The Art of Giving Feedback

FeedbackGetting feedback at work can feel like a bizarre ritual. It usually goes something like this: Once a year employees are rounded up and told how they are doing. They sit quietly listening to the supervisor, politely ask questions for clarification while trying not to get defensive about criticisms that seem to come out of left field, then, it’s over until next year.

It can be a frustrating experience for workers. Especially Millennials who feel feedback-starved most of the time. So, what happens if workers stop passively receiving feedback and begin to actively pursue it?

Taking a more assertive approach to getting feedback from managers can be daunting, but here are some suggestions for both managers and employees that can help:

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Why is it so hard to get good, useful feedback?

Supervisors cite time as a major constraint. They simply feel they don’t have space to review a worker’s performance on something in real time. Some fear the supervisee’s reaction. They worry anything other than a generic: “You’re doing a great job” is going to start an issue between the supervisor and staff person.

Some staff struggle to remain non-defensive when receiving solid feedback that’s meant to help. Other times it’s a lack of knowledge about how to give great feedback, or workers take a passive approach themselves—they wait around for feedback that never comes.

You’re advocating a more active approach to obtaining feedback, what would that entail?

Decide not to wait around for your yearly feedback. Actively seek it from people you admire, respect and trust. Ask if they’re willing to give their opinion about some aspect of your work from time to time. Choose specific things you would like feedback on. If you ask someone “Do you think I did a good job?” they won’t know what you want them to comment on, so, ask about something specifically related to the task you are doing.

What if you want feedback on certain workplace behaviours, this is a bit trickier than asking about a task, it seems more personal?

Yes, it can feel quite risky to both the staff wanting feedback and the trusted person they ask for it. But, it’s essential. Take some time to think about whose opinion you would most trust and appreciate and beware of choosing someone who isn’t honest. Choose someone who will be straight with you.

Figure out if you are the type to get defensive and upset when you hear things you don’t like or agree with. If you are, hold off on asking for feedback until you work through this tendency in yourself. Then ask for personal feedback. If you ask for an honest opinion and get upset with the answer, you won’t get feedback from that person again and you can hurt the relationship.

So, to get more personal feedback you’re saying workers need to choose someone they trust and stay away from becoming defensive, what else can a worker do?

Once you’ve decided to be open to whatever you hear, structure the way the feedback is presented. Let your trusted colleague know what you are working on, and why. Tell them something like: “I am working on speaking up more in meetings.”

Let them know why this is important to you. You may say: “I want to contribute more, I think I have some good ideas but I just sit on them in meetings and, it’s holding me back.”

This makes the worker asking for feedback vulnerable—is it really a good idea to open yourself up like that?

The key is in how you structure the feedback. For example, I have found using three questions helps. If you want to change a problematic behaviour at work ask:

  1. What’s the biggest thing that’s getting in my way?
  2. What am I doing that’s working?
  3. And, what do I need to change the most?

I once worked with a staff person who felt her boss was breathing down her neck. She asked a colleague who seemed to have more freedom, what he thought was blocking her from being allowed to get on with her job without being micro-managed. Then she asked, what she did that helped the situation. And finally, she asked him what she needed to change to stop the micro-management.

What kind of results do workers or bosses get from asking for this type of feedback?

In the case of the micro-managed staff person, she learned different things about herself. She planned more check-ins with the supervisor she had been avoiding – which in turn had increased his anxiety, which translated in his keeping an eye on her. She learned she would start a task and when the supervisor asked to see what she was working on she’d talk about all the trouble she was having with it, and he’d take over.

She learned to focus on her progress when talking to her boss and to get help from colleagues, as well as trying harder to solve issues that arose by herself before turning to her boss for help.

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