Most people struggle with both giving and receiving feedback. Even those of us who consider ourselves great at giving feedback probably aren’t as skilled as we think we are.
You may have mastered the ‘Sandwich’ technique. You may leave thoughtful responses during performance reviews. You might even be the type of good sport who fills out product feedback forms, but that’s structured feedback, which only accounts for a small portion of the feedback you give.
Whether you realize it or not, you give and receive feedback every day because even failing to give feedback counts. So, if you’re giving feedback all day every day, you might as well make it as helpful as possible, right?
That’s what we’re going to cover in this guide.
How to give constructive feedback your collaborators appreciate
Feedback is collaborative in nature, so try to think of it as a dialogue, rather than a broadcast. Feedback is also inherently subjective. Remember that as you’re giving feedback. The goal isn’t to tell someone what they did right or wrong, but to share your perspective.
There are a few common themes you’ll find across most helpful and constructive feedback. While these themes are simple in concept, they’re not always followed. Bringing any of these into a conscious feedback practice can make you a more valuable collaborator.
Candor benefits everyone. If you think back, there are probably few if any times in life (especially in work) where you remarked, “Wow, I wish they would have been less sincere or forthright about this issue.”
While candid feedback can be challenging or even painful to hear, it’s often more helpful than harmful—and the way you choose to deliver it can make a significant difference in how it’s absorbed and processed.
When giving feedback, keeping a balance of personal investment and care can go a long way toward making that feedback constructive. However, as Kim Scott explains, even if you can’t (or won’t) invest in the person you’re delivering feedback to, being perceived as a jerk is still better than seeming “nice” and failing to deliver critical feedback.
Frequency is an essential element of good feedback, but it’s not just a linear scale of “more frequent = better” that has no endpoint. More frequent is often better because quality feedback is underserved in most establishments, but at some point there are diminishing returns with frequency.
Beyond those diminishing returns, you’ll find detrimental effects. Giving too much feedback can be distracting, and limit autonomy.
Balance is a crucial factor in feedback frequency. That balance will differ across different colleagues and even across different topics with the same colleague.
For most people, finding that balance takes some time, but it’s time well spent.
Feedback has the greatest benefit in the moment. The further from that moment feedback falls, the less helpful it often is.
Feedback given in the moment allows for:
- Timely course correction—ask any ship captain or knowledge worker: the earlier you have the information you need to change course, the better your chances are for landing on target.
- Fresh perspective—sharing your thoughts on a topic while it’s fresh in your mind helps keep it in focus. Your thoughts are likely more aligned to the topic at hand, and as such, you can give more thoughtful, insightful feedback on it.
- Accurate representations—the past is a story we tell ourselves. The further back you go, the less the original events influence that story. Giving feedback in the moment makes it easier to ensure its accuracy and relevance.
It’s kind of like a birthday cake. The day of, thoughtful feedback is eagerly anticipated, welcome, and appreciated. Three months (or a year) later, it’s not only unexpected, it’s a bit rotten and off-putting.
Try to share feedback with an outcome in mind. Doing that can help the recipient contextualize and align toward a mutually agreeable solution. The outcome you have in mind doesn’t have to be laser-focused—in fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t—but the more concisely and accurately you can describe the perspective you’re trying to share, the better.
For example: as a client, telling a designer or copywriter “I don’t like this design,” or to “punch it up” doesn’t give them the direction they need to improve it in your eyes. In addition to being frustrated, they’ll be directing a good portion of their creative energy toward figuring out what your feedback meant in the first place.
Instead, tell them exactly what it is about the current iteration that doesn’t sit well with you, and why. Keep in mind that you’re usually sharing a subjective perspective, but if you can describe it concisely, they won’t have to try to read your mind.
You could try to make your own judgements as to how effective you are in giving feedback, but that approach is not only fraught with bias, it’s antithetical to the goal of giving and receiving feedback effectively.
