Fight the Fear of Feedback

Tips for Creating a Culture that Values Feedback

Giving feedback is critical for any organization that wants to grow and improve, but, as most of us have experienced, it can often be a challenge both to give and to receive. We sat down with team building expert and TCL faculty member Whit Mitchell to talk about the importance of feedback, and some tips for giving and receiving it.

Why is feedback a challenge for people?
People are generally afraid of feedback because most of the time, they have had a negative experience with it. A typical situation is when an employee didn’t do something well, so you give him or her feedback about it. People often get defensive and hurt feelings when they receive negative feedback. 

And conversely, if you’ve ever given someone nothing but positive feedback, they sometimes don’t know what to do with it. Effective feedback all starts with intent.

What feedback trends are you seeing in the workplace?
Most companies have antiquated systems in place for annual performance evaluations. These systems are ineffective because managers could be giving feedback on an event that happened nine months ago, or more! We’re seeing yearly performance evaluations go out the window in favor of regular feedback that is immediate and actionable. 

The other trend we’re seeing is adjusting feedback to the employee. Ranjit Nair talks about this phenomenon in his book Potluck Culture when he addresses the fact that the different generations in the workforce prefer to receive feedback differently. In the future, feedback is going to be both asked for and delivered on a regular basis, and tailored to the person receiving it. 

What are some good ways to ask for feedback?
I always tell my clients to be specific when asking for feedback. For example, if you would like feedback on a presentation you’re about to give, ask several trusted colleagues to identify 1-3 things that you do well and that you can do differently. 

This type of request also helps you to be more receptive to the feedback because you know that you will be receiving detailed notes on your speech.

What are some mistakes people make when it comes to giving feedback?
One of the biggest mistakes is giving feedback without the intent of improving the person or the outcome. People can make the mistake of giving feedback because they are angry at the person, or angry at the initiative. Sometimes people will give feedback in an effort to make themselves look better or to establish their expertise. It almost always ends badly if you give feedback just to get it off your chest. The intent should always be to help that person grow and get better, and if you can express that intention in your tone and delivery, feedback will be better received.

And don’t only give negative feedback. A lot of times I will just give positive feedback, pointing out the things the person did well and stopping there. This can sometimes come as a shock to a person who is bracing for bad news, but when you see that an employee needs positive reinforcement, this can be an excellent way to give feedback. By just giving the feedback that you think is going to be most helpful, your employee can take that information and focus on his or her strength, making it even better.

Do you have any tips for getting better at receiving feedback?
It’s important to be proactive about asking for feedback, and if you keep yourself in this mentality, it can be easier to receive feedback—and to help you keep your attitude about the feedback positive. 

During an exercise, one of my clients received both positive and negative feedback from three people, but unfortunately she just focused on one negative comment—even to the point where she let it ruin her weekend! Remember that you shouldn’t just take one person’s negative comment over the good comments that people had to say. Try not to take feedback personally. Use it as an opportunity to see your blind spots and to identify areas where you can improve—not only in what you did wrong, but also improving what you did well to develop mastery.

When I coached rowing at Dartmouth, I would videotape the team during races and practices. We would review the tapes and identify areas where the team was working in sync, and where they could improve. If you can view feedback as nothing but pictures capturing a moment of an activity, then you can look at feedback with a more neutral eye.

Do you have any tips for giving feedback to people who don’t take it well?
I like to use a concept created by Marshall Goldsmith called feedforward. Instead of pointing out what the person has done wrong, identify some things that the person could do better in the future. 

Another tip is to be aware of how you deliver feedback, and how the person might best receive it. As Ron Price says, “There are two experts in every conversation: I am the expert of my intent and you are the expert of my impact.”

How can you create a culture of feedback in your organization?
It starts at the top and trickles down. A leader can create a culture of giving and receiving feedback by leading by example—identifying a few behaviors that you want feedback on over the next 30 days, and seeking regular feedback from your team, and encouraging your team to set similar goals.

FEEDBACK

Feedback: The term “feedback” has many meanings. In the context of a group, we define feedback as the exchange of information intended to support individual learning and/or the development of a relationship. The information exchanged in a conversation can take different forms: facts, perceptions, reactions, feelings, observations, suggestions, and advice.

Requesting Feedback:

  • Be clear in your own mind what you want to learn or understand.   
  • Ask for the information.   
  • Make it safe for people to be honest with you.   
  • Let the other person know what you would like. State the questions for which you would like to find answers. Explain how this information would be helpful to you.  
  • Think about the risks the other person might perceive in being honest with you. What can you do or say to reduce the perceived risks.

Receiving Feedback:

  • Listen. Work to understand the message. If the information you are getting is not clear, ask questions.
  • Keep it safe for the giver to be honest with you. Don’t defend or justify your behavior.   
  • Offer a summary: Play back what you heard in order to check your understanding of both the message and the weight.   
  • Thank the giver!         

Giving Feedback:

  • Clarify your objective in your own mind. What do you really want to accomplish by offering feedback.   
  • Get permission before delivering feedback.   
  • Avoid using labels when giving feedback. (IE: Friendly, supportive, organized, arrogant, dominant, disruptive, etc.) Labels don’t provide useful, behavioral information, and often provoke debate and negative reactions.   
  • Instead of using labels, describe the person’s behavior and describe the IMPACT of that person’s behavior on you.

Example:   

  • Behavior: You frequently interrupt others during team meetings in order to state your opinions.
  • Impact (costs): I often don’t understand others’ viewpoints on the issues we are discussing.
  • The atmosphere in the group feels more and more tense. 

LOOK AHEAD: If you would like to encourage another person to change behavior, consider offering some suggestions or advice about alternates. Alternatively, you could engage in some problem solving with the person. The intent here is to help the person successfully change behavior – if they choose to do so.