result in constructively delivered feedback. A compulsion to get something off your chest or to take someone down a peg or two are less honourable (though understandably tempting at times) and are more likely to lead to destructive feedback – and in the short term certainly, will do more harm than good.
Some motives could go either way for example, the need to pass on the benefit of your experience through some feedback. If that is your motive then find a way to do it so it doesn’t sound patronising: “Let me the great sage of many years’ experience, pass down to you the fledgling, the great honour of a particle of my considerable brain.” We have all had that done to us at one time or other and rather than listen to the content of the feedback, it makes you want to deck the person. The benefit of your experience should be offered not imposed, and put into context – this worked for you once but it may not work for them – for it to be a constructive experience. Finally, beware the motive of cheering someone up where they’re having a bad time, by giving praise. If you tell them things or they are better than they really are, and they are savvy enough to know they’re not, they may distrust your feedback in the future. Better to talk to them about what is going wrong and give them some perspective on the situation, than try to stick a smiley plaster on a gaping wound.
A lot has been written about techniques and structures for feedback. Take them with a pinch of salt. In some places of work, it would be a start just to get people doing feedback at all, let alone trying to weave it around a fancy process. Keep your feedback open, honest and respectful. Open and honest is not enough. One person’s idea of open and honest could be another person’s idea of brutality. The third part, respectful keeps any major offloading in check.
While we’re on the subject of technique, beware the unsubtle ones like the Praise Sandwich (sometimes referred to with a different, altogether less savoury sandwich filling). The idea behind it is to sandwich some negative feedback between two bits of positive feedback thereby softening the blow. Guess what? We all know when it’s being done to us and it gets used mainly when you have only wafer thin positive bread to act as bookends for a massive wedge of negative filling. “Thank you for turning up to work promptly every day – just about everything you do in your job is rubbish – but I really like your earrings.” Okay, an exaggeration but you know how it goes. Better to say what needs to be said, check how they feel about it and what their view is and then look ahead. Any feedback that is constructive should be followed by some sort of action plan. If they’re good at something, it’s a case of discussing how they can be even better and/or spread that success. If the feedback is about something you want them to improve, it’s a case of looking at how that might be done. The essence of constructive feedback really, is that life goes on after it. There is a future, a way to improve, a path to move on to.
Finally, there is a big element of getting your own house in order when it comes to feedback. You may be skilled at giving it, but how elegant are you at receiving it? Before you unleash yourself on unsuspecting staff and colleagues, with your own special brand of feedback, do a quick check that you too can receive feedback with grace. And remember – all feedback is a gift, even if it comes in a badly wrapped package.