What is Employee Feedback Literacy?

As I wrote about here at Harvard Business Publishing, I came up with this concept and the definition thanks to being inspired by a 2010 paper in Practitioner Research in Higher Education which put forth the idea of student feedback literacy.

Over the years, academic research around student feedback literacy has been quite fascinating to watch unfold. As it has, I’ve been testing ideas in my classes at the University of San Francisco, in my work at Cisco, and in the feedback training I offer. These environments allowed me to refine and make more accessible the concept of feedback literacy for my students and for employees around the world.

Today, I define both feedback literacy and employee feedback literacy as the following:

Employee feedback literacy is the capacity for employees to effectively seek, give, receive, process, and use feedback.

-Cameron Conaway

Defining the employee feedback literacy parts

As I present this definition, I’m often asked how I define each of the five parts. I also originally published these in the Harvard Business Publishing article. Here they are:

Seeking feedback

The proactive pursuit of constructive, specific, and actionable insights from others to enhance one’s own performance and development. Effective feedback seekers are open to and capable of learning from positive and negative feedback. They seek feedback indirectly through observation and directly by asking questions. They clearly articulate their need for feedback while ensuring the feedback giver has the space and context to deliver it effectively.

Giving feedback

The ability to provide constructive, specific, and actionable insights to others in a clear, respectful, and supportive manner. Effective feedback givers can offer both positive and negative feedback. They clearly state the context and observed behavior, working toward mutual understanding by inviting the feedback receiver into a dialogue that feels psychologically safe for all participants.

Receiving feedback

The ability to actively listen, acknowledge, and use constructive conversational techniques to understand what a feedback giver tries to convey in the moment. Effective feedback receivers are receptive to and capable of extracting value from positive and negative feedback. They seek clarification when needed, refrain from agreeing or disagreeing with the feedback until they fully understand it, and spend time reflecting on the conversation.

Processing feedback

The ability to explore the feelings that arise, mindfully analyze, and ultimately decide whether or not to adopt received feedback. With particularly challenging feedback, effective feedback processors ask the giver for space to reflect. They strive to develop a fuller sense of the situation and the giver’s intention. To gain a clearer perspective, they may share the feedback with people they respect and who have seen their work.

Using feedback

The application of constructive, specific, and actionable insights gained from feedback to improve performance. Effective feedback users thoughtfully consider if, when, and how to use received feedback. They strategically plan their changes to suit the context appropriately (e.g., fixing typos immediately while gradually increasing meeting participation). They monitor the impact of these changes and seek further feedback on them.

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