Feedback is something we all know we should give and receive more of, but doing so can be daunting, or just plain difficult. Here I’ll discuss some techniques and ways of thinking about feedback that can help make it easier and more effective. I’ll talk specifically about giving feedback to your colleagues about their personal impact on your business — not giving feedback about a system, process, or specific piece of work.
I currently work as a software developer for Rare Ltd., a video-games company owned by Microsoft. While I’m not speaking on either Rare nor Microsoft’s behalf, note that we share a lot of Microsoft’s processes. Your situation and work culture around feedback may currently differ significantly!
- View feedback as a gift 🎁
- Use Situation, Behaviour, Impact 🕑
- Give feedback to seniors as well as juniors 👩🚀
- Find someone to help word your feedback 👨🔬
- Be brave; some feedback is scary to give 🦇
Feedback is a term that makes a lot of people recoil — to many, receiving feedback means “getting told everything you’re doing wrong”. Likewise, giving feedback is seen as a difficult task where you need to tip-toe around issues and pretend everything is fine and dandy. These are dangerous attitudes, both from a personal, and business level.
This is so prevalent that Microsoft have removed the word “feedback” entirely, and replaced it with “perspectives”. Perspectives are shared every few months, (usually three to four) answering a specific set of six short questions designed to open conversation. These answers are saved online and can only be seen by the giver, receiver, and receiver’s manager. This helps ensure a message isn’t lost in translation or diluted by a third party.
As I talk about in 5 Tips for Receiving Feedback in an Effective Manner, it’s just as important to listen to feedback as it is to give it. With this in mind:
Feedback doesn’t have to be negative. Rather than merely a chance to complain about issues you’ve had with someone, it’s an opportunity to help them grow. In turn, their growth can have a positive impact on your well-being.
It’s important to let your colleagues know what they’ve done right, so they can continue doing it. This is important, even if they haven’t done anything particularly special or noteworthy. It’s easy to assume they already know they’re good at their job. However, imagine never receiving any praise yourself, or any feedback saying “You’re doing a good job!” — it would feel awful.
Feedback is a gift to your colleague, and to quote Charity Majors:
“Gifts don’t make people cry.”
People sometimes make mistakes and behave in bad ways — and we want to let them know that wasn’t okay. It can be quite easy in these cases to give feedback along the lines of “You’re always late to meetings”, or “You don’t listen to anyone!” While this may be true, this type of feedback is generally unhelpful. Feedback should be specific and actionable, and an easy way to achieve this is the SBI format — Situation, Behaviour, Impact.
“At Tuesday’s meeting, you cut in while Catherine was making her point. As a result, she wasn’t able to share critical information, which ended up costing us more time as we explored other solutions instead.”
Situation: Tuesday’s meeting. A specific time, not a general “always”.
Behaviour: “You spoke over Catherine.” Objective and clear, something the receiver could actively have done differently.
Impact: “We didn’t get her view, and this cost us time.” How did this tangibly affect us and the business?
By being objective and stating the facts, you can help lower high emotions that can occur when feedback is due. It’s hard to excuse behaviour that actually happened, and it gives the receiver an example to look back on when changing behaviour.
SBI applies to positive feedback too! Simply saying “You’ve been doing well.” might seem reasonable, but it doesn’t give you anything to learn from. Find something specific that your colleague has done recently that you admired, and shout to the world about it! Make sure they know you value the work and effort they’ve put in. Importantly though, research has shown that generic feedback negatively impacts someone’s ability to grow — and this is particularly the case for women and other minorities. If you’re a manager, it’s imperative that you can provide specific feedback to your reports.
We tend to view feedback as something you give to your peers or reports. We can forget that our seniors are still growing and learning too, and they crave acknowledgement and growth opportunities as much as you do.
As a senior, it’s on you to help encourage an atmosphere of open discussion and feedback, such that your juniors are comfortable sharing their honest views with you.
When giving feedback, you want to make sure the core message of how you feel gets across clearly, and isn’t muddied by fluff words, or worse, misconstrued by a different understanding of a specific term. I have two people, one a mentor, one a peer, who are great for honing feedback with. I can safely blurt out how I feel to them and what the general message I want to convey is. They then ask me questions and help discover common themes. This lets me figure out what I really want to say, and confirm that I’m not letting emotion about a recent event get the better of me.
I recently gave some difficult feedback to a senior colleague of mine. While I look up to this person greatly, I knew I had some feedback that would have been challenging for them to read.
The day after sending my feedback, he came to my next for a “quick friendly chat”, which in some places is code for “You’re in trouble.”
However, I wasn’t in trouble; they had come to thank me for being so open and honest. They told me they valued that a colleague was able to share such difficult feedback, and committed to doing better in future. He also asked that I ensure I share such feedback with him and others sooner going forwards. This is how some of the best constructive feedback should and can be handled: A difficult, maybe even uncomfortable initial conversation, which opens into genuine listening and growth from both sides.
When you create an environment that encourages open discussion and a growth mindset, people can be very receptive difficult feedback.
There are some more important points to consider when giving great feedback:
- Know that your feedback is valid and matters. It’s easy to think “I don’t have the authority to tell someone what they’re doing wrong!” but they asked you for feedback for a reason. Be proud to share it.
- Read your feedback twice — once in a happy voice, once in a negative angry voice. Ensure it doesn’t come across badly in the angry voice.
- Try to see it from their perspective. They’re the one who’ll be reading it after all — truly consider how they may respond.
- Focus on how to help the receiver grow, rather than simply admonishing behaviour you don’t like.
- Shape your feedback based on how the receiver will best respond — some need a lot of positive reassuring, others need a good kick.
- On this, talk to the receiver and ask them how they would best take feedback!
- Juniors are more likely to take what you say personally, so try not to pile on too much information or places to grow too early!
- It can help immeasurably to go and talk to the receiver in person after sending feedback. This gives you the chance to clear up any miscommunications as soon as possible.
- Avoid being “brutally honest”. This is usually code for “being a dick”, and nobody wants to receive that. Consider instead thoughtful honesty, kind honesty, compassionate honesty.
- Make feedback a regular part of your work. If you don’t already have a formal process, consider setting up a reminder in your team’s calendar for people to share feedback every 3 months — though the more regular, the better!
- Feed-forward! If you see a colleague doing something great, be sure to let them (or their manager) know! You don’t have to wait for the next feedback cycle to come along to share the good news.
- It’s okay to give no feedback at all. If you genuinely have nothing to say (e.g. you’ve not worked with the person), don’t make something up.
With these tips, hopefully you can start creating a stronger culture of feedback in your own workplace. When everyone is open to comfortably giving and receiving feedback, teams are able to grow and work more effectively, and achieve greater success.
Note that giving great feedback is only one part of the story. In order for your team to work best, people need to know how best to receive feedback too. Please be sure to check out my matching article!
Have you got any other tips for giving feedback? Have any of these points helped you, or do you disagree? Please share your thoughts in the comments, and clap if you’ve enjoyed this article 😊
I wrote this article after having been in a feedback-filled atmosphere for a few years, having read several guides, and taken some courses in better communication.
I’ve also had many conversations with my colleagues directly, and also as part of our semi-regular lunchtime brown-bag sessions which relate to issues like communication in the workplace. LinkedIn Learning has many videos on communication, and part of this came from the following:
I initially shared this information as a Twitter thread, but thought I could expand on it in this article.
Thanks to Charity Majors for a recent Twitter thread on feedback:
Thanks so much to Jessica Baker and Chantelle Porritt for proof-reading and suggestions.