Before my daughter Henley could talk, she had a line-up of cries to signal hunger, exhaustion, boredom, and more. At first, I couldn’t tell the differences. When she cried, I would run the gamut. I would offer sustenance or comfort and wait for feedback. I’d adapt from there. Eventually, I built a mental library of cries, and even today, I know the cry for I need mommy.
We learned together. I didn’t feel frustration at her or myself. It reminded me of being in college and tweaking my writing style to please that semester's English professor. Through cues, observations, and direct feedback, I built constructs for interaction.
So, why does it feel so hard to give and receive feedback at work?
Feedback is emotional.
Work isn’t framed as a learning experience. It’s trading your talents + knowledge for compensation. Receiving feedback preys on our fears about losing our livelihood or power. Feedback givers hold their tongue in fear of being seen as difficult. Those fears keep us from growing. Imagine if Henley didn’t cry; how would I know to offer her something?
We don’t magically become fully-realized versions of ourselves when we join the workforce.
Work is a mixture of ever-evolving people seeking something. At Square Root, the role of feedback is on everyone. It’s what we owe to each other. We value empathy, inclusion, and empowerment in our culture, but we also need to challenge and build each other up to move us forward. That comes from having a culture of feedback.
We challenge our folks to two things. One, understanding feedback is a tool for reflection. Two, through reflection, you’ll better understand your values, biases, and traps, as well as your impact on others and their impact on you.
Feedback is perspective given to an individual or team with the intent to help them grow.
When you give feedback, you’re asking someone to reflect. Likewise, when you receive feedback, you’re being asked to reflect. It’s neither the feedback nor the conversation that moves us forward. It’s the reflection.
What’s in play with feedback?
- The way our values, personality, preferences, childhood, and identities intertwine.
- The relationship, care, and trust between the giver and receiver.
- Whether or not there is intention and validity behind the feedback.
Why does feedback matter?
- Linked to financial gains, improved performance, and employee morale.
- Fosters motivation, encouragement, confidence, and clarity.
- Nurtures aspects of trust, like openness, expectation-setting, and advocacy.
- It’s human. People want to stand out and fit in. Feedback helps folks feel unique and understand how they fit into a company.
Being unique is a part of why feedback can be intimidating or tough; we’re all so different. Your identity plays into how you give + receive feedback. What motivates you, who you trust, how you find energy, and generally, how you experience the world affect your relationship with feedback.
Take a minute to mull on what do you value?
Consider the behaviors, attributes, and people you reward, like, and dislike.
Our preferences bias how we perceive the world, influence decisions, and create a natural tension between people. If you value positivity, you may react poorly to information given in a neutral or negative tone. If you value straightforwardness, you may dislike rambling or small talk. These unknown conflicts may taint how we feel about people, ideas, decisions, and more.
What comes to mind when you hear the word feedback?
At once, we can appreciate and fear feedback. It can ding our confidence; it can hurt feelings; it can provoke a fear response or aversion to conflict. Those are common feelings to have.
Feedback is complex. Our tendencies, values, and expectations influence our relationship with feedback. Things like moods and settings will also affect how we receive or give feedback at any given moment.
Running alongside the meld of variables are all the feedback traps.
Let’s dig into those traps.
Feedback is often unhelpful. It can be irrelevant, arbitrary, impractical, nit-picky, or a product of sweeping generalizations. Sometimes manipulation and blame show up, like continuing to give feedback after discussing it or holding an individual accountable for a past action again and again. Living in the past is not a way to show someone you care about their growth.
Feedback is often contradictory, so one perspective can’t be the end-all, be-all. Yet, when an individual rejects or doesn’t wholesale incorporate feedback, it’s my experience that others label those individuals as defensive, difficult, dense, or wrong. Those narratives have career-shattering effects. It’s an example of retaliation hiding behind the facade of feedback.
Feedback is not you must do or should have done this, that’s instruction or salt in the wounds. It’s also not unsolicited advice, that belongs in a consenting conversation, or invalidating another’s perspective; that’s gaslighting. The most pervasive gaslighting is Don’t take it personally. We can intend for feedback to not be personal, but once it’s in the world, it’s not ours to react to anymore. Lastly, we all want to uniquely contribute to a company, so comparison or be more like… doesn’t move individuals forward.
The cure for these bad behaviors is thoughtfulness.
Ask Yourself: How do I want someone to feel when I give them feedback?
Past experiences affect us. Your tone could unlock a wave of unrelated negative thoughts in someone that experienced extreme punishment as a child. Avoid giving feedback on a whim to allow space for considering how you want someone to feel, and if you’re ready to let them feel.
