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Giving Better Feedback At Work:

Managers are sometimes unable to provide the kind of feedback their employee and their team need. Giving and receiving feedback at work can be challenging; especially if you work in a culture of what author and CEO coach Kim Scott calls “ruinous empathy” —which occurs because you want to spare other people’s short-term feelings, so you don’t tell them things they need to know about themselves. 

The ability to give and receive appropriate feedback is key to your development, as well as the development of your team or organization. Research has uncovered many ways that feedback can increase our well-being at work, improve performance, and deepen our relationships—as well as better ways to share feedback with each other.

The benefits of feedback at work

A person who receives constructive feedback stands to benefit by becoming more competent. Feedback typically leads to improved decision-making and collaboration, as well as increased productivity and performance. And this benefits not just the individual, but the team because they have the advantage of a stronger contributor. The snowballing of these benefits, from individual to workplace, can have huge consequences.

Studies show that higher levels of feedback are associated with: 

  • 89% greater thriving at work, 
  • 63% more engagement, and 
  • 79% higher job satisfaction. 

People who receive more feedback are also 1.2 times more likely to stay with the organization.

Positive feedback that comes in the form of recognition of the contributions of individual members is one of the best ways to boost morale. It’s also a way to make members feel a part of the workplace, which affects the likelihood of their staying with the organization. 

As people became happier and more engaged, they became part of the process of making their colleagues more positive and engaged, too.

Giving each other honest, careful feedback creates deeper, more fulfilling relationships. As members of the team help one another improve and hold each other accountable, they create a feedback loop in which each person both gets and provides useful feedback. The more this happens, the stronger the connections among team members, with those who receive this feedback feeling that those who provide it are partners or coaches who have a personal stake in their development. The workplace thus becomes an incubator, a safe, protected space, within which its members can grow stronger. 

People need attention, especially to what they do the best. High performers offer more positive feedback to peers; in fact, high-performing teams share nearly six times more positive feedback than average teams. Meanwhile, low-performing teams share nearly twice as much negative feedback as average teams.

Positive feedback, or recognition, makes team members feel valued, reduces power and status differences between them, and may increase everybody’s sense of belonging. Although recognition costs virtually nothing, it’s one of the tools that is most underutilized by leaders and their organizations. A mere 42% of the over 20,000 people surveyed believed that their manager recognized and appreciated their work.

How to improve feedback delivery at work

Here are some tips on how to give feedback in a constructive way, several of which are highlighted by organizational psychologist Adam Grant.

  • Use the Situation-Behavior-Impact model to guide you. Describe the specific situation in which the behavior occurred. Try to keep this description short and succinct. Give observable descriptions of the behavior in question. Avoid inflammatory language. Describe the result of the behavior and how it affected others.
  • Don’t give the “feedback sandwich.” Though many of us like to open with a compliment and end on a high (positive) note, putting the negative meat in the middle may mean that it gets lost in the feedback sandwich, Grant explains. Why? One potential problem is that we often remember the first and last things we hear in a conversation. The criticism in the middle may get buried. Another problem is that many of us are anticipating a negative—we’re accustomed to receiving negative feedback, especially in a conversation about our performance. When we hear praise, Grant says, we often begin to brace ourselves such that we fail to appreciate the initial positive. We may think that compliment is meant to soften the blow.
  • Instead, use radical candor. According to Kim Scott, radical candor requires that you show that you care before you offer a critique—her shorthand for this is “caring personally while challenging directly.” You can show you care by acknowledging others, listening attentively, and thanking people.
  • Explain why you’re giving this feedback. Starting with your intention can lower defenses, Grant explains. In one study, researchers made feedback 40% more effective by prefacing it with this: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” If you’re giving feedback at home, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell offers something similar to use with children: “I’m asking more from you because I know you have it in you.” He explains that you want to challenge, but not in a punishing way.
  • Level the playing field. People naturally feel threatened by negative feedback. To minimize this reaction, Grant suggests you make yourself vulnerable and human. You might say something like, “I’ve grown a lot from managers’ and friends’ feedback, and I’m trying to pay that forward.” Or “Now that we’ve worked together, it would be great if we could help each other improve by providing feedback.”
  • Ask if they want feedback. For example, “I noticed a couple of things about your work recently. Are you interested in some feedback?” If people take ownership of receiving feedback, Grant says, they will be more open to it and less defensive.
  • If you see a problem, offer feedback immediately or shortly thereafter, depending on the situation. The sooner the better because people may not remember the situations you’re describing.
  • If possible, deliver any negative feedback in private rather than in public. Positive feedback delivered in public is typically welcome, and it’s a good way to reinforce behaviors you want. However, some people are embarrassed and uncomfortable with public feedback. If you’re unsure, ask them.
  • Pay attention to your non-verbal and facial expressions when you deliver feedback. How you say things is just as important as what you’re saying. Researcher Marie Dasborough studied feedback by observing two groups—one whose members received negative feedback accompanied by positive emotional signals such as nods and smiles, and the other whose members received positive feedback delivered critically, with frowns and narrowed eyes. People who received positive feedback accompanied by negative emotional signals reported feeling worse about their performance than participants who received good-natured negative feedback. The delivery of feedback can often be more important than the message itself.

Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have shown that a sense of progress is the most powerful motivator in the workplace, even stronger than personal recognition or pay. Encourage people’s strengths by providing your coworkers with specific feedback on how they are helping your team or community. Focus on how you deliver the feedback. By providing compassionate candor, you can ignite your team members, helping them—and you—thrive.

Excerpted from the book Mastering Community: The Surprising Ways Coming Together Moves Us from Surviving to Thriving by Christine Porath.