Feedback is a Gift


If you encounter a company where the culture has happy people who respect one another and treat each other well, it is likely that they have a good feedback process. It is an additional step in the daily life of an organization and, when done well, can provide the backbone for transparent communications and healthy workplace relationships.

Feedback methodologies and patterns are set by example, are more often than not defined by the CEO or similar leadership, and will inform how people treat each other throughout the organization.

After speaking recently with friends and colleagues about their experiences with feedback, three consistent problems were brought up which ultimately inspired this post.

  1. An inconsistent definition of the term feedback
  2. The assumption that feedback is negative
  3. Lack of useful feedback methodologies

Okay, so what is feedback?

Getting into the specifics, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, Feedback is;

(noun) — Information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.

So feedback is information, we all knew that. The tricky part is when and how to use it as a “basis for improvement”. As it is a noun and not a verb, you can ultimately share, give, dispense, or inflict it upon someone. If your goal is to encourage a person to change for the better, your delivery is a key element of the feedback process.

What feedback is not

A friend of mine at another company, whom we shall refer to as Brad per request, recently completed a rather arduous engineering project. He felt really good about the work he had done, and while he had done it mostly alone with little help or input from his managers or peers, Brad believed he had both grown his skill-set and contributed to solving a large company problem.

About a week after the code went live to customers, Brad was talking to a friend on the Marketing team and overhead a couple of people talking negatively about his project. He asked them what was wrong and they, not knowing Brad had worked on it, curtly informed him that it was a failure and whichever engineers worked on it should be ashamed.

Brad is a good guy so he shrugged it off and went back to talking to his friend. However, that short interaction stayed with him for weeks.

While Brad’s quick conversation with the marketing team was neither formal nor direct feedback, it was referencing the work that he had done. Suffice to say, when you want to give someone feedback on a project, remember the feedback should be, “Information…used as a basis for improvement” and is not a:

Reaction
Feeling
Opinion
Personal Objective

When you react to a situation, event, or object — this is your personal response. You can make this reaction either private or public. Once public it becomes information that other people can interpret and use. It doesn’t matter if you share it directly with the individual or talk behind their backs. Not all information is worth sharing and not all of it is useful. Be mindful of what you say, others will listen.

Feedback is both positive and negative

When it comes time for your annual review, a one-on-one with your boss, or quick private chat with a manager, the feedback you receive should be both positive and negative. However, most people rarely experience a formal feedback session when the only information shared is positive.

When private feedback is guaranteed to include negative information, people begin to fear those moments alone with their boss. They are trained that reprimands are private and praise is public. Ultimately, this path can lead to a fearful, disengaged workforce.

If the goal is to share information for the betterment of others, make sure that the feedback you give is…

  1. Timely: The sooner you can give feedback to someone the better. It is best received when the information being discussed is still relevant and remembered by both parties. If you wait too long (more than a week or so after the event), you may want to consider waiting for another occasion to give feedback.
  2. Goal Driven: Have an intended goal with something tangible that the person can do to either continue their progress with positive feedback or a tool for making a change when negative.
  3. Specific: It should always relate to a specific situation or task. Vague information or insinuations don’t help the other person make a change.
  4. Respectful: Assume positive intent of the person you give feedback to. Information shared is intended to help them improve and should not be demeaning or personal.

Methods for giving feedback

There are many methodologies for giving feedback, but here I have included the main practices I use at work.

Formal Feedback

These conversations either take place ad hoc and/or once a quarter.

Support Each Other’s Professional Goals
Set the Scene
Schedule a private space for this conversation set for 30 minutes. Do not go over time, bring a stop watch if you have trouble staying on schedule. Both participants should come prepared with 2 professional goals they would like support achieving. There are no computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices allowed for this; leave them outside. If you want to take or bring notes, use paper and pen.

