We make experiences truly transformative through the quality of our connections and conversations. By developing our feedback muscles and making it a shared accountability to be great at delivering and receiving feedback, we can create distinctive employee experiences.

Feedback can be simply defined as the ways in which we relate to others and how we give each other information about our experiences working together. It’s about offering up insights to celebrate strengths and identify ways to learn and grow. Teams use many combinations of informal and formal feedback systems to connect, align, and accomplish their goals. Teams that make feedback a consistent habit, practice different forms of feedback, and use that feedback to set development goals, see more positive results.

Feedback comes in many forms:

  • Positive feedback – the big and small signals of ‘keep doing that – it’s great work’ are a necessary part of feedback cultures. You must be able to celebrate successes and cheer each other on when you’ve climbed a mountain (or at times even a molehill). Use positive feedback to build upon existing good behaviors and to stretch to new heights
  • Negative feedback – these are the ‘stop that’ signals or the less than stellar moments where the impact missed the mark. When negative feedback is objective and specific to behaviors and the impacts of those behaviors it can help people self-correct. When negative feedback is subjective or about a person instead of their work it becomes unproductive criticism
  • Constructive feedback – could be described as a bit of ‘stop that and start this’ – it is (as the name suggests) about ‘building’ – and focuses on agreeing to solutions for the future

Feedback can also be delivered in formal or informal systems and settings.

Formal feedback includes:

  • Employee performance conversations
  • Formally scheduled or highly structured meetings/events
  • Regular one-on-one conversations between managers and employees
  • Some types of employee surveys (e.g., engagement surveys, 360° or multi-rater assessments, employee lifecycle checkpoints, training measurements)

Informal feedback comes in other settings, such as:

  • Casual interpersonal interactions (e.g., water cooler chats)
  • In-the-moment conversations or recaps
  • Group-based settings like lunch & learns
  • May be peer-to-peer or employee-to-manager
  • May be requested or unsolicited

Despite the power and use of employee feedback for growth, development and to improve performance, it can sometimes be challenging to provide it. Too often feedback is given a negative connotation, when at its core it’s simply about giving and receiving information. Across many workplaces, people are seeking more frequent and higher quality feedback.

Formal employee performance management systems may grant an opportunity for leaders and their direct reports to connect and discuss performance, but they tend to fall short for a myriad of reasons, especially when not complemented by other informal and more frequent ways of gathering and disseminating feedback.

For a truly distinctive employee experience, it’s critical to make feedback – both giving and receiving it – part of your DNA, and a regular practice, more than just the formal performance conversations.

Feedback systems will continue to evolve as we digitally transform into the workplaces of tomorrow and things like rapid, smart feedback systems become more commonplace and an expectation of workers (like customer surveys that ask you to rate items you just bought or facilitate you returning an item that wasn’t what you wanted).

10 Factors in Exceptional Feedback:

  1. Sincere – mean what you’re saying, avoid cliche
  2. Clear – talking about the real topic and saying what you mean
  3. Timely – comes when it’s important and fresh
  4. Safe – avoids aggression and personal factors
  5. Grounded – based on facts and behaviors
  6. Two-way – all sides have a voice in the discussion and outcomes
  7. Important – worth working on and not a nitpick
  8. Solution-Focused – looking towards the future and prioritized
  9. Supported – lifelines are available
  10. Ongoing – it is not a single event never to be spoken of again

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How to put constructive feedback into action:

Here’s an example of a feedback conversation someone might begin before they’ve taken a moment to reflect on those 10 factors in exceptional feedback:

“Winners get into work on time. I always say you should be 15 minutes early or you’ll be lost! Your sales missed the mark last quarter and they aren’t high enough now to make up for being late. If you took your sales goals seriously and cared about your job you’d be early for work. On another topic, it’s great the way you were doing those training sessions with the team last month, but I heard they didn’t cover the new updates that came out last week so what are we going to do about that?

Let’s dissect this example using our factors of exceptional feedback:

  • Misses the mark on sincere – we edge into some cliche territory in the first couple of statements
  • Not entirely clear – there are multiple messages that are being stated together here without priority. It’s fine to cover multiple topics when discussing feedback but aim to make employee accountability clear. Would you be surprised to consider that the main desired outcome here was to discuss closing gaps in sales targets?
  • Telescopes back in time – We see some references to previous sales results that can’t be changed and distracts from the desired change. There are other comments about things that happened a month ago that also mix the feedback message
  • Hints at personal judgments – Can you spot the statements that veer into the personal? The first half of the statements in this feedback may be conflating punctuality with virtue – the person on the other side of this feedback may feel like their character is being insulted
  • Assumes motivations – comments here that the person receiving the feedback isn’t taking things ‘seriously’ are not based on observable behaviors try to stick to behavioral examples and changes when giving feedback
  • Mostly one-way – The only opening for dialogue we see here is at the end of the feedback
  • Muddles importance – Receiving this kind of feedback you might believe that a prompt arrival to work is the desired change being demanded or that meeting sales goals negates the request to be on-time to work
  • Accentuates the negative – There are a lot of ‘stop’ signals here in terms of tardiness, but they aren’t paired with new behaviors to start to meet sales targets or linked in terms of why that’s part of the feedback
  • Doesn’t identify support – even a single lifeline can help bolster efforts to make a behavioral change
  • Moves on to another topic – The first opening for dialogue is actually a topic change from the main feedback goal and doesn’t allow for agreements on what to do next

