The ABC of giving and receiving feedback

When we think about feedback, before we know it our thoughts lead us back to life’s early days. Receiving positive attention and hearing the good things people have to say about us and what we’ve done is massively important to everyone, no matter what age.

But the experience of receiving feedback can also be very negative. Even later in life, the thought of what others will have to say about our mistakes or failures can fill us with dread – what’s in store for me now, what will everyone think? 

Don’t fear the feedback bogeyman

When it comes to feedback practices in the workplace, our personal experiences from our formative years have a habit of catching up with us. It therefore makes sense to know the effects they can have. We are all very sensitive to comments about what we’ve done and how, and we tend to be afraid of making such comments about anyone else either. Fortunately, with a bit of practice, giving and receiving feedback constructively can become a natural part of work culture – and it should.

Feedback can be something of a minefield for many, though. Supervisors know they are expected to give it, but nonetheless positive words are often left unsaid amid the daily rush. And when things haven’t gone as well as they should, taking the bull by the horns can easily feel like too much trouble. Naturally enough, people can also have fears about the impact feedback might have on their working relationship with the other person, or other similar concerns. In short, because feedback so easily stirs up uncomfortable feelings there is always a high risk that it is avoided altogether.  

Is saying it straight the best way?

At its best, however, giving feedback is a natural part of positive human interaction. To develop your feedback skills, a good place to start is by considering what shape they are currently in. What’s your own approach to giving feedback? Is your first instinct to draw attention to the other person’s mistakes or shortcomings and point them out, or do you prefer to bring attention to things they’ve done well? 

When you give critical feedback, do you blurt it out in front of everyone, thinking ‘the straighter the better’, or do you say what needs to be said in a way that is helpful to the recipient and is more likely to bring about the desired change?

If you receive corrective feedback, do you retreat or go on the attack?

How does it feel to receive corrective feedback? Does your natural fight-or-flight mechanism kick in – do you go on the offensive or go on the run? Or are you objective about it and willing to learn from the experience?

Is receiving positive feedback any easier?

What about good news – if someone says they’re pleased with your work, do you automatically assume they’re being insincere and that anyone could have done what you did?  Do you just wave it off, without taking credit where credit is due? Or do you stop for a moment to take the praise and say thanks?  In doing so, you keep the good feedback in mind, helping you to improve even more in your work and reinforce your professional identity.

Tips for giving corrective feedback

Speaking up isn’t easy, but it can have a big impact – for better or for worse. That’s why it’s something that deserves careful thought.

If corrective feedback is needed, keep these things in mind:

  • Calm yourself first.
  • Pause for a moment. Consider why the person may have acted as they did. 
  • How you phrase the feedback matters – rather than blunt criticism, say what you would like to see happen in future, and the reasons for this.  Also listen to what they have to say in their defence.

Of course, these principles apply beyond the workplace too.

Positive feedback fosters trust

Corrective feedback should always be based on mutual trust. A key building block of trust is positive feedback as part of day-to-day activities. As well as bolstering professional competence and self-esteem, it contributes to interpersonal relationships. Considering the good it does, it’s a shame how easily we forget to bring attention to things that are going well. However, it’s very important to let others know that their efforts have not gone unnoticed, and that their work is appreciated and valued. Studies also confirm the effect of positive feedback on work performance, learning and achievement.

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