Giving Feedback as a Strategy for Deepening Relationships at Work
As a white person raised middle class, I was socialized with a degree of pretense. Scared of jeopardizing my relationships, I have found myself wearing fake smiles rather than candidly telling others how their actions land with me. This has happened with my supervisors, my peers, and my reports. Whether someone exceeds my expectations or disappoints, whether they say something that fills me with joy or with anger, I was unsure how to let them know.
Do you resonate with this experience? If so, this article is for you. By not being real with the people that matter to us, we deprive them of positive reinforcement or collude with undesirable behavior. If we can reframe feedback as a gift--an opportunity to enhance the self-awareness of someone we care about--we might push through our fear and bring more of our authentic selves into our relationships. Here are a few things to keep in mind when giving feedback in work contexts. These steps can be applied to positive or constructive performance feedback as well as to interpersonal dynamics such as appreciations or addressing microaggressions.
Assess whether the relationship warrants a feedback conversation
Feedback conversations, especially constructive ones, can be emotionally taxing. Before launching into a feedback conversation, assess whether you really need to have it. Generally speaking, if you interact with someone on a regular basis then it’s probably worth having the conversation. I prefer multiple, immediate conversations about small behaviors rather than a single, explosive conversation after resentment builds up over time.
Another question to ask yourself before giving constructive feedback is whether the other person’s behavior is changeable. If the answer is yes, proceed! If in your heart of hearts you don’t believe they can change their behavior but you can live with the status quo, then perhaps it’s not worth having the conversation. If the behavior is truly unacceptable and you don’t think they can change it, perhaps a separation conversation is needed instead (e.g., firing or quitting, asking to be put on another team, redirecting workflow so you don’t interact, etc.).
Ask for permission
“I’d like to share some feedback about how I experienced our last meeting. Is this a good time?” If the recipient is not ready to receive your feedback, your delivery will miss the mark. Ideally the other person will opt into the feedback conversation. If they’re resistant in the moment, schedule a time in the near future--this way the person has a heads up it’s coming.
You might remember the moment clearly, but it’s possible the other person doesn’t. At the start of feedback conversations make sure to share contextual information like the date, time, meeting agenda, description of physical surroundings, and other signifiers to help them place where and when the behavior occurred. This kind of placement helps the two of you stay on the same page throughout the conversation. The sooner you are ready to give your feedback the better, as the context will be more fresh in both of your minds.
Refer to observable behavior
Observable behaviors are external, such as what you hear the other person say or see them do. This includes body language and excludes assumptions about what the other person is thinking. Notice the difference between an observation and an interpretation. An observation is something you experience directly: “When I saw you raise your eyebrows….” An interpretation is not a direct experience; it is moderated through the lens of judgement: “When you expressed silent skepticism by raising your eyebrows…." By referring to observable behaviors you reduce the receiver’s defensiveness. The other person won’t typically argue with specific behaviors you observe. They will almost certainly argue with your interpretation of what their behavior means.
Clarify how the behavior impacted you
“When I heard you say X, I felt Y.” Use feeling words to describe the emotional impact of the other person’s behavior. Again, this approach reduces defensiveness. Someone can’t argue with your story, including how you feel. By starting with the heart (feelings) rather than the head (thoughts), you model vulnerability and invite the other person into a deeper conversation about your relationship. In most situations you can assume the other person had positive intent. Sharing how their behavior landed with you helps the receiver understand the gap between their intent and impact. It enhances their self-awareness. In this way, feedback is a gift!
Where appropriate, make a request
If you’re giving positive feedback, there probably isn’t anything you’d ask of the other person other than “keep doing that!” In other situations, however, there might be something you’d like them to do differently in the future. If that’s the case, make a clear request rather than leaving them to figure it out on their own. Try to be specific about what new behaviors you’d like to see replace the old ones. You can also share contextual cues that help the other person identify that they’re in a similar situation later on. For example, if I’m giving feedback to a man who is repeatedly interrupting women in team meetings, I might share what I’ve observed, let him know how his behavior impacts me (and my goals for an inclusive team), and request that when he notices he wants to speak up (cue) he pauses to take note of who is talking before he shares his point of view (behavior change).
Agree on a timeframe by when you’ll revisit the issue
When it comes to sub-par performance, following up shows you care about the relationship. You become more aware of their progress and are less likely to have one poor experience spoil your impression of them. Revisiting the issue improves accountability for behavior change, too, as long as you both still remember the situation and behavior you’re checking in about. In other words, don’t wait too long for your follow-up meeting(s). I find two to four weeks is generally a good amount of time, but it varies based on the behavior--the feedback receiver needs enough time to get in more “reps” of the desired change. Depending on the situation, it might also make sense for the person to name an accountability buddy, someone who they can periodically check in with about their progress besides you.
It takes two to tango. For every giver of feedback there is a receiver. Receiving feedback is a skill unto itself. Check out my related piece on listening deeply, engaging with curiosity rather than defensiveness, and mining feedback for actionable data.
I’d like to appreciate Mark Lipton, Kanya Likanasudh, Jack Cohen, Bay Area Nonviolent Communication, and Marshall Goldsmith’s Feedforward process for their inspiration on this topic.