Overall Objectives

  1. Build trust. Coming to a meeting prepared to support each other’s goals removes the fear of a negative feedback bash session and reinforces the idea that feedback is intended to be useful.
  2. Share feedback. Preparing goals in advance allows the participants to share safely, giving structure to the feedback.
  3. Provide a structured environment so that participants do not get overly personal, shame or demean one another.

30 Minute Format
For 10 minutes:
Participants share their 2 professional goals. Participant A shares and, when finished, B may ask clarifying questions. Once all questions are answered B shares. Each participant has 5 minutes.

For 20 minutes:
B goes first giving feedback. The feedback includes 2 specific actionable ways for A to work on their goals. This can include books, exercises, stories of similar personal experiences that may give guidance, etc. Avoid sharing feelings, disagreements or about what you wish they had put as a goal. Ask additional clarifying questions if needed. Avoid talking about yourself. Once B finishes delivering, A gives their feedback. Each participant has 10 minutes.

Concluding
Share notes and thank each other for the feedback session. Next time you meet, bring your old notes and see how far you have come. The next time you talk your goals may have shifted, but it is good to keep track of progress.

Quick Feedback
This is useful if you have an immediate concern that needs to be addressed. Also, this is a wonderful tactic for surprise positive feedback. It helps break the expectation that formal feedback is negative.

  1. Ask if the other person has time.
    Whatever medium you prefer (in person, chat client, email, phone)as if the other person has time to meet. If not right now, find out when and schedule it. Schedule no more than 15 minutes.
  2. Ask for permission to give feedback
    This is one of the major keys to successful feedback. Once they acknowledge your request, you know they are willing to listen.
  3. State your observation
    Use relevant and timely examples of the behavior you would like corrected (or that you loved, in the case of positive feedback). Avoid using the word “You” and instead note what “I” witnessed. This is not about blame, your intention is not to waggle a finger and shame them.
  4. Elaborate on the impact
    Explain the effect of their behavior, and again be specific. Statements like “I noticed”, “I think”, or “It made me feel” are solutions to avoid a assigning blame to either party.
  5. Take a moment and ask for their reaction
    Give the other person time to think and respond to what you have shared.
  6. Offer actionable next steps
    Give 1 or 2 actionable suggestions that the person can use in the future to change their behavior (or continue to be awesome).

Informal Feedback (and Recognition)

Takes place daily with team members and co-workers around the company. It also tends to be positive, but it is just as important as any formal feedback conversation.

Hand Written Notes
It may seem hokey, but a hand written note with positive feedback waiting for you on your desk is pretty wonderful. While I used to have a private stash of notecards, here at AnyPerk, the company has stockpile of their own that we can use.

Remember, the messages on your cards should be Timely, Goal Driven, Specific and Respectful.

Verbal Thank You + chocolates, candy and stickers
Taking a page out of Ken Norton’s book, always bring the donuts, as often possible when I thank someone for doing something well or generally being awesome, I accompany it with a small token of appreciation. You might not have the budget to keep goodies on hand or feel like giving real gifts might not work in your office, don’t worry, verbal praise is enough. (If you give food gifts, check for allergies.)

Gift Card
Depending on your budget and your role at the company, Gift Cards can be a great solution so long as you know what the other person likes. These are a popular form of recognition but are often delivered without knowing what the other person would enjoy or find useful.

Flower Delivery
Call me old fashioned, but having flowers delivered to your desk during the day is heart warming for everyone. The images below are graciously provided by some of the team members of AnyPerk. (Again, check for allergies!)

Local San Francisco services that I have used in the past include BloomThat and Farmgirl Flowers, but send from whomever you like best.

Images contributed by Jamie, Lexi, and Me

In Summary

Giving and receiving feedback takes courage and trust; courage to share with a co-worker and trust that the details being shared are useful and well intended. Without it we don’t get better, learn quickly from mistakes or build trust with our teams. Feedback takes effort and thoughtfulness to be done well, so ultimately it is a gift and something to be cherished.