Cameron Conaway is a faculty member at the University of San Francisco and a team leader in the People, Policy & Purpose organization at Cisco. His work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, NPR, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Washington Post, World Economic Forum, Newsweek, Forbes, and The Guardian, among other publications. He is passionate about the art and science of how we give, receive, and process feedback, including how feedback impacts employee satisfaction and organizational resiliency.
Watch: What is feedback?
On giving and receiving feedback
Below are two videos Cameron worked on for Harvard Business Publishing’s Feedback Essentials course.
This story is so hard to tell because I still hold so much regret about it and because it impacted a really good person’s career in a negative way.
So I was at a high-tech company and I noticed that one of my direct reports didn’t have a problem hitting deadlines, she always hit them, but what she delivered from a design perspective was routinely subpar, old-fashioned designs, they were often off-brand, and instead of providing direct feedback by saying something like, “hey I feel this and future deliverables could be improved if we did X, Y, Z, what are your thoughts on that? How could we do this together?” I instead spent a few months trying to too gently nudge them towards Improvement.
I opened up conversations about really great examples I had found. I recommended classes for them to take, conferences for them to attend – it was all a kind of dancing around the discomfort I felt about being direct. It reached a point where now other teams and stakeholders were noticing the low quality deliverables and they were coming to me about it. And again rather than sharing this explicit feedback – what I was seeing and feeling and now what others were seeing and feeling – at a time that that would have been most valuable for her, which which would have been immediately, I kept avoiding stepping into what I felt would be an uncomfortable conversation. You can probably see where I’m going here, right?
We had a big project coming up in about three weeks and on that project my direct report again underwhelmed various teams to the point that now my manager directly asked me to let this colleague go. And uh it it stung and it still stings because I felt that if I had delivered feedback when my direct report needed it and with total clarity she at the least would have saw this coming and at best would have had a chance to improve enough in her role so that she could have been successful.
So if you find yourself delaying giving feedback, I really encourage you to lean into that discomfort, have the difficult conversation. Timing can be everything and being candid can be a beautiful type of kindness when it comes to giving feedback. I learned this the hard way. Feedback really should not be put off, it shouldn’t wait for the quarterly performance review, it shouldn’t be held like poker cards. Try to give it as close to the actual incident or observed behavior as possible. At some point, I really believe this, your success and the success of your team will depend on you doing this.
I had just moved into a marketing role at a tech company and I was immensely struggling with two aspects of feedback I had received from my new manager. First, I was told to lie about the data if it didn’t frame the results our team drove in a positive light. I struggled so much with that from an ethical perspective. And then he followed up by saying that if I wanted to be successful I would need to be more aggressive than what he was seeing.
So my initial reaction in the moment was shock to each of those. I was… I was actually stunned into silence and in part because I had just been praised for the results that my team had drove over the last couple months and also for the collaborative and transparent way that we did it. So I couldn’t help but wonder if my manager was actively trying to derail my career. Hours after receiving the feedback, I was biting my nails, my palms were sweaty, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, and later that night obviously I couldn’t sleep and so I just kind of tossed and turned and uh rather unsuccessfully tried to reflect on the feedback and and it was at that point that I realized my body was giving me signals that seemed worth paying attention to.
And I began asking myself kind of a series of why questions so, “Why is my jaw feeling so tight right now?” Well, my jaw is type because I felt like the feedback was an attack against my personal values. And from there I worked it into the feedback decision tree that I had created. You know if we take it from the top of the feedback decision tree, Do I trust the motives of the person who gave it to me? Initially I would have said no but through these insights from my body and the gentle investigation I realized yeah that I did, I did trust his motives. It might come across as warped, but he… I think he was trying to help my career by allowing me to succeed in this particularly psychologically unsafe culture that I was part of. I worked down through the decision tree, Does the feedback align with my personal values and professional goals? Absolutely not.
And I kept working down the tree, beginning to open up conversations with other trusted mentors and people throughout the organization. And this perspective was incredibly helpful because I was able to see and just get validation that no it didn’t come from an evil place, this feedback, but also no it wasn’t something that I should take. And for me that was such an important moment of understanding because it allowed me to let go of some anger and process things better.
So if you find yourself trying to process challenging feedback, I really recommend the process of tapping into your body, what it’s trying to express, gently asking yourself why questions about it and working the challenging feedback through a feedback decision tree – the one I created or your own. Take your time as you work through this process because you want to understand how you will incorporate the feedback or not but also how it aligns to where you want to go in your career.
Feedback definition, feedback types, feedback examples
Keep feedback centered with this helpful guide.