Feedback Beyond (Hierarchical) Borders

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The first time I was asked to provide feedback training, the request was to help newly hired employees learn the basics of receiving feedback. The second time I was asked, the request was to help managers improve how they give feedback. As additional requests came in, I noticed the pattern continuing to play out — with individual contributors and early-in-career employees perceived as only needing to receive feedback and people managers, including new people managers, as only needing to give feedback.

I couldn’t help but think of these groups as two tents out in the wilderness, unable to share resources despite mostly needing the same ones.

Two tents are set up in a colorful, abstract campground.

Over time, I came to see the formation of these two camps as actually part of the corporate world’s feedback problem; study after study proves how important it is, and yet it seems the last developmental area organizations want to invest in. You may recall from our constructive feedback course the study that involved two years of performance reviews and 13,000 employees. It found, among many other insights, the following three:

  1. Employees who don’t get clear feedback quit
  2. Not all feedback is equally effective
  3. High-quality feedback isn’t distributed equally

If any other developmental domain provided this much compelling data, organizations would go all-out to invest in it. But feedback is a different animal. Improving in it involves discomfort. It involves emotions. For many of us, it even involves changing certain communication habits that we’re doing just fine with, thank you very much. So, as clinical social worker Eli Weinreb shared, many organizations seem to take this approach to feedback at work:

A comic strip of 4 panels shows (1) "Ew. Goodbye" as a person buries a bag of "Issues I don't want to deal with." The next panel: Ahh, this is better as the issues are underground. The next panel shows the underground issues growing up through the soil and wrapping themselves around the person. In the final panel, the person says: Whoa! Where did you come from and... and the issues bag says: When you buried us, we grew.

But the more I began offering training, the more I pulled insights on giving into the receiving presentation and vice versa. This is when the real magic happened. Both camps began to see a world of insight beyond the inside of their tent.

Many in the Feedback Givers Camp realized that they had been playing a role like characters in a play. In learning to receive, perhaps for the first time, they began to see how important clarity, empathy, and a future-oriented lens can be in delivering. And, since moving into this camp, many realized they had become passive feedback receivers, preferring to field feedback when it comes rather than proactively pursuing what they need.

Those in the Feedback Receivers Camp also had some breakthroughs. For starters, in learning how to give feedback, they realized just how stressful it can be. Like the givers, they began empathizing with those in the other camp. They also began to see themselves as more respected and even vital employees, as people who had important feedback to give despite or even because they were early in their careers.

The topic of feedback beyond hierarchical borders is worthy of covering from dozens of angles. We can begin by loosening the rigid lines of separation we’ve drawn.


Before you go…