Giving feedback takes practice and it’s important to stick the landing.
The thing about feedback is, it’s powerful. Executed well, it can encourage development and motivate a person to improve their work. Executed poorly, it can discourage, demotivate and even has the potential to negatively affect a person’s view of themselves, not just their work.
Whilst I’ve been on parental leave for the last 18 months, I’ve been leaning more toward embracing my passion for writing. I haven’t written anything other than academic or report style writing for the better part of thirteen years. While at school, I excelled at English, always within the top 3 in my year. I always enjoyed the challenge of rhyme and often dabbled in poetry. I used to have a thorough understanding of the structure, techniques, terminology etc., but these days, it’s like I’m learning from scratch.
I’m thankful to have found some supportive groups on social media who, for the most part, offer helpful feedback. As is to be expected, there has been the occasional comment left on a piece, that although probably not intended, has left me questioning whether this really is for me.
I’ve worked as an Organisational Development Manager in a medium-sized organisation for 3 years. A big aspect of my work was analysing the performance management framework and determining better ways for the leadership team to receive and provide feedback. There is a lot of “managing up” in a role like this, so I had to learn very quickly how to master the art of giving feedback effectively as I was doing it daily with the people who could make or break my career.
I also learned that I take constructive and direct feedback well. I’m eager to learn and don’t like my work to come across as mediocre, so I embrace the opportunity to improve.
I do not, however, take poorly delivered feedback well. I have a very hard time reframing this in my own mind, particularly when it comes from someone I respect or view as an authority figure. It rattles me, causes me to overthink and doubt my ability. Examining this effect on not only myself, but other members within the organisation, I was able to pinpoint the most successful ways to deliver feedback.
I have chosen the words ‘High-Impact’ in my title to describe this type of feedback rather than a word like ‘good’ because ‘good’ implies positive, and we all can agree that feedback can’t always be positive. We can, however, deliver unpleasant feedback intentionally and constructively with the right practice.
5 principles to deliver high-impact feedback:
- Radical Candor. This is a phrase coined by Kim Scott in her book by the same name. ‘Radical Candor’ means to “care personally and challenge directly”. Basically, don’t beat around the bush. At one point or another, you may have been taught about “The Sh*t Sandwich”. Essentially, this is used to deliver negative or unpleasant feedback by “sandwiching” the bad stuff in between two layers of (often insincere) positive feedback to soften the blow. This is no longer considered an effective delivery method by modern standards. Radical Candor suggests feedback should be “kind, clear, specific and sincere”. When we experimented with both styles, the direct approach of Radical Candor was much better received. You can find out more about this technique here.
- Critique the work, not the person. This might seem obvious, but many people struggle to separate the two. The aim is to be as objective as possible in your delivery. Small details such as referring to a document as “The Report” rather than “Your Report” can greatly impact the reception of the feedback. This still applies even if you give feedback on something such as a presentation style; for example, there is a difference between saying, “The delivery of the presentation was rigid” and saying, “You were rigid in your delivery”. The message is the same, but one gives the person something to work on, and the other comes across as a criticism of them personally.
- Be Specific. There is nothing more demotivating or difficult to process than generalised feedback. The premise is to aid people in developing and improving. Offering general feedback makes this near impossible, even if it is positive. That article might have been fantastic from start to finish, but there must have been something that stood out and made it so. Find it, and highlight it so that the person receiving the feedback can put it in their toolbox. Being specific is even more important when delivering negative or unpleasant feedback. But remember, be direct. This is the golden moment to avoid the “Sh*t Sandwich”. If the whole article was terrible, select one or two specific aspects that, if changed, could have improved the piece overall and offer those up. If it needs a lot of work, you may have to work through several feedback cycles to help the receiver deliver their best work.
- Be intentional. Why are you providing feedback? Before delivering feedback, three things to always ask yourself are: Do they need to hear it? Do they need to hear it now? Do they need to hear it from me? If you’re not answering yes to all three, you need to consider whether it is appropriate. Your purpose with feedback should always come from a position of support. If your intent is to criticise, then it is not feedback. It would help if you considered whether the receiver is in the right frame of mind for your feedback and whether the location, timing and format are appropriate. This is more difficult in an online setting, but you can still pick up on the vibe. I will use my own particular example here: I wrote a poem, put it on a thread inviting feedback, fully aware that anything creative is open to interpretation and different reception based on taste and preference. I knew some people would not enjoy it, but I also believed the basis of the thread was to encourage members to continue and improve. The comment my poem received was this — “It’s OK, although the rhythm and metre are way off in places!”. It’s an opinion, and the comment regarding the rhythm and metre, most probably factually correct.
But did this comment provide me with any way to improve my work or encourage me to continue to develop my skills? Absolutely not. It did do a solid job at making me question my ability and make me hesitant to post again, though.
Ironically, it was a poem about a struggle with confidence and self-esteem, which should have elicited a more “kind, clear, specific and sincere” response.
5. Seek feedback on your feedback. There’s an art to delivering high-impact feedback, so how do we know if we’ve been successful? We ask for reciprocal feedback. In an organisational setting, this is often done via survey. But if you’re providing some informal feedback to a stranger on the internet, it doesn’t hurt to ask if what you provided was helpful, harmful or somewhere in between. Especially if this is something you’re interested in doing more of, such as through the mentor spots some Facebook groups provide to their members. As the receiver, don’t hesitate to seek clarification. “I appreciate your response, but can you explain to me specifically what you mean by Xyz…”. Don’t leave the ambiguity to eat away at you.
I hope this piece is helpful for those who struggle with providing or receiving feedback. Make sure to share your feedback stories (or disasters) in the comments! It can be a slippery slope to navigate, but with these tips in mind, you may find it easier to stick the landing. Above all, always remember that there is a human being behind everything, so always go in armed with your humanity and your empathy.
Originally published at https://vocal.media.