Giving and receiving good feedback is on the verge of becoming a lost art. The practice of giving regular feedback to colleagues is one of the behaviors that has nearly dropped off the radar in many work environments. Even simple gestures such as saying “nice work” for a routine job well done have diminished. There are lots of reasons for this: work overload has reduced communication generally, and email has replaced the longer face-to-face conversations which would more naturally include feedback, both positive and negative. Some seem to believe that giving feedback is exclusively the job of supervisors.
Whatever the reason, it is a skill that deserves resuscitation. Feedback is necessary for learning and growth. High-performing individuals welcome it as an opportunity to improve. High-performing organizations make sure that feedback loops are built into their processes for the purpose of continual quality improvement.
One of the more interesting job assignments that I get on occasion is to participate in security trainings for humanitarians. The rest of the team are former military special forces. At the end of every day, they do a sit-down debrief where they are direct and honest with themselves and each other about their performance that day. Of course, it makes sense to develop this habit when people’s lives are on the line. But transferring this practice to the training situation has resulted in a training process that is unrivaled in quality and effectiveness.
While verbal feedback from colleagues is only one format for measuring our performance, it is a unique perspective that offers information not attainable in any other format. When it becomes a routine part of doing business, teams flourish.
What can you do to build the skill of giving and receiving feedback in yourself and your colleagues?
- Get in the habit of asking for feedback from colleagues on a regular basis. Until it becomes routine, it may be helpful to give your colleagues some lead time to think through what they want to say.
- Your response to feedback will determine whether the giver will ever risk giving you honest feedback again. Be sure that you are non-defensive, open, and refrain from explaining or arguing with their perspective. Remember, it is just that — their perspective. For that reason alone, it is legitimate. Make sure you clarify to understand fully their point and possible implications. Try to leave with an understanding of what actions you can take to improve.
- Begin to practice by giving lots of positive feedback to others. It is easier and almost always appreciated! Remember that negative communication has a much stronger impact than positive communication, so that it requires three positives to balance every one negative. Once your colleagues know that you respect and value their contribution, they will be more comfortable receiving constructive feedback about areas for improvement.
- Before giving feedback, place yourself in the other’s shoes. Empathy will go a long way in helping you frame feedback that will be well received and effective.
- When you give feedback, make it SMART: specific, meaningful, accurate, respectful, and timely. Avoid general comments about a person’s personality, habits, and work style. Don’t use words like “never” or “always.”
- Don’t be afraid to give feedback “up.” I still remember fondly and am grateful for employees who took the risk to give me feedback as a young (and very green!) manager.
- Ask for a 360-evaluation as part of your annual performance review.
- If you run meetings, try routinely including discussion on how you can improve as a team. If you are a project manager, add debrief sessions at critical points along the way.
People understandably seem to be wary of delivering any message which might be construed as negative. Our cultural obsession with positive self-esteem has made us less practiced at giving and receiving any message that implies that improvement is needed.
I noticed this shift in my students as a professor of psychology. There came a season when even advanced graduate students were unprepared to hear that their performance included some mistakes and their skills required improvement. I recall one student who wanted to start a petition among the students that would require faculty to give only positive feedback! Luckily she was talked out of that idea.
There are some real problems that develop if we limit ourselves to giving only positive feedback. Most obviously, it means that we are avoiding problems. While some problems may resolve themselves naturally, more often, they simply fester. The failure to address problems directly leads to a culture of complaint, frustration and cynicism.
More subtly, failure to let a valued colleague know that improvement is needed is disrespectful. It limits their potential for growth and ultimately may interfere with their career progress. It also may damage your working relationship.
Whether it is positive or negative, the purpose of feedback is to be helpful. In that light, it should be considered a valued gift!
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