If you want to know how your feedback frequency is working for your counterparts—if you want to know how actionable or timely your feedback is, ask. Use what you know about frequency, actionability, and candor to phrase the questions in a way that helps you learn the most. For example:
Good: Does your leader/peer give helpful feedback?
Great: I feel like the feedback I get from my manager supports my growth and development. [0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10]
Unless you enjoy seeing people uncomfortable, critical feedback is the most difficult type of feedback to give and receive. But just like any other type of feedback—perhaps more than any other type—critical feedback can be a path to growth and improvement.
Unfortunately, critical feedback is often delivered unevenly, indelicately, or in a way that doesn’t support the recipient’s growth.
Why does criticism hurt?
Most of us are doing our best in any given situation. Your best in that situation might not be your all-time best, or your ‘everything else in my life is perfect and as such I’m able to devote maximum effort and energy to this task’ best. Your best might also fail to reach the bar of another person’s best. But suffice to say at that given moment, under the given circumstances, it’s your best.
It kind of has to be.
When you’re doing your best, but it’s not enough, that hurts. It hurts because it feels personal, and in your mind, it feels unfair for your counterpart to expect more than you have to give. Remember this as you’re giving critical feedback: the recipient did give their best. Now how can your perspective help them grow?
How frame critical feedback in a way that fosters growth and improvement
We often learn the most from the mistakes we make than from our daily successes. That’s why it’s important to frame critical feedback in a way that facilitates growth.
Instead of recipients walking away from the interaction thinking that their best wasn’t good enough, you can help feedback recipients to understand that their best effort is and will always be fluid. Their best effort is a lively, dynamic thing that grows and evolves with them, as long as it has an appropriately nurturing habitat.
As Carol Dweck explains, there’s an immense power in believing that you can improve.
Delivering critical feedback in a way that supports a growth mindset not only makes it easier to absorb, it empowers the recipient to overcome even their own perceived limitations.
Why critical feedback is extra challenging in remote teams
Critical feedback can be especially difficult to deliver in a remote setting. There’s no body language and a severely limited number of visual cues available in a remote work setting. For that reason, feedback for remote teams relies more heavily on deliberate effort.
In a time when many employees are working remotely because of a global crisis, your teammates’ anxiety may already be elevated before receiving your feedback, adding a weight that wouldn’t normally exist.
As Dr. Therese Huston explains, humans are already wired to see feedback and criticism through a negativity bias—and that bias becomes all the more powerful during times of crisis.
“Negativity bias can be a challenge in any feedback conversation, but it’s particularly problematic right now…”
“Many managers now find themselves in this position, no longer able to rely on those nonverbal cues when having tough conversations. The stress that’s increasing negativity bias and the circumstances that are keeping the workplace at home are likely to persist for a while longer.”
Constructive feedback themes: how am I driving?
You’ve probably seen a truck, bus, or van with a “How am I driving?” bumper sticker before. How often do you think people call that number to praise the driver? Does it ever happen?
The law of large numbers suggests it must have happened at least once over the years. But setting that statistical anomaly aside, nobody’s calling in to mention that the semi truck they were driving behind was traveling at a safe and prudent speed, or that their lane changes were smooth as glass.
If your feedback sessions resemble the “how am I driving” dynamic, you’re missing out on an incredible opportunity to share your perspective on what you know works. Think about that balance as you give feedback.
The relative weight and stakes of feedback
What are the stakes of the feedback you get and give? They might be higher than you think.
Feedback is helpful when the stakes are low and the frequency is high. As the stakes increase, feedback shifts from a welcome learning opportunity to a stressful event neither giver nor recipient looks forward to.
High-stakes feedback can be so unnerving that it impacts performance. Ask any Iron Chef contestant.
