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Feedback Doesn't Have to be Scary

Giving and receiving effective feedback is not always an easy task, and here are some insights to help you along the way.

Feedback is intrinsic to our growth, whether in life or in the workplace. It helps us to gauge our performance, correct and learn from our mistakes, identify our strengths and weaknesses, and in essence, develop as humans.

But many of us find it difficult to give and receive feedback, and everyone is different. This typically causes ambiguity for leaders. Is the feedback that you’re providing too harsh? Is it too vague? How the feedback is given, and then how it is received by that particular person, could result in anger, defensiveness, confusion, or a lack of direction.

There is certainly an art to providing and receiving feedback, particularly when you need to understand the person you’re dealing with, their needs and expectations, but let’s take a look at some things that can help establish positive feedback loops.

The Difference Between Feedback and Criticism

Feedback is a far more effective problem-solving tool than criticism. It’s focused on a clear, positive goal. Constructive and effective feedback creates a sense of togetherness between the person giving and the person receiving the feedback.

Criticism tends to focus on errors, flaws, or failures. Even with golden intentions, criticism will serve to hurt someone, put them ‘in their place’, and/or elevate the speaker above the recipient, instilling unproductive authoritarianism. We view criticism as a threat and often interpret it inaccurately as our ‘flight or fight’ instincts kick in and distract us from listening to and understanding the content.

When people are accustomed to receiving criticism, they’ll brace themselves and put up walls when it comes time to receive feedback. It’s the responsibility of leadership to cultivate and nurture an environment of feedback over criticism. It takes time and trust to establish the mutual respect that’s inherent in feedback that’s void of any criticism, and only then does it become effective.

Effective Feedback & Manager Essentials Lab

One of Enspira’s core offerings is our Manager Essentials Lab (MEL). It defines effective feedback as a shared conversation that supports growth, provides recognition, frames advice, and is delivered regularly. The benefits of effective feedback are abundant:

  • maximizes individual potential
  • provides opportunity
  • increases self-awareness
  • builds trust
  • improves retention
  • enhances performance
  • tied to goals
  • sets and manages expectations
  • fosters a culture of growth

When providing effective feedback, it’s important to avoid potential pitfalls such as speaking in generalities, involving third parties, or bringing personal issues into the conversation. You should also be wary of certain biases that you may have towards the individual. Some common forms of biases that can seep into your feedback discussions include:

  • halo bias: when your overall impression of a person (“she is nice”) impacts your evaluation of that person’s specific traits (“she must also be smart”)
  • horns bias: when you make a snap judgement about someone based on a single negative trait (“he showed up late last week, so he must not be a team player”)

Tips For Giving Feedback

When providing feedback, here are some helpful things to keep in mind:

  • why are you giving the feedback? what’s your motivation?
  • include specific examples
  • avoid opinions, particularly of a personal nature, and be aware of potential biases
  • make sure you’re familiar with the recipient’s strengths and maintain a balance of constructive and positive feedback
  • think about what questions you can ask before giving the feedback: “How are you finding the new system?” “How have things changed since you started in this position?” “How are you doing?”
  • go slowly and carefully listen to the recipient’s responses
  • feedback should be delivered timely and regularly

One example of an effective feedback strategy is starting the conversation with a simple yes or no question that allows the brain to recognize that feedback is coming. “Do you have a few minutes to discuss some ideas I would like to share with you?” It gives the recipient the autonomy to say yes or no, which helps mitigate fear better known as an amygdala hijack, the brain's response to a threat.

It’s also important to remember that feedback is a process, not a statement. Be specific about the certain situations in which X behaviors are observed, and discuss the impact those behaviors have on Y.  Ask how they see it or what their experience of the situation may be. Listen to their answers and be prepared to change your position if the information provides new, additional context. Finally, express your intention in giving the feedback. This helps support your goal to create a relationship with mutual trust and understanding, so that any challenges can be addressed effectively as a team and both parties, along with their working relationship, can continue to grow and develop.


Tips for Receiving Feedback

Receiving feedback can always be a challenge, particularly if your past experiences have been demeaning or unhelpful. Keep in mind that many managers struggle to give effective feedback and may not have the proper tools and strategies in place. Be patient, and know that in most cases, it’s not personal.

However, some people do take things more personally than others. If you fall into that bucket, a useful approach is to mentally frame the feedback as information.

Taking in new information is akin to reading the weather report. It may change what you do tomorrow morning, but it’s not personal. Important things to remember while receiving feedback:

  • be appreciative
  • understand the purpose
  • assume the best intentions
  • focus on improvement
  • be open-minded
  • ask questions and for advice
  • pause and reflect - remember to breathe
  • don’t take it personally

We emphasized the importance of framing feedback as information. This helps to remove emotion from the discussion so that you can better focus on the overall message and your individual improvement. 

If you tend to tense up during feedback conversations, remember to breathe. Simple actions such as relaxing your shoulders and hands can help put your mind at ease and remind yourself that you’re not under threat.

Listening carefully allows you to pull out the useful information that will help you grow and develop, setting yourself up for greater success in the future.

Positive, effective feedback is a gift. Project an attitude of gratitude. The person giving the feedback may also be feeling tense or nervous, particularly if they’re new to the process, so a simple “thank you” often goes a long way.

If the feedback is vague or confusing, ask for specifics. Feedback conversations are meant to be just that, a conversation. If your manager doesn’t initiate the discussion following the feedback, ask questions to clarify what you heard and show that you were listening. For example, you could start by saying, “I want to make sure I heard you correctly and that we’re on the same page…” 

Asking for Feedback

A recent Gallup poll found that only 17% of millennials are getting meaningful, helpful feedback at work, preferably with a relative degree of frequency. And millennials are not alone. Increasingly, employees are recognizing the value of feedback, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that only receiving feedback once a year during your annual review is insufficient.

So take the initiative. Ask for feedback. It can be specific - “how did my response in the meeting serve to share our team’s values??” - or more general - “where do you see I have opportunities for growth ?” For leaders, ask for feedback on the feedback you give. The most effective and efficient way to grow and develop in anything that you do is to identify what you did well and where you can improve.

The feedback conversation does not always feel natural, but with regular practice and strategies for implementation, the value of sharing regularly will be evidenced in the progress you and your team make both in your working relationships and productivity.

Julie Weber

Julie is an Human Resource and Learning professional with 26 years of career experience in for-profit, non-profit, and educational sectors. Prior to Enspira, she worked in coaching, curriculum, customer service, and human resources. She has a passion for growing individuals and organizations through strategically designed coaching, learning and development opportunities. She earned a Masters degree in Leadership and Administration from Marymount University, a Masters degree in Education from North Carolina State University, a Bachelor of Arts in Human Resource Management from Auburn University, and has her professional coaching certification. Julie loves to travel the world, walk her shih-poo, Maggie, spend time with her two adult boys and her husband of 26 years.

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