Take two, working with what we know makes for exceptional feedback, here are some ways we can adjust the conversation:

“I’d like to look at your sales goals with you and identify some ways that we can get you some support hitting them for this quarter. What are your initial thoughts?”

“I see you booking a lot of new introductory calls this week, but I don’t see the follow-up on questions that come from those calls happening.”

“One of the habits that someone shared with me that helped me make sure I cover my follow-ups is to start each day updating my to-do list from the previous day’s calls – to achieve that for myself I’ve had to adjust my schedule come in  earlier than I used to – would that or something else work for you?”

“Are there barriers you are facing? Let’s see if we can clear the way or adjust other priorities. For some of the barriers, we may only be able to acknowledge that they’re making things harder, but for others, we may be able to remove them.”

“I’m always here if you want me as a sounding board for ideas or advice. What are some of the other resources you can tap into or mentors you might ask for guidance? My goal is to enable you and the rest of the team to achieve your goals. Let’s recap what we’ll both do next. We have until the end of the quarter to meet this target and we get updates on our numbers twice a month – let’s check-in before those next numbers come out and update our plans.”

Ways you can exercise your feedback muscles as a team:

 Take a look at your available forums for feedback

1. Take stock of your formal systems for feedback. Once you understand the type of information that best fits into those systems and how frequently that feedback will occur, calibrate with your team. Help your team make the most use of these opportunities, and align on how the data is used and for what purposes (e.g., performance-based and developmental mechanisms are different and serve different purposes). Also consider the experience surveys (another formal system) that exist at your workplace (on-boarding, post-trainings, engagement, or exit) and their frequency.

2. Identify your informal ways of giving team feedback – lunch and learns, project team meetings, instant messaging systems, team bulletin boards, after-action reviews, etc. Try to generate a list that incorporates your ways of working together as a team.

Facilitate your team creating their own definition of constructive interactions

3. Explore these concepts together with your team:

    • What are examples of using behaviors when giving feedback? (objective vs. subjective)
    • What counts as a solution and what are some ways you’ve brought solutions to feedback conversations you’ve had?
    • What are our team’s standards for working together with each other and with other teams, customers/clients, or vendors?
    • What ways have we given and received feedback in the past that worked for us?

4. Set some ground rules for your discussion using these tips:

    • Assume positive intent – Think about ducks to remember this one – some of us appear calm above the water, but are paddling frantically underneath it –  we don’t always know the full context of what others are experiencing. Make it a habit to check your own observations to separate ‘intentions’ from ‘actions’ – Assumptions about other people’s intentions can lead to overreactions or counterproductive behaviors. Balance understanding context and offering people a chance to ‘explain their side’ with focusing on the changes that you’ll agree to make in the future
    • First, follow the Golden Rule, then add to it – Use treating others how you want to be treated as your starting point, but as your feedback discussions grow open the dialogue with them and find out how they like to give and receive feedback and what works for them – adapt your guideline to treat others how they ask to be treated. Strive to meet people where they are and adapt your style.
    • Focus on Solutions – You can’t change the past behavior; stay focused on the future and solving the issue versus ‘explaining away’ past behaviors or re-hashing a single incident instead of focusing on the next steps

5. Take notes and share your lessons and guidelines back to your team

 Bake these into your day-to-day activities

6. Use regular interactions like kicking-off new projects or workstreams together, weekly or monthly one-on-one meetings, or goal setting and development conversations to foster employees and teams setting their own goals for improvement and align your feedback conversations around what you’ve all agreed to work on together

7. Reinforce with your team that the things they’re working on are learned through study, practice, and repetition. Feedback muscles help us all learn from each other – what seems effortless for someone else may be a skill they’ve decided to work on in the past and they can share their journey with others

8. Bring other resources to the table – HR, training & learning resources, other mentors, appropriate peers

9. Consistency is key – by committing to one or two changes, enacting feedback follow-ups, making employee accountability clear, and working together to consistently follow these practices you can have a huge impact on your team’s feedback culture

Be a role model

10. Share with your team about your own preferences – what times and methods are the best ways for them to raise something to you to discuss and what might it look like for them to initiate those conversations with you?

