Most everyone says feedback is important. But what do we really mean when we say this? Do we really want to hear about all the things we need to fix about ourselves? Are we willing to have tough conversations with people about something they could do better? Or are we more often soliciting positive comments and compliments under the guise of asking for feedback?
I’ve been guilty of wanting to just hear the positive. Whether it’s positive feedback on a new J. Margaret Weaver design or from colleagues at work, I have vivid memories of being excited to hear words of affirmation from people about something, especially something that I’d spent a lot of time, effort, and diligence on creating. I remember these instances so well because that wasn’t what I heard; instead, I received only issues or opportunities. And while I became so appreciative of hearing this feedback - I believe it’s important to have forums for honest and real opinions, I share this to highlight that I’m guilty of wanting to hear the positive when I’m actually asking for constructive feedback.
There is something heartwarming about hearing, from people who know us well, all of the wonderful things we do or the qualities they like about us. It can motivate us to keep going in the face of adversity or challenges. It connects us with people who we see as like-minded.
But is this really for our long-term good?
Intrinsically we suspect that it’s important to hear honest feedback and criticism, because we cannot possibly know everything there is to know or become an expert in a few weeks, months, or sometimes even years. Hearing from other people who have more experience or a different perspective can highlight the bad, the constructive, and the gaps.
Some people crave hearing feedback because it helps them perform better. In a 2014 study shared in Harvard Business Review, 92% of people said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would appropriately deliver corrective feedback. The study found that people don’t just want to be patted on the back and told, “Good job.” They want the truth. They want to know: How can I be better? What can I change or improve? In fact, in that same study, 57% of people preferred corrective feedback to purely praise and recognition. People want to actively improve, and feedback helps give them a direction to get there. One obstacle to receiving constructive feedback is that many leaders in the study indicated that they do not enjoy sharing this type of feedback.
So if feedback is so critical to success, how can you solicit or share more of it?
Let’s start with five ways to more effectively share negative feedback.
- Start by having clear performance objectives. This allows you to minimize concerns of bias (too easy on Person x, too hard on Person y) and to share specific examples and areas to improve. Look at individual goals, metrics, and KPIs that the person is responsible for meeting. How are they actually doing compared to these goals? Establish clear processes and have transparency on what you expect. Communicate often, in thoughtful and relevant ways, so people are aware of your expectations and can apply them to their work.
- Give people some grace. Most people have no idea they need to tweak something. It’s a blind spot for them, and perhaps you are giving them the greatest gift of all - the gift of insight and wisdom. When you approach the conversation, assume the best rather than the worst, and let this come through in how you deliver the message. Ask questions and look for clarity from your perspective as well in case you are missing any relevant information or data.
- Give context. Explain why you are sharing the feedback and why it matters so the person can apply it to future situations. When is it relevant and when isn’t it? Why does it matter?
- Be specific. Cite actual examples or times you’ve observed something happening. This helps the person reference the behavior or situation more clearly and can demonstrate greater credibility in your feedback.
- Finally, work on building long-term trust and open communication with the person so you can both share feedback with each other openly and honestly at any time.
There are also some practices that help you to receive feedback better. Here are four ideas that I've used.
- Reframe the reason for the feedback. When someone gives you real feedback, it means they care about you enough to share a tough message and they trust you enough with this message that you aren’t going to hold it against them. If you aren’t hearing challenging feedback or engaging in conflicting thoughts/debate, people may be missing one or both of those traits in their interactions with you.
- Stay calm and ask a lot of questions so you can understand what they are saying and apply the feedback in the most practical way.
- Take notes and ask for specific examples. Share ideas on what you might do differently and ask for their insight.
- Reflect on the feedback for a week or so. See if you can spot yourself doing whatever behavior was highlighted or missing something in your work product.
All my best as you navigate giving and receiving feedback! May these tips help give you confidence and clarity in your conversations with others.