See transcript below for the video: Constructive Feedback at Work: A Complete Course on the Basics. After the transcript, you’ll find a gallery of all the primary images used in the video to highlight the art and science of constructive feedback in the workplace. Click each image to view it in a larger size. Lastly, in addition to watching the full online course above, you can also watch it on YouTube in full or in smaller pieces via the Constructive Feedback playlist.
Hi there team, my name is Cameron Conaway and welcome to Constructive Feedback at Work: A Complete Course on the Basics. In this course we will cover the fundamentals of feedback, with a heavy focus on building the practical foundation you need to effectively give, receive, ask for, process, and use feedback. While this is a course on the basics, I don’t want you to be fooled by the term basics. This course applies to everybody everywhere – assuming you are human, and like all humans, are surrounded by feedback. Feedback is both an art and science, and I’ve found that it’s a skill worth continuously developing regardless of where you are in your career.
Consider this piece in Harvard Business Review which opens with this story: “I felt like I was going to throw up,” Filip confessed to me during our coaching session. “Giving feedback is something a leader should be able to do every day without breaking a sweat,” he said. “But for me, it feels like the end of the world.” And check out how the article’s summary definitively states: “A lack of constructive feedback is detrimental to your team, depriving them of mentorship and growth opportunities. And workplaces marked by poor communication and unclear expectations are breeding grounds for low trust and disengagement.”
Or check out this research published in Fortune Magazine, the result of a 2-year study which found, among many other insights, the following three:
- Number 1: Employees who don’t get clear feedback quit
- Number 2: Not all feedback is equally effective
- And Number 3: High-quality feedback isn’t distributed equally
And if these examples weren’t enough, academic research spanning decades paints a similar picture. The work of professor John Hattie comes to mind. Hattie spent 15 years researching what variables most impact achievement in learners. In summarizing the results, feedback researchers David Carless and David Boud put it plainly:
“The most powerful single influence on achievement is feedback…”
And while the examples I just shared are more at the individual level, the vital role of feedback at the larger organizational level rarely gets much fanfare. For example, did you know that feedback played a huge role in how Stewart Butterfield, cofounder of Slack, grew that company to $1 billion in two years? As the writer at Fast Company put it:
“If there’s one theme that emerges when founder Stewart Butterfield talks about Slack’s success, it’s that the company made customer feedback the epicenter of its efforts.”
All of these reasons are why I’m so passionate about feedback, and why throughout our time together here I hope you’ll also develop a passion for it. It’s had a tremendous impact on my life; it’s how I’ve improved in almost everything I’ve ever done… from when I was young boy in Altoona, Pennsylvania learning how to shovel snow so I could make some money… the feedback there was mostly self-feedback… feedback from my body… letting me know that if I was shoveling wet and heavy snow… I couldn’t last long if I used my back to try to lift it. And feedback plays a vital role in my career today, where it helps me improve the experience I provide for my Master’s degree students at the University of San Francisco… and in the results I achieve at the Fortune 100 company where I have the immense privilege of being a team leader.
Before we dive in, this is a 2-hour course, or so. So why on earth should you spend your time with me? Well, first, you shouldn’t unless you’re finding value in the content. But if you need some credentials up front: I’ve written about feedback for Harvard Business Review, was one of a few industry leaders asked by Harvard Business School to create content for a global course about feedback, and my non-linear career path – from grocery store worker to mixed martial arts fighter to investigative journalist and now as a professor and a team leader at a company named the best place to work three years in a row – has meant that I’ve seen feedback from various angles and that I bring a multidisciplinary and evidence-based perspective to this topic… you’ll find plenty of academic studies throughout this course to back it all up.
If anything I’ve shared so far sounds even remotely interesting to you, stick around, because here’s what we’ll cover:
Okay, so this course on constructive feedback will start with some of the basics, and these are basics that very often get ignored, so we’ll spend a good bit of time on them because they actually serve as building blocks for what we’ll cover deeper into the course. So as you see here, we’ll kick it off by discussing what is feedback? Again, this might seem obvious to you, but part of why giving and receiving constructive feedback at work is so challenging is because many of us tend to make assumptions about what feedback is… including the assumption that we all think about it in the same way. So we’ll put a feedback definition on the table and explore its various parts to make sure we’re on the same page. If at any point in this course you become a feedback nerd like me, I’ve got a 30-minute deep dive video titled What is feedback? that covers the definition and dozens of related terms from just about every angle imaginable. For this course, we will only stay at the surface-level definition because that’s all we need to launch into gaining a practical understanding of constructive feedback and how we can get better at giving and receiving it.
From there, we’ll get into Why is Feedback Important? This also may seem obvious to you, especially after those examples I shared earlier, but it’s worth spending time here because you’re about to make a serious commitment of your time… and, if you’re anything like me, it’s a million times easier to stay committed if you really believe in the importance of what you’re committing to.
And, in the last part of the introduction, we’ll explore, from various perspectives, why feedback can be challenging. I’ve found that it’s helpful to learn about some of these challenges early in the course because as our feedback literacy develops (don’t worry, we will cover that term in great detail later in the course), we can begin to see how our new insights can be immediately applied in addressing some of the most common challenges we have.
And with that, we’ll jump right into each module, starting with receiving feedback.
When it comes to constructive feedback, most of what you’ll find in articles, academic papers and even books is a kind of radical prioritizing of providing tips and other information for the giver. In fact, many of these resources often center the feedback giver so much that it’s clear that the feedback receiver is sort of an afterthought… a role that is mostly relegated to smiling, saying thank you, and otherwise just nodding along to sort of appease the giver. If you’ve sensed that vibe out there, welcome to this course, where we recognize and center the power the feedback receiver has in the feedback relationship. So, yes, we will begin with receiving feedback, because if I’ve learned anything about constructive feedback over the years, it’s that in learning how to effectively receive we also dramatically improve our ability to be better givers.
From there we’ll cover the nuances of processing feedback.
What I mean by processing is… what next steps do we take after we receive feedback? For many of us, our default after receiving feedback is to begin using it, but as I wrote about here, there’s often some important work we should do between the time we receive feedback and then use it that ultimately allows us to make better decisions and ensure we are leveraging feedback in ways that benefit our personal and professional goals.
Once we know how to receive and process feedback, we’re in a great position to decide if we want to use the feedback. As with processing, there’s some nuances to making sure we use feedback effectively, so we’ll cover those in Module 3.
And this leads us to Module 4, Giving Feedback.
Now that we will be equipped with the most essential skills in receiving, processing, and using, we’re in a perfect position to learn how to effectively give feedback. In this module on giving feedback, as with the others, I’ll share not only some practical tips, but the underlying why, as in… why are these tips practical in the first place. Again, our goal here in this course is not to have a cheap cheat sheet that we turn to rather robotically… it’s to develop a deep understanding of constructive feedback so we can make thoughtful, intentional decisions in our everyday interactions with our colleagues.
From there, we’ll dive into one of my favorite topics: How to ask for feedback, and why we should all do it. The academic literature refers to this as “feedback-seeking behavior” and, both because it’s vital for all of our growth and because understanding all of the previous modules can help us do it better, I’ve put this one after the module on Giving Feedback.
And, last but not least, we’ll learn how to build a healthy and effective feedback culture by taking the foundation we’ve built throughout the course and learning how to practically apply it for the betterment of our teams and the groups around us. There’s no shortage of content out there about Building a Feedback Culture, but the vast majority of it suffers from a few pitfalls:
Number one, it makes the classic assumption that everybody knows what feedback is and has the requisite skills they need and, number 2, it tends to assume that only the team or department leader plays an important role in building such a culture. As you may have guessed, I believe all members of the culture can and should play a role, so in this module we’ll explore what those roles are and how we can all collectively level-up our feedback abilities so that we’re working in the kind feedback environment that benefits all of us.