11. Ask for feedback about yourself and your style – Make time to intentionally ask others how you’re doing and aim to make it a safe space for upward feedback

12. Be open to hearing that your behaviors have played a role in the things your team is trying to solve and your behaviors may need to change too

13. Your expectations may not always be understood by others. Aim to define goals that include both a big-picture viewpoint and some specific and measurable things that you want to be achieved. Encourage others to put those expectations into their own words for ownership and clarity

14. Remind others (and yourself) that it is okay to be imperfect or be working on the same things that you’re giving others feedback about. Sharing about things you’ve worked on for yourself as a result of feedback can help make the journey feel possible for others

15. Don’t forget to also leave room to be surprised by another’s ability to exceed your expectations

Thoughtful and consistent feedback like this can improve the work experience and the quality of output for everyone on the team and build the resilience muscles that help us overcome adversity together.

The dos and don’ts of constructive feedback

Few people enjoy creating tension or instigating confrontation, especially with someone they have to work with every day. To some people, giving negative feedback can feel like picking a fight, even in the most professional context, and it’s natural to feel some resistance to the idea.

Giving feedback also entails a big responsibility for the other person’s wellbeing. The way you frame your criticism is crucial, and getting the words right can be the difference between hurtful and helpful. Even when feedback is totally positive, it’s highly personal and can have a strong emotional effect. It’s no wonder even seasoned bosses find reviews and feedback nerve-wracking.

Do…

  • Check your emotions in at the door

It’s natural to be emotionally engaged in your work and to care deeply about your team-mates – it’s one of the reasons you’ve succeeded as a manager. But reviews need to be 100% about the person you’re giving feedback to and how their employment journey is developing. However well you know them outside of the meeting room, your role now is to be an impartial guide with a realistic view of both the positive and negative.

Example:

Don’t say: “I found it so disrespectful when you interrupted me and others during the Monday meeting.”

Do say: “I noticed that you spoke over other people during the Monday meeting. Were you aware of that?”

  • Be results-driven

For every feedback point you cover, think about what will happen next. Every piece of feedback should contribute to some kind of positive change for the recipient. If there’s no next step, question whether the issue needs to be raised at all.

Example:

Don’t say: “I know you don’t get along with Emily, so you’ll be relieved to hear she’s leaving.”

Do say: “Thinking about your working relationship with Emily, can you point to any times when you could have been more constructive?”

  • Offer factual examples

Tie your feedback to real-world examples and past events, rather than an overall impression or perception.

Example:

Don’t say: “You’re not good at filling in your timesheets promptly. That needs to improve.”

Do say: “Last month only 50% of your timesheets were completed. Next month, that figure needs to be 100%.”

  • Ask for their input

Use this one-on-one time as a chance to exchange views and build collaboration. The person you’re giving feedback to might feel like they’re a passive subject and you have all the power, but allowing that dynamic to persist means you miss an opportunity to work together. Ask questions and invite opinions on the points you raise and encourage the reviewee to take responsibility for developing themselves.

Example:

Don’t say: “I would like you to contribute more in team discussions and come up with ideas.”

Do say: “I would like you to contribute more in team discussions. What would help you express ideas more often?”

Don’t

  • Mince words

Be direct and clear about what’s happening and whether it has a positive or negative effect. Resist the urge to be tactfully vague or imply things as you might do in a social context.

Example:

Don’t say: “Some people have noticed that you bring a slightly negative energy to the team.”

Do say: “I have noticed that you are very willing to offer criticism but don’t often praise your team-mates.”

  • Dictate what should happen next

Although you should give guidance where it’s required, solving a problem or addressing an opportunity should be collaborative, with the other person taking ownership of what happens. If they’re at a loss or their approach isn’t realistic, you can offer guidance, but don’t take over and rob them of their agency.

Example:

Don’t say: “Your productivity level is not acceptable. You’re going to finish 3 tasks a day, even if that means doing less supervision of others.”

Do say: “You’re a great supervisor of others, but I’d like you to be more productive yourself. How can you make that happen?”

  • Bring in other people’s performance

There may be others in the team who are great examples to follow. But saying so is likely to breed resentment and disruption within your team. After all, your employees are unique individuals with their own mix of strengths and weaknesses. Focus instead on ways the reviewee can use their own qualities to their best advantage.

Example:

Don’t say: “To see what you should be achieving, look at Sharon. She’s a great role model.”

Do say: “I expect everyone in the team to be hitting their sales targets. What do you think is preventing you from doing that?”

  • Weigh interpretation over observation

Speak in terms of real-world events you’ve observed, rather than the reasons you think things have happened.

Example:

Don’t say: “You’re often late to work, which makes me think you don’t care about the company.”

Do say: “I’ve noticed you’re often late to work. Can you tell me why that happens?”

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