Folks feel what they feel in the moment. Let it happen. Once the moment passes, reflection steps in to move folks to a forward place. Believing you can be successful in the future comes from feeling supported in feedback convos.
Feedback feels like: ambitious challenge meets high support.
I asked our team what keeps them from giving feedback. I heard: I don’t want to hurt feelings — I don’t like conflict — I’m worried it will harm them — What if I’m wrong? But when I asked, how do you want someone to feel when you give feedback, the answers included cared for, determined, and empowered.
Giving Feedback: Make feelings real through preparation
- Check-in with yourself: What’s my emotional state, motivation, expectations?
- Intent: Am I giving info or instruction? Will my feedback help with growth?
- Relationship: Do I hold power over this individual? Do I care about this person or team?
- Perspective: What might be on the other side? Am I ready to receive feedback?
Aristotle said, Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
Over the past 10-years, I’ve encountered two types of folks when it comes to giving feedback. There’s the individual that seeks an alternate perspective (yay!), and there’s the individual that seeks righteousness. The latter believes that giving feedback also validates that they are good, right, and just. It’s an unhealthy endeavor. It’s also unkind.
Understanding yourself, your expectations, your intentions, and the feelings you seek to conjure is the responsible step before giving feedback.
I once gave feedback in a sour, sour, sour mood. None of my intent reached the person, because not only was it delivered poorly, I held power over the individual. No matter how warm + inviting the environment, there are still power structures, real and perceived. Power due to privilege, gender, tenure, age, level, title, and personality collides with our differing feelings toward perceived power and authority.
In addition to taking stock of yourself, be a keen observer of others. If you notice an individual that people pleases, doesn’t have boundaries, apologizes, says yes, but body language signals no, seems anxious, is hard on themself, or has a defensive reaction to feedback, the individual may be reacting to your power. It’s hard to feel that supportive vibe if you fear authority.
Receiving Feedback: Turn feedback into a conversation to better understand the differing perspectives and each other
- Listen to Yourself: What are the boundaries + cues from my body.
- Relationship: Am I actively listening + validating their feelings?
- Understanding: Do I need more info, examples, or a takeaway?
- Reflect: What’s true? What can help me grow? What’s next?
With any feedback, I like space to mull — to choose my words + decisions with care. Without it, I get flustered. Most folks allow me that space as a sign of respect. Since feedback needs reflection, ask for space and time to let it marinate. Feeling a need to immediately react or pressure to live in your immediate reaction forever is a mistake.
The other hiccup I see is the truth. With feedback, there’s rarely a right or wrong. The giver is not an arbiter of the truth, and the receiver is not a defender of the truth. We’re collaborators, peers, sharing purpose. All there is — is the truth of our experiences. When we understand someone’s truth, we can empathize, give grace, and adapt. It’s like being a mom. I don’t necessarily want to answer 20 questions while reading Fancy Nancy, but I adapt to Henley’s needs as a sign of respect, trust, and safety. A lot of workplace feedback is just folks asking us to make accommodations so they feel respected, trusted, and safe. Your Fancy Nancy may be sending meeting agendas, not interrupting, or ditching excluding phrases like you guys.
Whatever it is, we owe it to our teammates to listen — reflect — learn — adapt.
Building a Culture of Excellence
Giving and receiving feedback is a shared responsibility to help us as individuals, and as companies grow + move forward.
Seeking feedback is just as important. It allows for a multitude of perspectives making it easier to pinpoint themes + growth opportunities. When we seek feedback, we also turn our curiosity on. Curiosity nurtures a craving for knowledge + input, and it staves off defensiveness.
Lastly, positive feedback matters. Appreciation is part of a caring, trusting, and respectful relationship. We all have the ability to be part of someone’s success — to build them up through feedback.
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I’m a fan of the ✨magic✨ratio. Five positive interactions for every one negative. That’s a tall order while we’re all remote and missing our playful + serendipitous hallway chats. A lack of warmth or connection between folks fractures relationships. Positive feedback keeps standards high, encourages what someone is doing well, and amplifies how they uniquely contribute to the company. You get what you reward.
What you reward drives the norms of your culture. If you cheer on the good stuff, you get more good stuff. And isn’t that what we owe each other?
What’s your relationship with feedback?
For me, feedback is so often a matter of opinion. I want feedback to be a conversation and reflection tool for my team to discover + capitalize on authentic growth. Ultimately, the future we carve is ours. I want mine and theirs to be a deliberate act, not a muddle of thoughts from other people.