In our work designing and guiding organizations and their people practices, we find that many leaders want to start with the big things. A major re-org, a revamp of company values, or a massively redesigned performance management system. Often, they’re trying to fix a common problem. Maybe teams and managers aren’t delivering results. Maybe employees aren’t communicating, collaborating, or maybe even getting along. People just don’t seem to be on the same page.
Before diving into the big stuff, we always ask: what’s your team’s approach to feedback? In our experience, feedback is a deceptively simple thing that makes or breaks a working culture. Often, teams lean one of two ways: leaders dole out harsh, poorly delivered feedback, creating a culture of fear, or avoid feedback altogether, leading to misunderstandings and unresolved conflict. Both will hold a team back equally. Neither can be fixed with a re-org.
Instead of reinventing the wheel for these organizations, we’ll often hold a feedback workshop, giving them chances to practice giving and receiving (constructive!) criticism and praise. Here’s what we cover, and how you can apply it.
First, what is feedback?
Feedback is information. Whether you choose to seek it out or not, people around you have information about you: how your work is being received, how your behaviours are impacting them, and how you’re perceived in general.
Sharing this information is what we call feedback, and we share it in order to:
- Encourage things that are having a positive impact on us/them/work
- Discourage things that are having a negative impact on us/them/work
The two main types of feedback are praise and criticism.
Why do we avoid giving it?
Feedback can be scary, and it’s easy to make excuses to avoid it. When it comes to praise, we often forget how important it is. We may feel awkward or shy, or think the person who looks like they’ve got it all together already knows what a great impact they’re having.
When it comes to criticism, we tend to worry about the other person’s feelings, are scared of a bad reaction, not sure if it’s our place, or not sure if it’s a big enough deal that we need to have an awkward conversation about it.
But if we avoid giving feedback about small stuff, it can easily snowball. This causes further stress, and depending on the situation, may contribute to harming the other person’s chances of success.
Should you be giving it?
A few things to consider before you go ahead and share feedback are:
Is this feedback important/relevant? Generally yes, if:
- The thing they’re (not) doing is having a significant good or bad impact
- We are likely to be in a similar situation again
- It needs to be encouraged or discouraged going forward
- I have checked my personal biases
- I am certain the feedback is fair and reasonable in the circumstances
Am I the right person to deliver it? Generally, yes if:
- The thing they’re (not) doing is impacting me or my work personally
- They asked me specifically for feedback
- I am their manager/they are my manager
Ask for help from HR if your situation has complexities, for example:
- The issue is serious, maybe disciplinary and you are not their manager
- The issue is very sensitive or delicate
- You have a fraught relationship, there are politics, or you are scared or uncertain
Or if you need help for any other reason. Many HR folks are happy to give you some coaching (or even a practice session) for some feedback you’re looking to deliver.
Caution: When to reconsider
Not all feedback is valid, and some can be actively harmful. Always check your biases, and think before delivering feedback that is:
- Related to someone’s body or appearance. If there is a valid reason (such as a specific, written, and appropriate dress code), stick to facts when delivering feedback. If your organization does have a dress code, ensure it has been reviewed by someone familiar with bias and discrimination in dress codes.
- Related to something that someone cannot change, like their voice.
- Not feedback that you’d give to someone else in a similar role or position.
- Based on hearsay, not fact checked, or not looking at the whole picture.
- Is motivated by a desire to “help” someone from a different cultural background to assimilate.
- Based on how your personal preferences and preferred way of doing things.
Structuring your feedback
Writing your feedback out before you deliver it can help you organize your thoughts, zoom out and assess the significance of the situation, spot things that are in your own control, and imagine a way forward.
There are many feedback structures out there to choose from. For its simplicity and specificity, we like the SBI format: Situation, Behaviour, Impact. In this format, you’ll write a feedback statement which covers the Situation (what are we talking about?) Behaviour (what did they do or not do?) and the Impact it had (what was the result?)
When describing the other person’s behaviour, make sure to stick to plain facts (“you were 20 minutes late for the meeting today”). Don’t create your own story or narrative (“you’re always late because you don’t respect my time”).
Where the impact is personal, using I statements (eg. “I had to work late” vs “you made me work late”) helps avoid inflaming the situation.
This format works just as well for praise as it does for criticism. A quick compliment is always welcome, but describing the impact someone’s positive behaviour had can go a lot further. So for something significant, give the SBI structure a try!
Delivering your feedback
Ideally feedback is delivered as soon as possible after the good or bad behaviour has happened. This helps it keep its relevance to the receiver. You certainly shouldn’t bottle it up or save it for a review 6 months down the line. But you should take the time out to think through and structure the feedback so that it’s specific and not personal, and if you need it, you should take a cooling off period yourself. Some more tips:
- If you’re delivering praise, you can usually do this publicly, and it’s good to follow up with it in writing and to share it with other important people (eg. the person’s boss).
- If you’re delivering criticism, you should do this privately to avoid embarrassing the other person and to minimize the chances of a bad reaction or a feeling of being bullied. If timing allows, your regularly scheduled 1:1 is a great time to deliver feedback.
- Don’t ambush them. Give the other person a heads up if it’s serious, and/or if they should come prepared with anything.
- You don’t need to be somber or robotic. In fact, the situation may very well call for a light or encouraging tone. You do need to make sure that you are clear and kind, and that you stay calm. Remember you had more time to prepare for this conversation than they did.
- Don’t expect that the other person will stick to your planned script. They may disagree with you, they may offer you new information that changes your perspective (stay humble!), or they may have a bad reaction.
- Stay empathetic and level-headed. If things escalate, you might suggest a break and be prepared to pick up the conversation again later when things are calmer.