Examples of low-frequency, high-stakes feedback:
- Exams like SATs, GREs, MCATs, Bar, Series 7
- Marriage proposals
- Performance reviews
- Disciplinary actions
- Exit interviews
Examples of high-frequency, low-stakes feedback:
- 1:1 meeting agenda items
- Check-in questions
- Daily/weekly standup meetings
If you want your team to dread feedback, hoard it (or forget about it) until review time rolls around, then lay it on thick and haphazard. You’ll probably dread it too because it’ll be much harder to pull anything substantial out of your distant memory. That feedback will also likely be less fair and accurate because of inherent biases like halo/horn or recency bias.
If you want your team to crave feedback as a path to growth, share it freely, frequently, and in a format they can use.
Receiving feedback effectively is just as vital as giving it. All the same elements of giving good feedback apply.
- Ask for feedback frequently
- Ask for feedback in the moment
- Ask for candid feedback
- Ask for feedback in a way that makes it easy to give actionable answers.
Automating the process and providing some helpful constraints can help make the information you receive more consistent and useful.
How to receive feedback
Once you’ve scaled the barrier of asking, it’s time to absorb the feedback you receive. It can be easy to discount it, to consider it off-base, or unfair. Remember that as you give your own feedback.
Asking for and receiving constructive feedback regularly makes it easier to give constructive feedback as well. Learn from well-delivered feedback:
- What made this piece of feedback so helpful?
- What made this feedback so digestible?
- What about this feedback delivery put me at ease?
Instead of letting poorly delivered feedback upset you, lean into it. You can learn just as much from negative examples. Find what it is about that feedback you took issue with, and use that knowledge to avoid producing a similar effect in the feedback you give.
Tips for addressing some challenges and biases inherent in the feedback process
If giving constructive feedback effectively was obvious or intuitive, you wouldn’t have found this guide—but we’re glad you did.
In the next section we’re going to cover some practical details, plus some things to be aware of when giving or receiving feedback.
No matter how hard we try, bias sneaks into feedback, making it less valuable. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explain:
"Our evaluations are deeply colored by our own understanding of what we’re rating others on, our own sense of what good looks like for a particular competency, our harshness or leniency as raters, and our own inherent and unconscious biases."
But as we’ve established, it’s practically impossible to avoid giving explicit or implicit feedback. Instead of shying away from feedback, it can be helpful to understand the idiosyncratic rater effect, how it influences the feedback process, and look for ways to give thoughtful feedback with that in mind. Buckingham and Goodall have an excellent table of Helpful vs. Non-helpful framings midway through their paper that you may find useful.
How power dynamics impact candor and action
Inherent bias exists for givers and recipients. Even a “cool boss” carries the weight of their position, whether they like it or not. There are two things that weight immediately impacts regarding feedback:
- “I know my boss is wrong about this topic, but I’m not going to risk my career to tell them exactly how wrong they are.”
- “My boss is abrasive in the way they deliver feedback, but I can’t say that.”
- “Themes in our feedback sessions skew neutral to negative, but I don’t want to be seen as a complainer.”
- “I know this feedback isn’t valid because BLANK, but I don’t want to cause problems for myself by going against the grain.”
- “This feedback came from the CEO, it must be valid.”
These are just a tiny sampling of some relatively innocuous ways power dynamics impact feedback. There are countless others to be aware of.
The cloak of anonymity can provide refuge for some of our worst behavior, but it can also help address some biases inherent in feedback.
If the person sharing their feedback has no concern whether their answer will impact their day-to-day working life, they’re more likely to give a candid answer.
Anonymous feedback can be particularly useful in the context of engagement check-ins, happiness pulses, or direct report—>manager feedback.
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Feedback is inherently challenging, biased, and subjective, but it’s also inescapable, and one of the most powerful ways we communicate. As you approach your next structured (or unstructured) feedback moment, remember the impact it can have, and consider how you can make it more helpful for everyone.
How about you?
Do you have any feedback tips or strategies you use to help share your perspective effectively? Let us know @polly_ai
Written by George Dickson
Lives to learn and build cool things with good people.