Megan Tucker

A driver honks during the morning commute. A toddler spits out a home-cooked meal. A stranger’s face lights up with a huge smile after you hand him the credit card he dropped. We get feedback all the time, so why can feedback in the workplace be so intimidating?

I had the pleasure of attending a Together We Lead event on feedback recently. The forum, led by the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, focused on how to demystify the inherent concerns around feedback and help leaders continually learn how we can better deliver and receive feedback to advance careers and professional endeavors. The event’s takeaways, combined with previous research and experience, help answer three key questions on the topic.

What is feedback?

As hinted above, feedback is more pervasive than we think. In their book, Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen identify three forms of feedback:

  • Appreciation feedback is positive recognition – thanking, acknowledging, motivating or just noticing someone (e.g., “I appreciate the significant effort you put into executing that event; it really paid off, as it went flawlessly.”).
  • Coaching feedback aims to help the receiver improve, whether around knowledge, skills or abilities, or to address the feedback giver’s feelings (e.g., “You handed in a strong first draft of this analysis. I thought its clarity could be improved by shortening some of the content, so I want to review those edits with you for future reference.”).
  • Evaluation feedback rates against a set of standards to either align expectations and/or inform decision-making (e.g., “You have exceeded expectations against all of the skill and behavior-related standards and have truly earned this promotion.”).

How is feedback effectively delivered?

While there is debate around how and when to deliver critical feedback, there seems to be overall consensus that both positive and negative feedback can have value if delivered in the right way. Here are some key tips to consider before delivering feedback:   

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. Know exactly what you’re going to say before delivering the feedback and think through how it may be received. Writing down notes or talking points can help ensure all points are made.
  • Sandwich critical feedback in between positive feedback. That said, don’t be so focused on delivering the positive feedback that areas for improvement get buried or glossed over. It’s important to acknowledge both the positive and the constructive feedback, and to give both the time and attention they deserve.
  • Be specific. Examples help illuminate the behavior that needs to change or be reinforced. Without concrete instances to point to, both the giver and receiver can lose sight of the key takeaways.
  • Focus on impact. For both positive and critical feedback, it’s important not to come off as judgmental. Feedback should focus on how it impacts the giver’s thoughts, actions or feelings (e.g., “You interrupted Joe with a critical comment on his business development idea in today’s staff meeting. I was disappointed I didn’t hear more and left me hesitant about opening up for further conversation.”).
  • Encourage discussion. A feedback giver may have thoughts on how to address an issue moving forward, but to deliver maximum benefit, the giver should help the receiver come to his or her own conclusion. Discussion will help foster a genuine understanding of what needs to change or continue and will put the person receiving the feedback in the best possible position to grow and improve.

How is feedback effectively received?

Learning to effectively receive feedback takes regular practice. To gain maximum benefit from the feedback you receive, here are some key considerations:

  • Be open. If someone is taking the time to give feedback, listen to what he or she has to say as he or she is most likely trying to be helpful. If it’s critical commentary, try to understand where it’s coming from and how you can resolve perceptions or change behaviors moving forward.
  • Ask for clarity. If something is not clear, speak up. Leaving a meeting after feedback is delivered with confusion or questions will not help you grow.
  • Know the next steps. If you don’t have an action plan to incorporate the feedback moving forward, things will likely not change. Talk about what happens next – or set a time to do so – before ending the conversation.

We take feedback very seriously at Reservoir. From our client questionnaire, to our ongoing manager-managee check-in meetings and our 360-degree annual performance management process, we proactively and regularly seek feedback. These key channels for feedback support one of our core values to Be Substantive. When we know more, can we do more for our colleagues, clients and partners.