It's on you: receiving feedback
Receiving feedback (or just the thought of it) can be tough on us. Our brains are wired for survival, and a major part of that is how we respond to stress.
In high stress situations like an attack or a wildfire, our amygdala kicks in. Chemicals are released to switch off the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain we normally use to rationalize) and we are put into fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode, so that we can do what it takes to survive this threat. The trouble is, our brain doesn’t know the difference between literal life and death stress and getting a bit of negative feedback at work stress. It only knows that there’s been a spike in stress. It doesn’t help that for most of us, our survival relies on our ability to keep our jobs and relationships.
Learning more about amygdala hijacks and our individual windows of tolerance can help us understand that negative feedback can be triggering, prompting a response we may regret. It also helps us look out for when and why we’re not in our optimal state, and figure out what works for us to get back to centre.
If you’re heading into a situation where feedback is likely, like a retrospective, presentation, a 1:1 or a performance evaluation, it helps to prepare yourself ahead of time.
Rather than bracing for stress, try a grounding technique (like meditation, movement or breathing) and speak kindly to yourself. Remind yourself that you may be about to hear some feedback, and feedback is just information. It’s possible it will be uncomfortable, or even false, but that it is being given in good faith, with the intention of helping you.
What if I'm criticized?
Remember that our perceptions can be skewed in a high stress situation. Try to tune into what specifically is being said (the SBI) rather than tuning in to how you feel about it at this moment. Ask clarifying questions if you need to. Additional tips:
- Recognize feelings of upset, anger, defensiveness, denial, dissociation or anything else that is preventing you from fully hearing what this person is trying to say to you, or that might lead to a reaction that would give the impression that you are not a safe person to give feedback to. Especially if you are a leader. Ask for a break if you need it.
- Privately dig into a negative reaction - is your reaction based on the person and not the feedback itself? It could be something to do with your personal relationship and trust levels. It could even be bias. You want to catch that in time before you cause harm with your reaction. Try imagining hearing the feedback from someone else you perceive as more trustworthy or credible.
- However you feel about this criticism (unless it’s completely inappropriate), thank the person for taking the time to give it to you, especially if you’re a leader.
- Appreciate the effort and the bravery that went into putting this thoughtful feedback together for you. Chances are, they care about you and about improving the situation for the future.
Acting on criticism
Whether you agree or disagree, feedback should be taken seriously*. When you receive thoughtful feedback, you should make an effort to changes the things that are having a negative impact on the organization or the people around you.
You do not have to put every aspect of feedback you receive into practice, but there is always at least some element you can address.
For example, if my boss tells me I am behind on my work too frequently, and I believe that the main reason for that is I’m assigned too much work, I can still acknowledge the truth that my work is late. My action may be to inform my boss that I’m feeling overloaded, provide data around how my time is spent, and work with them on a solution.
If an apology is appropriate, plan one out. Take time to learn about how to craft it properly, and combine it with changes to your behaviour.
If it’s not clear what changes you need to make based on this feedback, you might work with the feedback giver on figuring that out. This is especially true in reporting relationships (feedback to or from your manager) or in cases where your behaviour impacted someone personally. Sometimes it’s a simple change like a tweak in process or communication. As you improve, make a point of letting relevant people know about the changes you’ve made and following up on how things are going now.
*Note: Sometimes in your career you’ll be given completely inappropriate or harmful feedback (see: “Caution: When to reconsider”, above). In this case, finish the meeting, take some time to process the situation, and decide whether you want to give them your own feedback or take the discussion to HR or a manager.
What if I disagree?
You don’t always have to agree with feedback you receive (and not all feedback is valid), but you do always need to be receptive to feedback*. Especially if you’re a leader. They may be mistaken, but they need to feel safe to approach you in future if something else comes up.
- Before voicing disagreement, make sure you hear them out fully. Understand that while it doesn’t feel true to you, it feels true to them. True enough they went to the trouble of coming to talk to you. Intentionally listen out for any parts of the feedback you do agree with, or that you can understand how they came to their perception.
- Avoid turning this into a fight, and ask for time to process and reflect if you need it.
- If it ultimately doesn’t matter and you’re able to keep a good working relationship, then thank them and move on.
- If there’s a data gap on their part or a factual misunderstanding, calmly let them know that you appreciate them coming to you with this, and that you have information to share that you think or hope will change their perception.
- Figure out (together if appropriate) a course of action to avoid being in this situation again.
- If you’ve earnestly tried and you cannot see anything you align on, or you believe the feedback giver is acting in bad faith, and it is going to impact your ability to work and communicate well together, then your course of action may be conflict resolution, and you should get help from HR or leadership as needed.
*note: again, this doesn’t apply to situations where the feedback is genuinely inappropriate!
A note on receiving praise
Much like receiving criticism, whether you agree or disagree with praise, you should take it seriously. Remember: our brains love to forget praise in order to focus on criticism. Don’t be shy to ask for specifics if they aren’t clear. Also, strongly consider asking for praise in writing or even writing it down yourself so you can revisit it during review season, or even just a bad day.
Requesting feedback is a great way for you to get information about how you’re doing and how you’re perceived on your own terms. If you’re not getting enough praise, or if you would rather hear criticism when you are actively seeking it out in order to grow, do yourself the service of requesting feedback. This is especially important for leaders. You can make it safe for people around you to give you feedback by asking for it. Starting with low stakes topics (and then responding well) is amazing practice for your team and builds up psychological safety over time so they feel OK about sharing something tough later if they need to. You’ll get richer feedback if you are specific in your request, and you give them time to prepare the feedback for you.
Even if you’re looking for general feedback, you can still be specific. These examples make great 1:1 questions.
To dive deeper into giving great feedback, check out the additional resources below: