“What were you thinking sending out that document without letting me review it first?” Judgmental, emotional, imprecise, and not actionable, this type of feedback is ineffective.
“I see that the document was submitted without me seeing it. I need to review all material prior to submission to ensure consistency and accuracy. I understand you were working against a tight deadline and appreciate your effort to submit things on time. In the future, please send me documents first and indicate the exact deadline so I can be appropriately responsive. Moving forward, how do you plan to handle documents due in tight deadlines?” Observant, objective, respectful, and actionable, this type of feedback is effective.
We know that feedback is an important part of work and learning from mistakes, but we tend to resist giving it and we mostly don’t like getting it either. As the Harvard Business Review article The Feedback Fallacy outlines, feedback often becomes a sort of punishment that people dread. The trends of ‘radical transparency’ and ‘real-time 360 reviews’ can create a culture of harsh criticism that is unhelpful. The article states that using feedback to tell people what we think of their performance hinders rather than promotes excellence. The purpose of feedback as described in this blog, though, is for changing a specific behavior, not for giving an evaluation of overall work performance.
Some leaders with whom I’ve worked tell me that they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, even though they want a behavior to change. On the flip side, I hear from professionals that they feel bad when getting feedback, as if that they have let somebody down or shouldn’t make mistakes. When we fall into these traps, we miss out on an important opportunity to communicate clearly. Delivered and received properly, feedback is a fantastic mechanism for mistake correction. It can also improve interpersonal work relationships by making it clear that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them, and that people are important enough to spend the time to communicate openly and directly.
The art of feedback is in being objective and respectful, both when giving and receiving. We need to keep impulsive emotional reactions out of the process, despite what we feel in the moment and what we presume may be the reason for the mistake.
When we give feedback, we need to focus on the problem and not the person. Judgement, evaluation, and analysis are not helpful because they are subjective and open to multiple interpretations. What ishelpful is feedback that includes four key components:
- Address the specific behavior
- Describe objectively what was observed
- Make an explicit actionable request
- Confirm that the other person has heard what we said
It is also helpful to acknowledge something good about the person’s efforts, intentions, or something they did well in the situation. We know we have provided feedback in a respectful and effective way if the person is able to hear our request without getting defensive; they hear that we want a change in action not a change in person.
When we get feedback, our job is to accept it. Easier said than done, because we tend to feel attacked and defensive. The benefit of accepting feedback is we learn from our mistakes and are less likely to repeat them. The art of accepting feedback is to listen carefully and not take things personally. We can:
- Listen without interrupting
- Receive the information objectively
- Ask clarifying questions
- State our intentions to consider the request
Even if the message is delivered in a judgmental way, with practice we can hear just the request for change in behavior. We can filter an unskillful delivery of feedback with our listening and react gracefully and respectfully using the four steps outlined.
Mastering the art of feedback requires keeping our emotions in check—when giving and receiving—and that can be challenging. But integrating effective feedback into work relationships drives value by creating an environment where mistakes can be made and fixed, with people still feeling valued.