The (selective) Feedback Culture

  1. Give candid feedback with the aim of helping.
  2. Your feedback should be actionable.
  3. When receiving feedback, appreciate the effort and bravery of your colleague for speaking up.
  4. Think carefully about what you will do with the received feedback and let the feedback giver know.

Initially, I wanted to call this ‘The No Feedback Culture,’ but it did not seem quite right.

It’s not that people want no feedback – just that they often prefer to hear only ‘positive’ feedback, not realizing that there is no such thing as ‘negative’ feedback. More on that later.

Feedback is odd.
Everybody wants to get it.
Few people want to give it – directly to the involved person(s), that is.

Many people seem to be more than happy to discuss colleague A with person B to Z. But – spoiler alert – talking behind one’s back is not feedback.

Books can be – and have been – written about Feedback: what it is, how to give it, how to receive it, how to process it. One could think it requires a master’s degree to give and receive feedback.

But it’s really not that complicated. So let’s try and keep it simple.

Mythbusting

L

et me get a few things out of the way. Some of those have been around for decades and are so deeply ingrained in our way of thinking about feedback that it is hard to get rid of them.

But rid ourselves of them, we must.

Myth 1: Negative feedback

There is no such thing as negative feedback. The quality of feedback comes from the intent and the openness with which it is given. It does not matter, whether somebody tells you that you did a great job or that you messed up somewhere. Both these messages can – and should be – equally positive feedback.

Myth 2: They hate me

People who give you feedback about things to improve do not hate you. If they did, they probably would not care whether you improve or not. In fact, they take time and effort to try and help you, which is not something you do for people you hate.

Myth 3: The Shit Sandwich

Please, please, do not feed the classic shit sandwich to people. Likewise, don’t accept it, either! We are not stupid. Oh, you don’t know the shit sandwich? It looks like this.

Feedback giver:

Yummy 1st layer: “You did a great job on project X. Really well done.”
Shitty 2nd layer: “Your communication really needs to improve, you need to focus more, and your desk is a mess.”
Yummy 3rd layer: “I really like how you dealt with situation Y.”

This used to be the recommended way of imparting ‘negative feedback’ (see above) to people. The idea is that people take the shitty part but still feel good because the last thing they hear is something positive.

I think there are many things wrong with this approach. It relies on people being perceptive enough to focus on the improvement area despite the honey around it.

By now, we know that this is not how it works. Ask yourself: if you hear two nice things about what you did and one not so nice one buried in between, what will stay with you after the discussion?

Exactly.

Myth 4: People cannot ‘take’ honest feedback

Yes, they can. We just have to make sure that we don’t confuse ‘honest’ with ‘malign’. The easiest way to do so is to keep rule one (see above) in mind.

If we really want to help people and not just vent or complain, we must be honest and candid in our feedback. If we are not, we might just as well save everybody’s time and shut up.

Myth 5: People only ask for feedback because they have to

This one is mostly related to so-called ‘management’. People often feel that ‘management’ only asks for feedback but does not really want to get it. I cannot speak for other companies, but where I work, we really, really want to know what our colleagues think.

Myth 6: Sugarcoating

Just don’t. Don’t do it and don’t expect it.

Sugarcoating only helps the feedback giver because it seems to make it easier to give critical feedback. But it does not help. It dilutes the message and confuses the recipient.

This does not mean that you should be rude. Just be honest and candid with the intention to help.

Last not least, make sure your feedback is timely. Don’t wait until the next 1-on-1, performance review, survey, or end of the quarter.

If you have to say something, say it right away. Nobody benefits from feedback on things that happened months ago.

Always ask yourself

Do you prefer diluted, sugarcoated phrases or clear and well-meant feedback?

Does it help you more to get feedback promptly or months after the fact?

Can you expect things – or people – to improve, if you don’t clearly say how they could be better?

Yes, that’s what I thought.

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