Lauren Stiebing 13 May 2019

How to Give and Receive Feedback

We all know that feedback is important to help team members, peers and even reporting managers improve. Feedback, if given and received properly, can be a powerful agent of change as well as an enabler of a healthy organizational culture. The challenge on the ground, though, is that few people seem to know much about the art of giving and receiving feedback. That’s why I thought I’d share my views on a topic that is critical to the well-being and performance of individuals, teams and organizations.

Who can give feedback and about what?

Giving feedback has traditionally been viewed as the responsibility (perhaps prerogative) of “senior” executives- someone who is in a managerial or leadership role. But in a healthy organization, everyone should feel empowered to give feedback, provided it is done for the right reasons and in the right way.

There are many situations that warrant feedback, such as the following:

  • For the feedback giver (say A) to bring to the attention of the feedback receiver (say B) how the former felt as a result of what the latter said/did.
  • For A to provide B clarification around the expected process or deliverables so that B does not waste time doing the wrong things or things wrongly.
  • For A to offer B an alternative (and potentially, better) way to do something.
  • For A to bring to B’s attention a possible violation of the organization’s code of ethics or the law.
  • The classic case where A (the manager) explains to B (a direct report) why there is a difference between how B is behaving or working vis-a-vis what was agreed.

The above scenarios illustrate why feedback can, in fact, be given by anyone. Colleagues and peers can give one another feedback, and even “juniors” should be able to give feedback to “seniors” without fear of retribution. In fact, it is not even necessary for A to report to B (or be part of the same team) for one to provide feedback to the other.

To create and sustain such a culture of giving honest feedback in the team or organization, everyone needs to consistently walk the talk. Irrespective of where in the organizational hierarchy a person is, s/he must be willing to gracefully listen to feedback, give it a fair hearing and agree on the way forward. At the same time, there must be mechanisms to ensure that the feedback is honest, based on objective data points and the expected change is in the company’s best interests, while being reasonable on the recipient.

When should feedback be given?

In my interactions with executives, I have noted that many of them prefer giving feedback only during performance appraisal conversations. This obviously refers to the classic case of managers giving feedback to their direct reports. Appraisals typically happen once every year (or at best once every six months). That’s long enough for people to forget the details or even the entire incident. Thus, the impact of the feedback will be reduced.

It is best to give feedback soon after the event has occurred. Naturally, this is easier if the two individuals work closely with each other. But timing also depends on what triggers the feedback and emotional state of people. If one (or both) the individuals are angry, upset or otherwise highly charged with emotion, that is definitely not the time to provide feedback. But do speak to the person(s) concerned within a day or two to go over what happened and what you expect. That way, the incident will be recent enough for both parties to remember it vividly, and facts will not be lost.

How should feedback be given?

The most important guiding principle is that feedback must be given with the intention to help the other person improve; it must not be given (or delivered) in a way that makes the recipient feel that s/he is being accused or judged (unfairly). The feedback must separate the issue from the person and explain the giver’s concern. For example, explaining that the action might affect the team’s morale or cause mis-alignment in strategy or create bad precedents etc. will help the recipient understand the context of the feedback better, making him/her more amenable to comply.

Specificity is another important ingredient of giving feedback. The chances of feedback leading to the desired change increase greatly when the feedback contains examples of what needs to change, why and what the change must look like (desired attitude, behaviour, or way of working). For best results, agree on how, over a period of time, you will measure if the desired change has indeed occurred. Doing so will demonstrate seriousness, besides providing clear and objective indicators of how much the “needle has moved”.

Although feedback is typically perceived as negative, remember that it can also be positive. This is why the place where feedback is given is important. If the feedback is positive, provide it even if others are present. Mention what the person did to deserve that feedback. Negative feedback on the other hand should be given in private, where the recipient also gets the opportunity to freely explain his/her side of the situation without the pressure of bystanders. In some cultures (e.g. Asian), face-saving is very important, so extra care must be shown in such environments or when dealing with people from such cultures.

Be consistent in giving feedback. Do not be seen to “condone” certain behaviours or actions in some people, while in other cases, you choose to give feedback. Fairness and consistency in upholding high moral, ethical or performance standards is an important leadership trait- so take care to ensure that even inadvertently you don’t end up being perceived as not being fair and predictable.

Always give feedback directly to the person(s). If more than one person needs to be given the feedback, have the initial conversation as a group. Reporting an incident to a higher-up and expecting them to inform the concerned person(s) is not giving feedback. Whether you are the giver or receiver, avoid being distracted by your phone or email when giving feedback- that is a clear signal of how seriously you are taking it.

Should you ask for feedback or wait to be given it?

Proactively seeking feedback is a good idea, as it gives people the opportunity to offer you feedback. In a boss-subordinate relationship, asking for feedback is usually seen as a signal that the individual is constantly seeking to improve- and that’s a good thing. Seeking feedback is also useful when you value someone’s views but that person is not your reporting manager (and therefore, you are unlikely to get his/her feedback as a matter of course).

Schedule specific times to conduct feedback sessions with your managers/direct reports- and block calendars! This will inculcate discipline. It will also make everyone prepare for these discussions and be mindful of what feedback to provide. This is important because casual, generic, unsubstantiated feedback can cause more harm than good. More important, such sessions give individuals the time to change, so that performance appraisal discussions can also factor in the individual’s willingness/ability to accept feedback and act on it.

How should feedback be received?

Receiving feedback is an art too- and perhaps needs greater levels of skill. The key is to not get defensive, listen well, take notes, ask for and share information that will help both the giver and recipient put the feedback in context. Even if you feel that the feedback is not fair or reasonable, resist the temptation to raise your voice or push back right then. It is better to ask for a few minutes after a couple of days, sleep over the feedback provided, and then offer your views if any. Genuinely thank the person giving you feedback. Even if you wish to argue with the feedback given to you or counter the evidence, prepare for the meeting with facts and figures and present them calmly; raising your voice will be counter-productive.

Feedforward: an alternative point of view

All feedback is inherently about the past, which cannot be changed. That’s why in the past decade or so, there has been much debate and discussion about the value of feedback. A view gaining currency is that feedforward, which is about the future, is more useful than feedback, which is focused on adherence to standards or norms. Feedforward is about setting the right goals and conveying clear expectations. It is also a means to provide career coaching and guidance to help people develop (which, by the way, is what we at LS International do).