Giving Feedback that Makes the Workplace Better

This is the first of a two-part series on giving and receiving feedback in the workplace. This series came about because of a reader’s request; if there are workplace topics you want to hear about, you can always let us know!

Giving others great feedback can help them grow.
Giving others great feedback can help them grow.

We all know the difference between working with someone who gives helpful, constructive feedback and someone who just tears us apart. We all know how it feels to have a manager sandwich a critique between a lot of praise, and I bet a lot of us know how it feels to be criticized by someone who is technically your boss but who has never invested in a relationship with you.

The internet is bubbling over with webinars, articles, and trainings on how to give effective feedback in the workplace. It’s a pillar of management theory, and the multi-million dollar executive coaching industry focuses a lot on how to motivate members of an organization. And yet, for many of us, it’s still so hard to give any, nevermind effective, feedback to others. Giving feedback is a natural part of working with people, and it has the potential to be a powerful catalyst for growth and change.

So, here are 5 tips that I hope will help you do the inevitable, but in a way that feels more authentic and uplifting:

1. Start with a lot of positive feedback. Management and relationship research shows that it takes 5 positive statements to prevent the harm that can be caused by 1 negative critique. That said, bombarding someone with 5 seemingly frivolous or fake compliments before you throw down a really harsh criticism is not the answer. Anyone you’re in a position to give feedback to should be someone you work with frequently enough that there are lots of opportunities to shower him/her with praise. Focus on what they’re doing well and build them up so that when there is a learning opportunity for them, it feels like one and not an attack.

2. Recognize emotional contagion. Research shows that when someone in your environment (even if you can’t see them!) is stressed, you can take on that toxic energy as well and start to feel anxious, angry, or uncomfortable. If you’re trying to give constructive feedback to someone who is totally stressed out, you should a) think about whether there might be a better time or place to chat, or b) recognize that you might be taking on some of their stress, imagine yourself using that energy to do even better, and take a deep belly breath to re-engage. If you’re the one totally stressed out, do yourself and the other person a favor and take care of your needs before trying to coach him or her.

3. Prioritize the relationship. Projects, papers, workplaces initiatives – rarely do any of our “outputs” impact us more than the relationships we have with others in the workplace. So many of us have bought into this utilitarian idea that our co-workers are just commodities, that we’re all just here to color in-between the lines and make sure the work gets done. People who see the value in working well but prioritize relationships just do better across the board. When you have to tell Sally that she’s missed the mark on performance for the third month in a row, remember to see her as a whole person who, in one way or another, you are in relationship with.

4. Create a container. For managers especially, it’s immensely helpful to set up a weekly one on one meeting with the folks you support. This creates a container around feedback so that there’s a clear time and place in which the employee can reflect and grow. By creating a container, you take some of the heaviness out of giving feedback and can just do it in real time, in a low-key way. As a manager or as a co-worker, you can ask how the other person likes to receive feedback – do they want you to be blunt? gentle? somewhere in-between? Be thoughtful about what happens in this container and do what you can to make it a positive, collaborative experience.

5. Reflect and acknowledge. After you’ve given feedback to someone, pause to imagine what that interaction may have looked like to an outsider. Reflect on how the other person might have felt, and how you felt delivering it. If it didn’t go well, acknowledge that – to yourself and, if you feel like it’s appropriate, to the other person. Try to be mindful of the ways you’re getting better at giving feedback and the things that are still tough for you. And remember, that 5:1 positivity/negativity ratio should apply to what you tell yourself, too!

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