When you work at Amazon, you hear repeatedly, “Feedback is a gift.” I might even say that feedback is Amazon’s love language. It’s how we show we care, it’s how we grow, and it’s how we innovate. Helpful feedback has three main properties: 1. When you give feedback, the feedback is for the other person and not you, 2. Feedback can be rejected or returned without you knowing, and 3. Feedback is received more openly when delivered in a manner that works best for the recipient. In this post, I talk about techniques for delivering helpful feedback.
First, though, I’ll start by defining feedback as I see it. To me, feedback is guidance you give or receive to continue a behavior or to adjust and grow in a specific area. We often refer to this as “positive” and “negative” feedback. I recommend instead calling these “strengths” and “growth areas” because these terms frame your feedback’s purpose more clearly.
As a manager, peer, and friend, I give a lot of feedback at Amazon. In the remainder of this post, I cover four techniques for giving feedback that have worked for me.
1. Give more feedback about your colleague’s strengths and focus on specific areas of growth
With feedback, the easiest place to start is to tell a colleague where they fall short. However, what is more valuable, earns trust, and helps others grow is starting by giving feedback about what they do well and should keep doing. Starting here reinforces their skills and gives them confidence, which is most of the battle when tackling hard problems. Also give feedback about the progress they’ve made in areas where they need to grow.
When I learned about feedback in business school, I was told to deliver five strength-based pieces of feedback for every one piece of feedback about areas of growth. Putting this into practice, I found that some people feel uncomfortable with strength-based feedback, but over time, it helps them to feel confident and solidify their skills, making more room to work on their growth areas. With a 5:1 feedback ratio, you can avoid some feedback dread. Typical feedback that focuses on shortcomings tends to make people feel as if they will never be good enough. Instead, talk more about their strengths and be specific about how and where they need to grow.
2. Prepare the person receiving the feedback
When you need to deliver feedback to a direct report or a colleague, it’s best if both of you enter the conversation with an open mind. In an ad hoc situation, I usually start by asking, “Can I give you some feedback?” If the person says “yes,” they usually are receptive and curious. If they say “no,” respect their response. They aren’t ready to hear your feedback (we’ve all been there). If you are their manager, you can follow up another time. If you are their colleague, tell them that they should come find you when they’re ready for some feedback that you think will be helpful.
If this is a scheduled feedback conversation, it can help to start by explaining how you think the conversation should go. Then, ask them if they’d like to change the structure of the conversation in any way. If you both have a say in how you’ll give and receive feedback, the situation can feel less hierarchical and more like two people talking about something they care about.
3. Use the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) framework when forming feedback
Giving and receiving feedback can get emotional. After all, our pride, joy, and mortgages are on the line. Using a feedback framework can make the conversation go better. Recently at work, someone went above and beyond to get a critical piece of work done. My first instinct was to write, “Thank you. This is really great.” I realized, though, that this feedback wouldn’t have helped this person in any way. Instead, I wrote, “We were pushing to finish this project on time. You went above and beyond to unblock yourself by digging into the data and exploring alternative options. This meant our team could deliver to our customers on time and set us up for success for delivering faster for the next similar project.” In three sentences, I outlined the situation, detailed the person’s behavior, and summarized the impact of their work and what to keep doing.
Similarly, you can use SBI to give feedback about areas of growth. I was in a meeting recently in which an expert assumed the rest of the room had the same information they had. Instead of saying to the person what I wanted to say (which may or may not have included curse words), I said, “During a recent meeting, we were talking about a new product. You have more experience in this space and were frustrated, which led you to say, ‘I don’t know why this decision is so hard!’ This moved the conversation away from a product-and-customer discussion and instead made the conversation feel personal.” From there, we were able to work together to discuss how that person could approach a similar conversation next time.
4. Give feedback in a way the recipient prefers
Remember, feedback is a gift. Some people don’t like opening presents in front of other people, regardless of what’s inside. I tend to deliver feedback in private, and if I think the feedback should be more public, I ask the recipient if they’re okay with it. I recently discovered that some folks prefer receiving feedback about their strengths via chat. This lets the feedback sink in and removes what can be an awkward face-to-face interaction. Try something like, “During our operations meeting, you clearly communicated the trend we were seeing. This allowed a wider audience to learn from our findings.”
When giving feedback, always remember the person receiving your feedback is a human. You might feel negative feelings toward the person in the moment, but if you want to help them change for the better, a positive interaction can help get the wheels of change turning. That’s a gift that keeps on giving.