As designers we’re often tasked with giving each other feedback. Sometimes, even if literally no one has asked us, we feel a very strong urge to give feedback anyway. (See, for reference, any brand relaunch.)
If you’d like your feedback — particularly your critical feedback — to positively affect a person, project or outcome, you should pay attention to four things: the feedback itself, your relationship with the recipient, the recipient’s state of mind, and your delivery.
1. Make sure your feedback is directed at the right person and that it’s either wanted or necessary.
The New York Times relayed one woman’s experience with bad feedback: “A male tech lead told her the engineers (who are mostly male) were afraid to talk to her because she’s an attractive woman; they called her ‘unapproachable.’ She was speechless and had no idea how to address his concerns.”
First consider whether the feedback is actually something under the person’s control. In the example above it wasn’t, and it should’ve been addressed with the engineers who were “afraid” of their colleague and her appearance. It wasn’t her problem, it was theirs. Be sure the problem you’re about to address isn’t yours or someone else’s.
Once you’ve determined you’re giving feedback to the right person, make sure your feedback isn’t just a personal preference or pet peeve and that it’s based on the work or situation itself, not your particular feelings about the person whether they’re good or bad.
Next, think about whether your feedback is wanted or necessary. As a general rule, if someone doesn’t ask you for feedback and what they’re doing isn’t actually impacting you or your project, don’t give it. If you don’t like someone’s shirt and they don’t ask you what you think about their shirt, don’t tell them you don’t like their shirt. Contrary to the entirety of Twitter, no one is entitled to force their opinions on anyone else.
Holding back feedback isn’t always an option at work, though. Someone’s output may be misrepresenting your team or organization. Someone’s attitude might be damaging internal or external relationships. In that case, you’re obligated to speak up. Here’s how to make that go as smoothly as possible.
2. You need to have earned the recipient’s respect and trust.
In order for feedback to be as effective as possible, the person about to receive it needs to respect your judgment and trust that you have their best interest in mind. The amount that people will consider feedback is directly proportional to how much they regard its source.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, there’s not much you can do about how others perceive you, but generally, if you work hard and you’re kind, you’ll have this base covered. In fact, if you and your collaborators admire and appreciate each other, you’ll probably get excited about exchanging feedback.
3. The recipient must be ready.
As managers and colleagues, it’s up to us to create environments in which feedback isn’t just expected — it’s encouraged. At the very least, people need to know it’s coming. Unless it’s glowing, no one likes surprise feedback.
As designers, we usually expect to hear what other people think about our work during a design review, so have reviews as early, often and casually as you can without impacting people’s ability to work.
When possible, get and give feedback in small side conversations before more formal review sessions. That way people are less likely to be blindsided by something they’ve missed, and the work can be presented as more of a team effort: nothing good or bad falls solely on one person. Iterative, consistent feedback will also help establish a culture of friendly honesty and candor.
If you haven’t established this kind of culture or set the expectation of feedback with someone else, it’s a little harder to make sure people are ready to receive it, but you can ask. Tell them to let you know if they’d like feedback at some point (calling it an “extra set of eyes” seems to go over well in corporate settings), and if so, when. Then, ask them what they’d like feedback on, specifically. This insulates the recipient from unexpected criticism and makes the conversation more efficient. Everybody wins.
4. Your delivery must be helpful and tactful.
This is may be the hardest part. Some people take pride in their willingness to be “brutally honest” with others (which sounds like they use a sledgehammer when they should probably use nice words), but honesty is pretty ineffective when it’s brutal. No one has ever bludgeoned a positive outcome out of someone else.
It might be helpful to think about feedback as a gift. You don’t throw gifts in people’s faces. You try your best to make sure a gift is something they’ll appreciate and use. You give it at an appropriate time. You give it out of love. Frame and deliver your feedback the same way.
It also helps if your feedback isn’t always negative. You probably shouldn’t use the “compliment sandwich” approach; mainly because it comes across as disingenuous. Just make it a habit to notice and call out the good stuff when you come across it. Give praise more often (some say six times more often) than you criticize and the next time you have to point out something wrong, that person will be more likely to appreciate your honesty.
Don’t let the fun stop here!
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