The power of feedback: Are you doing it right?
We live and work in a feedback culture. Tech companies led the movement toward regular check-ins or one-on-ones and feedback sessions away from annual review assessments. This approach makes sense: managers who wait to give feedback to identify and discuss problems see negative impacts on engagement, employee satisfaction, and productivity. However, just because managers give feedback consistently does not mean it's always good. A 2019 Gallup poll found that people categorize just 26% of the feedback they receive as effective. One of the main reasons employees receive such lousy feedback is that its delivery is often one-sided; comments on performance do not invite a conversation to find a solution. Employees can—and should—participate in their career development. Of course, managers have rich work experiences they can share with employees to guide their work, but employees should also have the floor to share their opinions and ideas. To give good feedback, both managers and employees likely need a change of mindset. Feedback should be a chance to engage in conversation and collaboration. Companies that create this open and supportive environment will likely see better relationships between employees and their colleagues, as well as, employees and managers. Plus, people who learn how to share their opinions with their supervisors are helping their career growth and development.
Make feedback growth-oriented
The goal of feedback is—in short—to help a person or a group improve. At Bonzzu, the design team holds a weekly design review meeting to discuss in-progress designs and solicit teammates' feedback. While feedback is a critical part of any learning process, receiving it can trigger emotions. And the feedback may not be well received if delivered as a list of accomplishments and failures.
As such, the Bonzzu design team quickly learned that engaging their colleagues in conversation—rather than just sharing notes—creates a culture of trust and respect. The team draws heavily on usability testing methodology by asking questions to draw out information, challenge design choices, reach a solution, or offer food for thought.
Sabrina Serra Fulles, a product design strategist at Bonzzu, says, “When you develop a product, you want to make sure it works, and if it doesn't, you need to understand the issues in detail. Usability interviews are a chance for you, as a designer, to ask users open-ended questions to avoid yes/no answers, and listen so you can understand the points of friction.” For example, the team might ask questions such as “What do you feel is the most important feature of this design and why?” or “Have you considered trying this approach? Why or why not?” This kind of delivery also makes feedback seem less personal and can enhance collaboration and critical thinking.
Active and empathetic listening is also essential because it can help you ask better, more focused questions. Indeed, listening to what is said and can also provide clues to a coworker’s emotions and help colleagues respond with more emotional intelligence.
Framing feedback as a conversation can also remove some power dynamics that often appear in manager and employee relationships. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, managers who engage in discussions that encourage self-examination and inquiry with questions can "enjoy better relationships with their team," and “their feedback may even produce greater joy, not fear.”
Prepare for the hard conversations
Framing feedback as a conversation can help people better navigate difficult situations, such as when a client is unhappy with a project. Doing so also requires a shift in mindset—the goal isn't to win or lose but to gain consensus and understanding.
Sabrina gives the example of a meeting with a client that she and her team thought was a check-in. However, the design team quickly realized that the client wasn't happy with the current design. Sabrina’s instinct was to be defensive and explain away the criticism; however, she quickly adjusted her mindset to see the meeting as an opportunity to ask the client questions and better understand their concerns. Because of this shift, the meeting was productive, and the client left feeling heard and respected, and the designers understood what the client wanted to achieve and why. Plus, the conversation laid the foundations of trust.
Of course, for some employees, engaging in difficult conversations with managers can be a challenge and nerve-inducing. Macarena Toloza, a quality assurance engineer, based in Argentina, feels that her managers are often better at communicating their point of view and she sometimes struggles to get her point across in one-on-ones. She says, “I sometimes feel that I don’t communicate everything I want to say or that the outcome was different than I intended.”
But Macarena developed a strategy to help her prepare for these meetings and have more productive conversations with her managers. “Before my meeting, I write down the topics I want to discuss, and if there are problems to address, I write them down and include possible solutions. I always look at problems as opportunities. Then, before the meeting, I practice delivering my main points.” She says this approach has helped her feel more confident and facilitates more meaningful conversations.
Want to improve your feedback etiquette?
1. Plan ahead for your feedback conversation. Know what points you want to make and how you will deliver them, especially if you’re sharing some less-than positive feedback.
2. Set expectations and goals for your meeting: this helps gauge whether your meeting was a success.
3. If the person you’re giving feedback to seems upset, don’t be defensive or cut them off. Let them talk and make active and empathetic listening your priority.
4. Learn to get comfortable with silence! Usually it means that people are thinking or processing what was just shared. Use this time to reflect.
5. When you do break the silence, ask open-ended questions that explore the “why” and “how.” If you don’t understand something, say, “Can you tell me more?”
As hard as it can be to receive someone’s comments or opinions on your work, remember that feedback is a gift. The goal of any (good) piece of feedback is ultimately to help make something better. If you remember that, everything will seem much less personal.