So as I hope you can see, there’s a place for you in this course on constructive feedback… whether you are primarily here to improve how you give feedback to others or want to catapult your own achievement by learning how to seek and receive and process and use the best feedback possible. As I said earlier, in my experience providing feedback training, learning to give always helps you receive and learning to receive always helps you give. So if you’re on this journey as an individual, great, but I’d highly recommend bringing others on your team along for the ride. If you’re a people manager, you might think of this course kind of like a book club, where you can progress through it collaboratively, watching parts of it synchronously or asynchronously and then coming together to discuss it.
And one note before we start the introduction: I highly recommend working through this course from start to finish rather than skipping around. Some of the definitions, challenges, and concepts introduced early will build on each other… and you’ll be in a better position to make sense of it all if you’ve started from the beginning. Okay, onward to the Introduction.
Hi there and welcome to the Introduction.
Let’s dive right into our first section:
What is Constructive Feedback?
Broadly speaking, feedback is a response or a signal that causes you to gain insight or otherwise take a different approach to what you’re doing. For example, perhaps during one Christmas morning you loaded your daughter with so many small gifts under the tree that halfway through opening all of them you noticed she became extremely bored. She lost the joy and wonder you hoped each gift would bring to her. That’s feedback to you. And perhaps next year, you’ll course-correct based on this feedback.
Here’s another story, see if you can spot all the places where there’s feedback. You take the stage at an industry conference. For three months, you’ve been working on your presentation. Early into it, your first joke to break the ice seems to fall flat. As you progress, you notice folks shuffling around in their seats, a few yawns. This causes you to speed up your presentation, a move that means you stumble on your words and rush past the most important part. Nobody had questions during the Q & A and nobody stuck around to talk to you afterward. After it’s over, you head straight back to your hotel room. In your gut, you know you underwhelmed a whole bunch of people and did not give your best performance. A week later, results from the conference survey proves your gut to be right: those who attended your presentation gave you an average score of 2.7 out of 5, and you needed at least a 4.2 for a chance to be invited back next year as a guest speaker.
Did you notice all the feedback throughout that story? And did you notice that it was all non-verbal? While we tend to think of feedback as the words somebody says to us, and of course it is, it’s also all of these other types of signals that are all around us throughout the day – from our sense of somebody’s boredom to the sense in our own gut. Now, one of the keys to improving in this realm of feedback is refining our ability to discern the truth of the signal from our potentially wrong narratives about it. Us humans, we are meaning-making machines. Sometimes this works in our favor, but many times we weave various pieces of information to create a narrative that simply isn’t true. For example, in our story about the speaker, it truly could have been that attendees were rustling and even yawning because they were an international team coming off a long series of flights and still feeling the jet lag of it. And that 2.7 score may have been because, when you assumed they were disinterested and adjusted by speeding up your presentation, you blitzed through so fast and stumbled so much that they struggled to stay with you.
As we dive into constructive feedback, focusing on the mostly verbal kind we give and receive at work, keeping these stories in mind can help us remember that feedback and opportunities to improve how we work with it are accessible to us in nearly every moment of our lives.
Okay, so let’s put an official definition of feedback on the table. This is actually kind of a big deal for a few reasons. First, because otherwise we have either the rather clunky dictionary definitions you may find or the many feedback definitions that aren’t about human communications. And, unfortunately, many of the articles and books about feedback fail to put forth a definition. And another reason it’s important to have a definition is because it becomes a flag in the ground for you and your team. As you all collectively work to improve your feedback capabilities, you may find yourself referencing your shared definition to ensure alignment.
So here goes. This is how I define feedback.
Feedback is a response to a person’s activity with the purpose of helping them adjust to become more effective. Feedback comes in various forms, including evaluative (how you did and where you are), appreciative (how you are valued and recognized), and coaching (how you can improve).
Let’s unpack this a bit. First, we have here that feedback is a response, meaning there was some stimuli — like a behavior or performance — that the feedback was in response to. When giving feedback, it’s important to keep this concept of stimuli and response in mind because doing so will allow you to get beyond making vague feedback statements like “Great work” to something more specific and constructive about the behavior or performance, such as: “On our last project, you showed an exceptional mix of team leadership and attention to detail. You kept each team feeling empowered and moving forward while also ensuring we carefully thought through the nuances of every customer touchpoint. Great work.” Likewise, as a feedback receiver, keeping stimulus and response in mind can help you ask questions if and when you do receive feedback that is too general for you to make sense of. In responding to that “Great work” comment, for example, you might ask something like: “I really appreciate that. And since I’m always looking to reflect on and improve my performance, might you have some specific details in mind about what you think worked particularly well on this one?”
We will cover this in more detail in future modules, but keep in mind that effective feedback is always specific feedback. And if you aren’t getting it as a receiver, you can improve your chances by specifically asking for specific feedback – including asking for specific positive feedback, as this too is a key to your professional development.
Next up: note that this is a response “to a person’s activity.” Remember when I mentioned us humans being meaning-making machines? Well, that function can cause some issues here. Too often, we end up creating ineffective and unhealthy feedback experiences because we forget that feedback should focus on a person’s activity, not on a constructed story or our judging a person’s character based on that activity. You might imagine a colleague showing up late, again, for an important meeting. Saying something like “You have a real problem managing your time. You need to get it together,” is a narrative leap… it’s assuming you know what’s happening in this person’s life and you know what their problem is. The tone here isn’t so much about the observed activity but about your judgment of it. Instead, you could say: “Hey, I noticed you were late again to our meeting. Is everything okay?” This approach centers your observation of the activity, steers clear of character judgment, shows concern, and gives the feedback receiver the first move to share what’s going on. You may find that, indeed, they do simply struggle to manage their time. Or, you may find something altogether different, like how they get intense anxiety during important meetings and this causes them to run late… or perhaps how their child’s chemotherapy appointment has recently been running into the time for this meeting. Either way, you will always be in a better position if you focus your feedback directly on what you observed rather than on a story you’ve come up with.
Next up: we have that the purpose of feedback is to be helpful. It should go without saying, but inherent in this is what feedback is not meant to be: it is not meant to ridicule or belittle. It is not meant to embarrass. It is not meant to harm. Those who have the gift of giving feedback will put themselves in a much better position if they do the inner work of understanding their intentions prior to delivering the feedback. By carving out a quiet moment before giving feedback to ask yourself — why am I giving this? — you may uncover some surprising dimensions that show you your intention is not meant to be helpful. I know this because, like you, I am also part of this complex human experience. And we are also part of systems that encourage us to act in certain ways, including ways that may harm others. And, for various reasons, we all come at things with different motivations. So I encourage you to check your intention at the door prior to entering into a feedback conversation.
Now, there are two more aspects to keep in mind here.
The first is that, even if you approach feedback with the purest and greatest intention, you can still either give terrible feedback or give feedback terribly. And, if the feedback doesn’t land well — perhaps for one of those reasons — you should honor that it didn’t land well rather than trying to defend yourself by saying, “I didn’t mean it like that.” In my experience, a far healthier and effective alternative is not to put on the armor of defending yourself but to take your armor off and walk bravely into (not away from) the conversation. Rather than, “I didn’t mean it like that” you might say, “Oh, I can see how what I said could be interpreted that way. That’s not quite what I meant. Can I try again?”
The second aspect here is that there is a subjective element to what is considered helpful. For example, I once worked in a toxic department where colleagues saw each other more as stepping stones up the hierarchy rather than as teammates. My manager gave me feedback about my need to more aggressively act in that way. To him, his intention was to be helpful. And, indeed, had I adopted his feedback, it probably would have helped me climb the ladder in this horrible environment. But, to me, the feedback was not helpful. I didn’t want help navigating this environment; in fact, I was actually plotting how to get out… so helpful feedback during that quarterly performance review would have been, perhaps, advice on how to pursue stretch assignments in different departments or specific advice on how I could improve the numbers I was driving.
As you are likely seeing at this point, feedback can be challenging because human communication can be challenging. And we often exacerbate these feedback challenges when we split feedback into camps — as though one side is purely the givers and one side is purely the receivers, with little overlap between. This can result in, for example, not managers and direct reports building strong relationships so they understand what each may want and need and, from that place, forming an effective feedback relationship, but, rather, the manager taking a wild guess on what kind of feedback is helpful. Helpful, constructive feedback fills gaps in understanding. It can highlight strengths we didn’t know were strengths, and do the same with weaknesses… and then point the way to how we can maximize those strengths and shore up those weaknesses. In my current role, my manager and I have empowering and honest 1-1 conversations several times each month. And I try to have the same for those who report to me. As such, my manager has a great sense for what kind of feedback is most helpful.
Now that we’ve covered intention, let’s get to the outcome. The outcome of feedback is ultimately to help someone adjust to become more effective. While it can be alluring to jump right to “more effective,” perhaps the most important point here is adjust. Feedback is and never was about purely pointing out a past behavior. As you see in our feedback definition, feedback isn’t just about responding to the stimulus, it’s about responding to the stimulus and helping someone adjust… which means adjust their future performance… because what else can we adjust? Some think feedback is only about pointing to the past and, basically, stopping there. This is why many folks feel the need to say “feedforward” rather than feedback, or even put the word “constructive” in front of feedback as if to make 100% sure we’re talking about helpful feedback. And then there are those who take a contrarian stance of saying feedback doesn’t work.
Team — feedback works. It’s literally all around us all the time. It’s how we’ve improved in anything ever. Feedback is actually why we’ve been able to make it through this world and remain alive; we engage in some behavior, if it’s dangerous or harmful, it often hurts… which is feedback about it… and we use that feedback to adjust our behavior in the future… by not touching the hot stove, or whatever. This is how feedback works. Now, yes, human-to-human feedback communications doesn’t always work… but that’s not because there’s something wrong with the nature of feedback or even the word feedback… it’s because, frankly, human-to-human communication doesn’t always work… as you may have noticed in your life, it’s very difficult. It takes work… and by engaging in this course you are putting in the reps right now… and, as I think you’ll see once you bring what you’ve learned in this course into your work, these reps will help both yourself and those around you. Lastly, to put a bow on this section, yes, it’s not about adjusting for adjusting sake… it’s about adjusting to become more effective… which, again, means more effective in some future performance or behavior.
And, lastly, let’s spend some time on the three common feedback forms here. There are many forms of feedback, but I’ve found these three types to be especially helpful in allowing us to easily categorize the most common types. These come from a fantastic book titled Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. In my opinion, this is the #1 book about feedback you should have on your shelf if you care about this topic. I’ll link to it in the description. Okay, so you can think of evaluative as like the audience survey we mentioned earlier. This survey let the speaker know how she scored out of a possible 5 points. In this sense, it let her know how she did and where she stands on the scale. Evaluative feedback might also come from a colleague, who provides feedback (positive or negative) about how you did on a particular task compared to how they think it could have gone. Appreciative, as you can guess, is the kind of feedback that makes you feel seen and valued. The coaching feedback type specifically calls out how you might be able to improve. With positive feedback, coaching feedback might be specific and actionable steps you can take to double-down on your strengths. With negative feedback, the coaching feedback type would provide specific and action-oriented tips for how to improve upon what the feedback giver perceives as your areas for improvement. Keep in mind here that, while these three types can be a helpful tool for framing the many types of feedback, feedback can cut across all of them. For example, consider this feedback and see if you can find the three types within it:
“You performed exceptionally well this quarter, beating your forecasted quota and making it into the top 1% of sales in your region.”
While that first part could be seen as Appreciative, on the whole I’d say it falls into Evaluative – especially because it provides the comparison points against the forecast and against the regional sales numbers.
“And the way you did, with a passion for our customers and a deep sense of humility, is something myself and our leadership team greatly admires.”
This one is clearly appreciation. In fact, the giver is even going beyond their own appreciation to relay appreciation from the leadership team.
“Throughout the quarter, I’ve noticed you can be a riveting public speaker, particularly when you set your notes aside and speak from the heart. In my experience, building on this strength can open new doors and, if it’s an area you’d like to improve in, I just finished working with a coach to improve my own skills in this regard and I’d be happy to make the introduction. Our department can fund the expense from our professional development budget.”
Even if we took the word coach out of this one, this would be an example of coaching feedback. The feedback giver here highlights an area for improvement and pulls both from what they observed (the strength of speaking from the heart) and their own experience in going through some training to offer a way forward on how to improve.
To solidify our understanding of each feedback type, here are 5 examples for each:
Evaluative Feedback Example Number One: At the end of the quarter, you drove 10% fewer marketing leads than you forecasted. Notice here it’s evaluative because it’s comparing the number of leads to a forecasted number. Number Two, A direct report tells you: “You are the best leader I’ve ever worked with.” Again, while this can also be appreciative, we could consider this evaluative because there’s an element of comparison. Number three, You did not meet the qualifying standards to participate in the Boston Marathon. Number four, You moved to #4 on a Duolingo leaderboard. Notice here the mix of verbal and nonverbal types… climbing the rankings on a leaderboard is feedback about how you’re doing against others. And number five, Your manager says you are in the top 5% percent of all performers. Moving on to Appreciative Feedback, Example one: Your basketball team’s center points to you in gratitude after that great pass. Number two: a colleague recognizes you in a Slack channel for going above and beyond. Number three: your teacher praises you in class for always asking great questions. Number four: Upon returning from a dangerous military mission, one sergeant hugs another. And number five: a patron at the restaurant where you work leaves you a great tip. Notice the importance here of appreciation – it not only feels good and can increase morale, but it also reinforces that you are doing something well… which is an important part of positive feedback, of understanding our strengths and improvements. Moving to Coaching feedback example number one: “Here’s what worked for me when I was in a similar position,” a colleague begins. Number two: Your ballet teacher offers advice on how to improve your grand plié. Number three: “The last two projects you managed went over budget. It wasn’t by much, but here are some principles I always put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen.” Number four: Through active listening and asking great questions, one teammate guides another to finding their own solution to a challenge. Notice here that peers can serve as coaches for each other. The coaching feedback type doesn’t always necessarily need to come from someone more skilled or experienced. And number five, “It’s clear you have a good sense of your weaknesses, but I wonder if you have a similar sense of your strengths. Are you open to exploring how we can bring those to this situation?” Notice also how the coaching feedback type can vary – ranging from very specific feedback to conversational guidance that in some way helps the feedback recipient see new perspectives or make better decisions.
To wrap up our feedback definition section, I’d like to define one more term for you, it’s one we’ll mention several times throughout the course and explore in greater detail in a future module: Feedback Literacy.
Ultimately, what we’re trying to do in this course is improve our overall feedback literacy.
Feedback literacy is a term I use to refer to an individual’s understanding of and capacity to effectively give, receive, process, ask for, and use feedback. The term has research roots in the world of education, where it is primarily used to describe students’ ability to receive feedback. I’ve expanded its use, pulling it into the business world so we have a broad term to describe overall feedback capacities. Okay, let’s move onto the next step.
Hi there and welcome to section two of our introduction in the Constructive Feedback at Work course.
Why is Feedback Important?
As mentioned earlier, it’s far easier to commit to improving our feedback literacy when we have a deep sense of the underlying why, so let’s spend a bit of time here. Here are four quotes I pulled from various industries.
Beginning at the upper left: “A mistake to me equals… I’m getting feedback,” says trailblazing American tennis legend Billie Jean King. For her, a mistake wasn’t an opportunity for pity or self-loathing, it was a tremendous dose of feedback from which she could learn from to improve her craft. Moving to the right here: “As soon as possible, experts hungrily seek feedback on how they did.” This quote comes from MacArthur Genius recipient and psychology professor Angela Duckworth, author of an amazing book titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Professor Duckworth understands as well as anybody many of the mechanisms for how people improve their performance, and she found that those at the top of their fields pursued feedback, particularly negative feedback, at every chance they could and, from there, worked to process that feedback for the sake of their development. Professor Duckworth has also said a few other bold quotes on feedback, including: “We only learn with feedback” and another one: “I have never actually encountered a company that does a good enough job with feedback.”
At the bottom left, we have “The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn without it.” This comes from Steven Levitt, one of the world’s most influential economists. And on the bottom right we have “The most successful are the most coachable.” This comes from Tim Grover, renowned trainer of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. For Tim, being the “most coachable” means an absolute obsession to your craft, which means remaining radically open to the many signals of feedback that are necessary from moving, as he puts it in his book, from good to great to unstoppable.
So, team, here we have a rather interesting cross-section of folks who see feedback as not only important but as actually vital for performance improvement in their domains — whether it be tennis or economics or human improvement in just about anything. I could have pulled hundreds of other quotes from hundreds of other domains, all of which have the same flavor as the four quotes here.
When we pair this with how organizational leaders think about feedback – you may recall our mention of Slack earlier, a company that made feedback the epicenter of how it grew to become a $1 billion dollar company in just two years — a clear picture emerges about why feedback is so important.
But a clear and convincing picture isn’t necessarily what we need here. We need to at once hold what these industry experts say while excavating our own experiences… while finding the picture within ourselves. So, I ask you, has feedback played an important role in your life? What are you good at right now, and what allowed you to keep course-correcting so you could get good at it? Or maybe put directly in this moment, what do you want to be good at… and what steps are you taking to improve? For many of you, there must be something you are working hard to improve right now because here you are watching a course on what to me seems like the universal key to unlocking improvement. I think about my many years training and competing in martial arts, or stocking shelves at a grocery store, or writing poetry, or being a team leader… when I really quiet my mind and dig into those questions around improvement I see the role of feedback, in its many dimensions, all throughout it.
So while we all have different experiences, different nuances to our situations, it’s clear to me after discussing feedback with people from all walks of life and all over the world that feedback is one thread that links us. To me, it seems to be one of if not the most important aspect of our personal and professional development. And yet… who among us has received empowering and truly comprehensive feedback training at our workplace? If you’re one of the rare few who has, congratulations, may this course deepen what you learned. For the rest of you, may this course provide the valuable insights you deserve.
At this point, you likely see why feedback is important. But what if we add a few words to our question? What if our question becomes Why is feedback important… to learn about it? Do you still see the reason? While the decades of academic research show how important feedback is, it also reveals a complexity that is not evident from those quotes. We mentioned the work of John Hattie earlier, well here’s the full quote:
“The most powerful single influence on achievement is feedback but impacts are highly variable, which indicates the complexity of maximising benefits from feedback.”
Team — notice the section starting with “but” here. Hattie’s work revealed the variability and complexity of feedback. Just like great feedback, if adopted, can have a positive impact, bad feedback, if adopted, can have a negative impact. And, as we’ve touched on, the complexity of human-to-human communications means that feedback challenges us… sometimes we don’t always give great feedback, at other times we may receive great feedback but not adopt it. Or, we may need feedback but get nothing at all, hindering our future growth. Put all this together and I hope you’ll see both why feedback is important and why feedback is important to learn about. Let’s continue on this thread and learn about why feedback can be so challenging, and what we can do to address some of those challenges.
Hi there and welcome to:
Why Can Feedback Be Challenging?
The final section of our introduction in the Constructive Feedback at Work course. Let’s dive in.
So throughout the course we’ve said that feedback is challenging because human communication is challenging. While true, let’s dig into this a bit further. One unattributed quote that comes to mind may be one you are familiar with. There are variations of it, but it’s something like this: “The greatest barrier to communication is the illusion that it has been achieved.” Just as feedback is all around us, so too are the assumptions we make about communications. Even in a rather intimate 1-1 relationship, one person may feel they’ve shared something with absolute clarity at the exact moment the receiver of those words becomes more confused. And, from the perspective of the speaker, they may fall under the illusion that, indeed, communication has taken place and everything is clear – but the furrowed brows of the receiver tell a whole different story. This illusion, of course, spills over into feedback relationships – especially when you factor in the power dynamics that are often at play. For example, a more senior colleague often plays the more traditional role of feedback giver. In this dynamic, they may have built a certain confidence with their experience where they offer feedback matter-of-factly, as if there can’t possibly be any other way to do something.
Meanwhile, for example, the more junior feedback receiver may be thinking more about maintaining the stability of their job rather than improvement… and they smile and nod along at those matter-of-fact words… setting out to adopt them as soon as possible. And so here we have it – an illusion – one in which the giver thinks the wisdom they shared landed, and the receiver is ready to adopt it, and yet neither party has really unpacked it much. In essence, they were playing their roles like characters on a stage, rather than digging into the nuances of their communication and ensuring mutual understanding.
Another reason workplace feedback is challenging is there’s generally a lack of feedback training offered to employees. And, when there is training offered, it splits groups into camps… where people managers get training on giving feedback and individual contributors get feedback on how to receive it. To me, this is but one of many reasons why the quote from Angela Duckworth rings true.
But let’s explore these challenges a bit deeper… let’s make them a bit more real with a little brainstorm here.
Okay, so let’s think through some of the areas where challenges with feedback arise. What comes to mind first is delivery. So with delivery, let’s say we have maybe the actual words that are said… For example, consider the difference between the following: “In my experience, what has worked” vs. “I never would have done it that way… you need to.” And, as you likely picked up there, Tone plays a role here. Words can impact tone, but so can the voice inflection. A tone of genuine care and concern is likely to be received far differently than a tone of agitation and annoyance. And with delivery we also have various elements of the Environment, as in… where is this feedback being delivered? Is it in-person, is it in front of a group of peers, is it via video conferencing or a long email? All of these delivery modalities can create opportunities for different challenges to arise. And then we have elements of non-verbal communication. A feedback giver may be using all the right words, but if they are shaking their head in disgust or perceived to be multi-tasking then the feedback is likely to land differently for the receiver.
Another category of challenges arise through the actual content of the feedback. For example, is the feedback actually good feedback? In much of the academic literature on feedback, there’s an assumption that the feedback offered by the, usually more senior leader, is always great and effective feedback.
We know in reality that this isn’t always the case. And in addition to it being good feedback, is the feedback actually helpful? You’ll recall from our feedback definition that helpfulness is a core part of feedback, so while the feedback, say, on improving your public speaking skills may be good, if the receiver has communicated that they do not want to improve in this regard and see their career strengths as going in a different direction, then this good feedback isn’t actually helpful.
Another area where feedback challenges can occur has to do with Timing. For example, is the feedback receiver-centric… is it given at a good time for the receiver? If the feedback receiver just gave the greatest presentation of their life, rushing the stage immediately after they’ve finished to lay out all the ways they can improve next time might not be the best time. Similarly, waiting months after that presentation to give feedback may not be all that helpful either. And then there’s frequency. So while the feedback may be good, it could be that it’s coming at too great a frequency for the receiver to deal with. In my experience as a writer, I remember receiving rather relentless negative feedback from my professors. It reached a point where I felt hopeless. In this regard, the frequency of feedback was high and it felt especially high considering that the frequency of positive feedback I was receiving was exceptionally low. When one professor pulled me aside to give me some incredibly specific positive feedback, it set my career on a whole new path… all of a sudden I had the confidence and resilience to handle the high frequency of negative feedback.
Within timing we also have Life Events that arise. For example, it could be that you receive great feedback, but you are dealing with serious challenges in your personal life that cause you not to care one bit about the professional feedback. Another thought with timing has to do with the time dimensions of the actual feedback. For example, is it a Scheduled feedback session where both parties have a chance to prepare a bit, or is real-time feedback? Both have advantages, but both can also surface new challenges in the feedback relationship.
Another category could be… let’s call it Relational… meaning… what’s the actual relationship between the feedback giver and the feedback receiver? Have they built trust over time, trust to the point where the relationship feels psychologically safe? If not, each party may be stepping into the relationship with some tension and defensiveness that could create communication challenges. For more on psychological safety, check out Amy Edmondson’s book titled The Fearless Organization – I’ll link to it in the description. And in this relationship, what is the reporting structure? Power hierarchies can play a large role in how the feedback dynamic plays out. This makes it especially important for the colleague who has more power to ensure they are stepping into the feedback relationship with awareness and empathy for that dynamic. In relational, we also have intention. We’ve talked about the power of the giver’s intention, and that certainly applies here, but so too does the receiver’s intention. In a scheduled feedback session, for example, a receiver who steps in with an open mind and willingness to learn may have a far different experience than a receiver who is metaphorically ready to go to war. Lastly, with Relational, we have experience.
Two colleagues who have been effectively working closely together for decades may have built a relationship with feedback that allows them to approach it in the ways that work for them. The legendary investing partnership between Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger involved feedback mechanisms to keep each other in check. Over the decades, they may have built a certain ability to be direct and candid with each other in such a way that would be harmful for a brand new manager to try to use for a new colleague reporting to them. When it comes to feedback, you may be seeing a lot of content out there about the importance of candor – that quality of being open and honest and frank in communicating. While candor, of course, is important and plays a vital role, I also see some folks pushing it to an extreme and using it as an excuse for not needing to be thoughtful about their feedback… for not needing to build psychological safety or care about the context of the feedback relationship. In other words, for example, these folks may deliver harsh and even judgmental feedback to a junior colleague they’ve barely met… the feedback may land terribly, and, well, they don’t care, because they were embracing candor. This approach can limit the development of feedback literacy for ourselves and those with whom we have a working relationship.
Another category here could be the many elements of Personality that come into play. You can think about this as it relates to human relationships. Are there folks with certain personality traits that energize you or wear you down? These same dynamics are part of the feedback relationship. Regarding personality, two colleagues may approach conflict completely differently… with one colleague perhaps conflict-averse due to past experiences in their life, while the other tries to spin up conflict whenever there’s a chance to. These differences can obviously lead to various challenges. For example, the conflict-averse colleague may not be able to give others the feedback they need, while the conflict instigator colleague may overload folks with too much negative feedback. And then lastly, we have the general mindset of the feedback giver and receiver. How are both parties stepping into the relationship?
Stories of Kobe Bryant, for example, often highlight how he sought advice and feedback from the greatest basketball players who were still alive at the time he was playing. By all accounts, Kobe stepped into those relationships with curiosity and willingness to learn as a feedback receiver. On the other hand, we may have a feedback giver who wants to hoard their wisdom… they don’t want to give feedback to others because, as they see it, it will help others improve and therefore lower their stock, or level the playing field. As you can see, the mindset you adopt when stepping into a feedback relationship plays a large role here. And our final category could be the overall feedback literacy of those engaging in the feedback process. As discussed earlier, feedback literacy is the overall capacity to effectively give, receive, process, ask for, and use feedback… and, as I’ve come to see it, feedback literacy is built at the intersection of number one, intrapersonal skills… those skills within our own mind, such as self-awareness, open-mindedness and emotional intelligence, number two, interpersonal skills, those relational skills comprised of verbal and nonverbal communication which enable practices like active listening, and, number three, Experiential… meaning the learnings we’ve had throughout the various feedback experiences in our life. As you can see here, a lack of development in intra- or inter personal skills, or a lack of experience entering into healthy and effective feedback relationships, can lead to various issues in communication.
So, team, that’s a wrap on exploring the challenges that can arise with feedback, and that’s also a wrap on our introduction. In the following Modules, we’ll explore how we can work through the many feedback challenges to set ourselves up for success.
Hi there and welcome to Module 1 in our Constructive Feedback course. Let’s now work through:
How to Receive Feedback Effectively
I want to start this module by acknowledging that many of us feedback receivers have received some pretty condescending advice in this regard – mostly through the many popular articles out there telling us, essentially, that receiving feedback is mostly about smiling, saying thank you, and making eye contact. If you’re lucky, you may have found an article talking about active listening. In essence, these articles put the feedback giver on a pedestal and speak down to us feedback receivers. They make it appear as though being perceived as receiving feedback is more important than actually receiving feedback.
Unfortunately, this power dynamic also plays out across much of the academic literature about feedback. Consider this quote from a paper in 2020:
“There is a substantial literature on how to deliver feedback to change performance. However, to date no research has been conducted on teaching employees how to effectively receive feedback.”
Now, to be fair, there is research out there about receiving feedback, particularly in helping students do so, but the authors of this paper highlight a significant gap in the literature and I wanted you to be aware of it.
So, if you’ve received such condescending advice or otherwise just haven’t found practical insights to help you receive feedback, welcome. We’re going to take a far different approach here.
Now I know we’ve talked a lot about the perils of making assumptions in this course, but I’m going to assume that, generally, you know how to interact with other human beings. With that assumption made known, let’s now explore how to receive the feedback we need to improve as professionals.
In my experience, effectively receiving feedback and being able to sustain your ability to do so over a long period of time comes down to two parts.
The first is the ability to consciously cultivate curiosity and a growth mindset. There are several elements worth exploring here. First, let’s look at consciously cultivates. Team, this is about intentionally making an effort to do the inner work it takes to change your mind’s habits. As such, it means developing self-awareness. You can do this through various means, including journaling, meditation and even therapy, but you may find it quite difficult to begin to develop an inner world that better serves if you aren’t first taking the time to explore how it’s serving you right now.
Let’s now look at curiosity. Earlier in this course, we mentioned Tim Grover, Michael Jordan’s long-time trainer. Tim has a quote that has stuck with me for some time now. He said: “Interested people watch obsessed people change the world.” I’ll say that again: “Interested people watch obsessed people change the world.” Now, as with all quotes, this may not apply to every situation, but in my experience there’s a truth in there as it relates to receiving feedback. For example, how is it that the greatest artists and musicians and mathematicians and scientists and writers and athletes… how is that the folks who have reached greatness in their field keep working on their craft day in and day out… which is often what it takes to be great? One might say, as Tim’s quote does, that they are obsessed. But what’s behind that obsession? If you peel that layer back, you’ll find a lot of things… I mean, a lot of things, but very often one of them is relentless curiosity. It’s this curiosity that allows us to care about the small details, yes, one might say to sweat the details… rather than only look at the larger picture. In this sense, those considered the greats of their domain, whether it’s a sushi chef or a fashion designer, tend to see their craft as a mosaic in which they are fascinated and curious by every piece that goes into it. So, as feedback receivers, we can build a similar mindset. We can set out on this path, we might ask: What is it that we want to improve in? And then a follow up question would be: If what we want to improve in were a mosaic, how many of the pieces that go into it are we aware of? And, of the pieces we know, how are we working to improve in them?
Lastly, let’s look at growth mindset. As I covered in a video on the 5 Feedback Myths, many variables come into play when we receive feedback… and one of them has to do with whether we are more inclined to have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. We know from the work of Professor Carol Dweck (you’ll find a link to her book titled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in the description) that those of us with a fixed mindset, that is those of us who are inclined to believe that our intelligence and abilities are fixed, tend to experience receiving feedback as if we failed a critical test. After all, if we believe our qualities are fixed we will likely work hard to portray them as perfect and feedback rattles this sense of perfection – often causing us feedback receivers to become defensive, even ignore great feedback, and generally feel pretty terrible. Those with a growth mindset, that is those who are inclined to see their intelligence and abilities as qualities that by their nature can be improved through effort, tend to experience receiving feedback as a valuable and even exciting opportunity to grow. Billie Jean King’s quote from earlier in the course, about how she sees every mistake as feedback, is a great example of a growth mindset. As with curiosity, for many of us, it takes work to shift our mind into this new way of being.
The second part to effectively receiving feedback is about applying these qualities to serve a continuous pursuit of personal and professional development. We can spend all the time in the world shifting our mind’s habits to better serve us, and this indeed can have a host of benefits, but we also need to bring these mindset shifts out into the world and into our relationships. For the late Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, this meant going to what he called GOAT mountain (with GOAT standing for Greatest of All Time). Kobe approached six all-time great basketball players, and sought feedback about how to improve. He picked their brain about every minute detail of the game, from their mindset to what they ate. In other words, Kobe had cultivated a growth mindset and then put a disciplined plan in place for how to use this mindset to go around collecting the most constructive feedback he could find.
So if we were to label these two parts of receiving feedback, it might look like this… with the first part being about Mindset and the second about Action.
The next point I want to highlight here has to do with where feedback comes from.
Too often, I see folks who are early in their journey of taking feedback seriously, seem to think it only comes from their manager. With this lens, it’s easy to become a passive feedback receiver, which is exactly the opposite of what we want. So, first up, you can receive feedback from yourself. You may have noticed your mind can be incessant about calling attention to areas where you aren’t good enough or don’t stack up to others. Again, through cultivating self-awareness and mindfulness, you can begin to leverage this self-feedback for your benefit… rather than letting it spiral out of control into harsh and unhelpful looping criticism. Additionally, you can receive feedback from your body. We tend to think the mind is the only place wisdom can arise, but our body is a teacher. In one obvious example, it’s not our mind that tells us there’s something off about how we are sitting at work… it’s our body, often through an ache in the neck or back. We’ll explore the body in a bit more detail later in the course.
And second, you can receive feedback from others. But I want you to expand your sense of what others means here. Others can be your manager, but it can also be any of your colleagues, or your friends and family members, or automated systems and bots. Others simply means… from anyone or anything outside of yourself. And keep in mind that others doesn’t necessarily mean someone says something to you. You can seek feedback from others through what’s called indirect feedback-seeking… which simply means observing some qualities in others, comparing that to your own, and using that comparison as a point of feedback for how you might be able to improve.
So now that you have a sense of the mindset and the need for action as a feedback receiver, and where feedback comes from, let’s ensure you are looking out for the right things. In other words, let’s ensure you have a sense of what effective feedback typically looks like.
At a high-level, feedback is most effective when it takes place within a relationship that feels psychologically safe. Psychologically safety comes from the work of Amy Edmondson, and in a team environment it essentially means all members of the team have a shared sense that it’s safe to ask questions, bring up concerns, disagree, put forth ideas, and even admit mistakes. In other words, these important forms of communication have not just a place but a valued place, and they aren’t met with negative consequences. It takes a lot of work to build such an environment for feedback, and we’ll cover some of that in Module 6. Feedback is also typically effective when the mindsets of the feedback giver and the feedback receiver are positive and aligned… as in, both parties are stepping into the relationship with respect and empathy for each other, with a pure intention, and with the goal of development. As you can likely guess, effective feedback is specific and constructive, not just a call-out. As one article in Harvard Business Review puts it: “Telling people they are missing the mark is not the same as helping them hit the mark.” What you’re looking for in effective feedback is not overly vague statements like “Great work” or even “you need to improve your project management skills,” but the next level that can come after these statements, something like, “Here are a few things I loved about your latest effort” or “The latest projects you’ve been working on missed our deadlines. Is there anything I can do to help? How would you recommend we improve in this regard?” And, as we will cover in future Modules, feedback is most effective when the receiver has time to process and integrate it into their life or workflow.
Here’s a way, inspired by Edmondson’s work, to visualize when feedback coming your way might be the most effective kind.
We have Helpfulness on one axis and Empathy on another… typically the best feedback is upper right… it’s very helpful and it’s delivered by a person who can truly understand what the receiver needs and is sensitive to how the receiver may need feedback to be delivered. As you see from the “Maybe Learning Zone,” learning can still happen with feedback that isn’t delivered from that place of empathy, but it can just as likely be disregarded due to the poor delivery or lack of trust that may arise based on how it was delivered. A related point to note here: a 2017 study showed that leaders who scored higher on empathy tests were better at giving constructive feedback… but get this… a 2022 study showed that their own performance was less effective after delivering that feedback because doing so took an emotional toll on them. You’ll also notice here that feedback that isn’t very helpful and isn’t delivered with empathy is more likely to cause anxiety than any kind of professional development, and that feedback that is pure empathy without much helpfulness… as can often be the case with feedback givers who are conflict-averse… isn’t likely to achieve anything great as it will mostly be keeping things comfortable and as they are.
Okay, let’s switch gears a bit and think about being in the moment of receiving constructive feedback. What can you do? How can you best handle that moment? Should you smile and say thank you and all that? Well, here’s how I see it.
The first thing you should do is bring attention to your breath. Receiving feedback can stir emotions. Coming back to our breath – before, during, and after receiving feedback can help us receive it with grace and feel grateful for the gift (even if it’s a gift we may choose not to use). The second thing you can do is feel into your Best Self. You know who that person is. Bring them out. Don’t worry about smiling or performing certain acts, just consciously bring your best self to the experience and you will know what to do… and you’ll likely leave the conversation feeling far better about how you showed up. Lastly, and sort of a bonus tip here: when feedback comes out of nowhere it can be helpful to have what I call a feedback fallback phrase. This is a phrase you can use after you’ve received feedback you need time to process. If you receive feedback about fixing a typo, for example, you don’t really need a fallback phrase. A simple “Thank you for catching that. I’ll make the edit as soon as possible” will suffice. But for feedback that feels challenging, perhaps because it brought forth your defensiveness or because you aren’t sure you agree with it — it can be helpful to have a phrase that quickly acknowledges receipt of the feedback, grants you space to process, and doesn’t immediately agree or disagree with the feedback. Something I’ve used in the past is: “Got it. I hear what you’re saying and I’ll get back to you on that.”
As you approach your journey of receiving feedback, it can be helpful to use what I call the 4As of receiving feedback.
The first A is for Aspire, this is a reminder to keep aspiring by centering your development through curiosity and a growth mindset. If you feel yourself starting to stagnate or otherwise get complacent, come back to this one. The next A is for Active. This is about pairing your receiver’s mindset work with Action and it’s also about practicing Active listening in the moment when you are receiving feedback. If something isn’t clear to you, ask questions about it. One type of active listening you can practice is called reflective listening… where you restate in your own words what you think the feedback giver means. By active listening you are taking a proactive role in ensuring you fully understand the feedback you just received.
The third A, because it’s that important, is Ask. This is a reminder to be a constant feedback seeker, to go get what you need. Ask for clarity, ask for what you think you need, and put yourself in a position to get what you don’t yet know you need.
And, lastly, we have Accept. Consider this a reminder to eventually accept what you received so you can move on. To accept doesn’t necessarily mean to adopt the feedback, it just means you’ve reached what seems like a final level of clarity and you are now ready to move it to the processing phase – which we will cover in the next module. See you there.
Hi there and welcome to Module 2 in our Constructive Feedback course.
How to Process Feedback
Processing feedback happens as we receive feedback and is the period after where we determine what to do with it. If you’ve received challenging feedback, this processing step is especially important. In this module, we will explore and expand upon my article at Harvard Business Review titled The Right Way to Process Feedback. While I’m not sure of the editorial choice of referring to the way I’ve come up with as the “right” way, you might think of right as meaning appropriate… as in the right tool for the job. The article resonated with thousands of leaders from seemingly every sector — from fighter pilots and yoga instructors to senior business executives and academics… and since the article’s publication I’ve seen many folks now speak to the three elements of feedback: giving, receiving, and, now, processing.
Before we dive in, and to keep centering our theme of understanding the why behind feedback, why did an article on processing feedback resonate with so many people from so many different industries? I think this is partly because the article brought to the main stage a third and critical layer to our understanding of feedback. As we’ve covered, there is no shortage of content out there about how to give feedback and receive feedback, but mentions of processing feedback rarely get any attention let alone featured in this way. Additionally, despite my searching, major business publications like Harvard Business Review haven’t highlighted a process for processing feedback until this piece. This is all the more important because as, Angela Duckworth said, “The active processing of this feedback is as essential as its immediacy.” In other words, it’s just as important to be able to process feedback as it is to receive feedback in a timely manner.
As I shared in this video, my thinking about processing feedback arose not from some intellectual exercise but because I was really struggling with feedback I had received from my former manager. Long story short, it was stressing me out beyond belief – to the point where I couldn’t sleep and felt sick to my stomach. As I wrestled with this feedback and allowed it to surface during my meditation practice, I was able to bring awareness to the parts of my thinking that were allowing me to gain some insight into it. This eventually became the six Ps of processing feedback, which I wrote about in the article. So let’s explore each of these.
The first is Poise. So poise is about holding the feedback you received with neutrality and grace – both in the moment you receive it and thereafter. For anybody who has received constructive feedback that maybe touched on a sore spot, this is easier said than done. Many of us tie some of our personal identity to our work, our performance, and so getting constructive feedback, even if it’s delivered well, can feel like a personal attack and make us want to react. But here, neutrality and grace work in tandem to protect you.
What does this mean in practice? Step into a feedback session with neutrality — neither enthusiastically agreeing with the feedback nor forcefully rejecting it. You might recall our Feedback Fallback Phrase from the previous module. What this phrase did was allow us to respond to the feedback but do so without either empathically agreeing or disagreeing with it, in other words, with the neutrality we are talking about here. This approach, in my experience, allows me to be a better listener instead of simply trying to hear the other person with an intent to respond. Also, because I tend to be a bit conflict-averse, this approach usually stops me from wanting to please by showing my agreement (even before I’ve fully understood).
But what if you feel a sense of agreement or disagreement arising within you? That’s fine and natural, but my advice in that moment is to bring awareness to what you’re feeling. There’s no need to act on it yet. If you have questions about the feedback, ask them — but try to do so from that neutral position.
One way to do this is through what’s called reflective listening or mirroring, an important practice we touched on in the previous module. Basically you restate what the feedback provider said but in a slightly different way. For example, if they say, “You need to get better at delegating tasks more effectively,” you might ask something like: “Okay, what I hear you saying is that you think I’m getting stuck in the weeds of work my team could be doing and that this is limiting my time to think strategically. Is that correct?”
The second P is about Process. Avoidance, negative mulling, and immediate acceptance of the feedback usually only prolong processing it and can lead to the feedback’s potential usefulness disintegrating or being held with disdain. This can turn even great feedback into a kind of hardened Play-Doh that is tough to work with.
Processing feedback is about metabolizing it. This demands time, sometimes even a week or more depending on the content and nature of the feedback you received, and, in my experience, doesn’t happen in the moment you receive it. I believe it’s critical to let feedback run through both your body and your mind. That means feeling your feelings and investigating why you may be feeling them. Why is running it through your body important? As books like The Body Keeps the Score have made apparent, our bodies contain an ancient wisdom we fail to gain access to if we don’t listen to it.
In the example I shared around the challenging feedback from my manager, I tapped into my body by lying flat on the floor, arms and legs extended. This is also known as savasana, or the corpse pose in yoga, and it can help bring about a state of awareness and relaxation that calms the nervous system. From that state, I brought to mind the feedback I received. I felt my temples pulse and my fingers start to move from open to more closed, almost beginning to form a fist. It was fascinating. As I observed my body, without judgment and without trying to change how it was expressing itself, I realized why this feedback was so challenging… it actually made me feel like my core values were under attack… core values instilled in me by my mother when I was a young boy. I was literally willing to fight to hold onto these values, and the feedback I received was telling me to do the opposite. So, the next time you get feedback and are struggling with it… the most helpful thing you can do might just be to lie down and bring mindful awareness to what happens next. What might your body be trying to tell you? Notice if your jaw, fingers, or stomach begin to contract. Notice any changes in your breath and bring attention to those changes.
Keep an open mind and know that tension may not equate to disagreement with the feedback. You may be feeling tense simply because the feedback is spot-on, and you’re feeling a bit embarrassed that you didn’t see it for yourself. The goal is to begin working on your feedback devoid of judgment and with an awareness of and gentle investigation of the emotions it may be bringing to the surface. One final note: if you are at all interested in this type of body-based work, I’d recommend checking out a therapeutic approach called Somatic Experiencing. I’ve worked with a therapist trained in this approach and it dramatically improved my life.
The third P is about Positionality. This is where we consider the feedback provider’s motives, position, and intent. When I asked my LinkedIn connections for advice on how they process feedback, Eleanor Stribling, a group product manager, said: “We often think of feedback like a mirror on our behavior, but it’s primarily reflecting the needs, values and impressions of the person giving it.” So you might ask yourself: Do you believe the feedback giver genuinely wants to help you? Do you trust them? Gaining a better understanding of where the feedback provider is coming from and how you feel about them will help you develop the objective mindset necessary to work with potential dissonance… like great feedback coming from someone you don’t trust. Positionality can go as deep as you find valuable to take it. For example, it could be helpful to understand where the feedback provider is positioned in the organization’s hierarchy and where they may be feeling pressures. And, although controversial, it could also be helpful to understand your own and their positionality in terms of social identities, such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, ability, and location. Feedback research has pointed to a few interesting insights, such as how Black women are nine times more likely to receive non-actionable feedback at work, and that women are 20% less likely to receive actionable feedback than men. So positionality as it relates to our social identities matters here. Whether we want it to or not… it literally impacts the quality of the feedback we get and therefore our professional development and potentially our career progression.
The fourth P is Percolate. This is about running the feedback you received through a simple decision tree — a method to bring consistency and structure to your decision-making process. If you feel all over the place in your thinking, the visual format of a decision tree can help you remain focused as you logically progress through a few critical questions. Here’s what mine looked like. You’ll see I started with: Do I trust the motives of the person who delivered the feedback. After the body work, it was clear that this was very important to me. Regardless of your answer, you can move to another important question: Does the feedback align to your personal values and professional goals. Note: there are actually two important parts to that question. It will take some deep thinking to understand what your values are and what your professional goals are. Most of the more junior folks I’ve worked with have a great sense of their values, but aren’t quite sure of their professional goals. If that’s the case for you, that’s totally fine… in your case, I’d recommend leading this question with a focus on your values and go from there… making sure that, at some point, you keep thinking through your professional goals. From there, the decision tree continues, this time split out into a few scenarios. If No to any part of the previous question was the answer, I highly recommend sharing the feedback you received with a trusted colleague or mentor… someone who sees you and can be real with you. I was fortunate enough to have a person like this in my workplace, and when I shared the feedback with them their response validated everything I had been feeling. This validation meant the world to me and, ultimately, was the final signal I needed to discard the feedback entirely. If your answer was Yes, you trust the feedback giver but No, the feedback doesn’t align with your values or goals, I still recommend discussing it with others including, if it feels safe to do so, with the original feedback provider. This step may help you and your giver reach a deeper level of understanding or even refine the feedback so it works better for you.
The next P, our 5th step here, is Proceed. Keep in mind that if adopting the feedback is the way, proceeding to adopt it all at once might not be the best way. For example, let’s say the feedback you received and chose to implement involves being more assertive in meetings. Let’s say you’ve got six meetings lined up for the day. Rather than going all-in and showcasing this new assertive side of yourself, I’d recommend the “drip” approach — perhaps practicing being more assertive during one meeting that day which is on a topic where you have clear and informed opinions. You can then journal or otherwise take time to reflect on how they went, and proceed from there.
Think of proceed as your opportunity to practice. Developing expertise of a new skill and forming a habit is more likely to happen with consistent practice over a long period rather than jamming six practice sessions into one day. This slower approach can be especially helpful when the feedback you received was constructive but didn’t necessarily come with a guide for how to incorporate it.
And our final P is Perspective. Perspective can be about asking those who you respect and who have seen your new post-feedback performance what they think of it to ensure there isn’t a mismatch between how we perceive our performance and how it’s landing for others. If the colleague you ask doesn’t know it’s something you’ve been working on, you can frame the question like: “I’ve been working on X. Have you noticed any performance changes in this regard?” If the person does know, you might ask something like: “As you know, I’m working on X. Can you let me know if and when you see improvements in this regard?”
Regarding perspective, I’d also recommend journaling your experience so that you understand how it’s landing with others and how it feels to you. Earlier, I mentioned practicing during one of your six meetings for the day. In this example, I want to highlight again how helpful it can be to reflect on how that practice went. If your attempt to be more assertive was exhausting because you’re an introvert, capture that in your journal. Over time, you may start to notice patterns and gain a better perspective on how to improve in the ways you want while protecting your energy to stay motivated for the long haul. Lastly, with perspective, I recommend casting your gaze wide so you are observing others who seem to be doing great in the area you are trying to improve in. When we commit to improving in something, whatever that something is, it can be helpful to see what a future state might look like.
Although I prefer to use the order outlined here — poise, process, positionality, percolate, proceed, and perspective — it’s also possible to pursue the six Ps in a different order. You may, for example, already have a sense of the change you want to make. In this case, you could begin directly at percolate, or even proceed, and progress from there.
Lastly, have some fun with this! Not all professional growth must be paired with a formula, but I’ve found it can be a joy to take something like implementing received feedback and looking back over time at how you’ve practiced, how the practice felt, and what new perspectives you’ve gathered along the way.
So that’s a wrap on Module 2, team. I’ll see you over at Module 3.
Hi there and welcome to Module 3 in our Constructive Feedback course. Now that we’ve received and processed our feedback, it’s time to think about how we use it.
How to Use Feedback
At this point in the course, we’ve developed an understanding of what feedback is and why it’s important, and we’ve also discussed a few of the challenges that can arise and how to mitigate some of those challenges. From there, we started to build the pieces of a kind of constructive feedback assembly line. We learned how to receive constructive feedback, including feedback that may be especially challenging to us. But it was here where we realized that receiving challenging feedback does not necessarily mean making a decision about it. We split out the receiving of feedback from our next step, processing it.
So let’s say we’ve used some of the tools in Module 2 to effectively process that feedback. And, in leveraging the 6Ps and the feedback decision tree, let’s say we’ve now decided that we are going to adopt the feedback, that is, we’ve decided that we can grow professionally if we adopt it. It’s now time to integrate it into our work life. But, as with all parts of this course, it’s worth being strategic here. As feedback researchers have made clear, feedback is perhaps the most powerful lever for our professional growth, but the results can vary due to its complexity. Fortunately, the work you’ve done up to this point by receiving and processing has served as a filtering mechanism, and you may find that in some ways actually using the feedback is the easiest part. As such, this module will be a little shorter than the others as we’ll walk through a framework to help us use the feedback. As we progress through the framework, you might want to think about an example of feedback you received so you can see how it plays out. Or, if nothing arises, let’s assume you received feedback about improving your public speaking skills. I’ll use this example as we go.
So our growth model begins with G, with G standing for Game Plan. Just as you’ve carefully and mindfully received and processed the feedback, now it’s time to do the same with using it. Creating a game plan has several meanings. First, it’s about building out a strategy for how you’re going to adopt this feedback. You might set a SMART goal here, with SMART standing for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. So a SMART goal could be that you want to improve your public speaking skills over the next 6 months. Specifically, perhaps you could work both on handling the anxiety you feel when you take the stage and reading less from your presentation slides. Part of your plan to get some reps could be to join a Toastmasters group. Well, this could provide a great opportunity for you to also get Measurable results… perhaps you even get truly obsessed with it and begin tracking your heart rate as you stand in front of a crowd. Or, with recordings, you might measure how often you turn to your slides, with the measurable goal of doing so less frequently. Are these results achievable, I’d say so. You are looking to make incremental improvements here, not give a TED Talk that reaches 10 million views. Does this game plan feel relevant? It sure does, you’ve found a way outside of work to get some reps in. Another positive step in this direction, when you feel ready, is to discover ways to get some reps in while in the context of your work environment. And, lastly, this game plan you’ve set is Time-Bound… with your goal being to improve within 6 months. The other meaning to Game Plan is to think of this as though it’s a game… meaning, try to have some fun and bring some joy to it. While performance improvement often focuses extensively on grit and discipline and willpower and other modes of determination… joy can be a secret sauce that fuels all of them. As we mentioned in previous parts of this course, if you can pair curiosity and, indeed, joy, with grit… you will be well on your way to improving in whatever it is you are doing.
Next we move to R, with R standing for Reflect. As you progress, it will be important to reflect on how you’re progressing. You may have days when you feel you made leaps and bounds of progress, whereas other days may feel like two steps back. Over time, through reflection – whether through journaling or some other means – you’ll begin to see patterns that can both help ensure you are staying on a path to growth and inspire you by showing you how even the small moments of progress all add up. From there we can move to O, with O standing for Ownership. Throughout the process of adopting challenging constructive feedback, it’s important for you to keep in mind that this journey is yours to own. Yes, the feedback may have come from someone else, but you are not necessarily adopting it for them. This is for you. You own it. You own the journey of it. Seeing yourself as the owner can allow you to tend to your growth with more care and more consistency. Key to ownership, as well, is getting feedback from others about how you are doing. If you didn’t already, you now know the importance of feedback for professional growth, so part of your ownership can be to get feedback about how you are incorporating this feedback.
We then move to W, with W standing for Wonder. If the Game of Game Plan didn’t resonate with you, here’s to Wonder serving that purpose. At every step along the way, try to see your path to improvement with a beginner’s mind, with a sense of wonder. Wonder is what allows some of the world’s greatest to remain fascinated by the details of their craft, details that many others may overlook, details that, if developed, can catapult growth. In our public speaking example, you may find that intentionally smiling before you take the stage seems to lighten your posture and relax you. