When I was in sixth grade, my teacher told me that my idea of being an attorney wasn’t realistic because—as a girl—my options were secretary, nurse, or schoolteacher; being an attorney was out of the question. She told me this after I presented my essay about what I wanted to do with my life. I remember it vividly. My face flushed as I choked back tears of sadness, confusion, anger.
It was the 1980s, and not being able to do something because I was a girl was something I hadn’t experienced. My classmates and I were asked to write about who we were and what we wanted to be; it was about dreaming, visualizing, and articulating what that could be. We weren’t given limitations. I hadn’t asked for her opinion. And I had no context for her feedback.
Say the word “feedback” and many people have a negative reaction as they remember experiencing feedback that was unwanted, unhelpful, or unkind. Whether giving or receiving, somewhere along the way, most of us have become conditioned to avoid feedback.
Feedback can be difficult for people because it so often correlates with negativity. We think feedback means, “You are doing something wrong,” as in, there is a right way and you aren’t doing it that way. And if there is a right way of doing something, then not doing it that way means failure. It’s understandable to want to avoid feedback; however, it isn’t good business practice.
Making the case for feedback.
Companies that have a “culture of feedback” (environments where feedback isn’t confined only to traditional settings like performance reviews and where people are encouraged to engage in ongoing feedback) have better employee engagement, lower employee turnover, improved job performance, and happier employees. Promoting an organizational culture where it’s safe to give and receive feedback has positive business results and engaged, productive, happy employees who stay with the company longer.
A mentor once told me the top two motivators for employee engagement:
- “I understand how my daily work connects to the mission of the organization.”
- “Somebody at the organization cares about me personally.”
Feedback allows us to leverage both motivators. Providing feedback to employees allows them to understand how their work connects (or maybe doesn’t) to the organization’s mission and demonstrates that someone cares about what they are doing and how they do it. Feedback—when done well—tells employees that they matter and that someone cares about them and their work.
Feedback is a skill as much as it is a mindset.
I learned about feedback as part of my undergraduate education. Studio art and design classes have a common feature: the critique. During critiques, students show work that they’ve made—sometimes in-progress, sometimes completed—to receive feedback in order to improve the work. Finding out how others view our work can help us learn how successful our choices were in achieving what we hoped to.
For my first critique, I don’t remember much about the work I showed, but I do remember how I felt. I was extremely nervous that I might be judged. I didn’t want to be wrong or look stupid. To my surprise, my professor didn’t stand in judgment of me or my work; rather, he asked me questions—more questions than I had imagined or anticipated. To help me improve my work, my professor wanted to understand my perspective and my choices. He asked questions to gain insights about what guided my decisions and how I made my choices.
The questions helped me identify how I arrived at my solution—through his questions, I realized things about my process, thinking, and choices that I hadn’t considered before! His suggestions for how to improve came after he understood the context of my work. And when I didn’t know something, I was encouraged to make notes and investigate further on my own. Providing feedback that is helpful and useful is much easier when we understand what drives someone’s work.
When giving feedback, it’s helpful to try to understand the motivations and context of the person who will receive it, and language is a crucial part of that. The kinds and types of language used in critiques changes based on skill level, experience, risk-taking, desired results, etc. My first critique was for an introductory course in which students were in the early phases of learning to make work, and the professor’s feedback was thoughtful and carefully crafted to provide support and encouragement. The critique and language used were based in inquiry.
While no two critiques are ever the same—because they involve different people with different work for different reasons—they all have pretty much the same components:
- A shared purpose with objectives;
- Shared language;
- A person who gives feedback;
- A person who receives feedback;
- The expectation that the recipient will synthesize the feedback and demonstrate the synthesis the next critique;
- And a sensitivity to where the person is in the development cycle, to match the language to context.
Feedback is complex, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. These components are all part of feedback in business, heck, in all parts of life! Keeping in mind a few key ideas can help feedback go more smoothly, keep the conversation on-topic, and help each person leave feeling positively about the exchange. For feedback to be successful and helpful, here are some things to consider:
Purpose, objectives, and synthesis.
Align on the purpose for the feedback, identify the objectives to come out of the feedback session, discuss how the feedback will be synthesized, and agree to have more frequent check-ins.
Context, empathy, and authenticity.
Learn about the other person and try to understand the motivations and context of the other person. For both the giver and the receiver, this helps to build trust, generate empathy, and be authentic. It’s much easier to engage in this kind of conversation when you better know the other person.
Asking questions and co-creating.
Think about the language that will be needed and used during the feedback session. Asking questions helps bring to light considerations or effects that may be important but not necessarily known at the start of the conversations. Use what’s learned in the conversation in the feedback.
Preparation, practice, and performance.
Making notes about what you want to cover in a feedback session can help ensure that you cover all the key points, and that takes time to prepare. Practicing what you want to say (and different ways of saying it) can help orient the conversation from criticism to critique. Focus on the process, outcomes, and performance to keep feedback from feeling personal.
Specific and balanced.
Giving specific examples shows that you are paying attention to people and their work while keeping feedback from sounding like opinion. Focusing only on positive feedback can leave the other person wondering what to improve upon, while focusing entirely on negative feedback can leave the person feeling hopeless or defeated. Brainstorming or offering suggestions for ways to improve helps to engage the person in co-creating solutions. It also helps to end with a positive orientation towards a solution.
Want to connect with Christy about feedback (or give her feedback on this article)? Give us a call at (859) 415-1000 or drop us a line in the form at the bottom of this page.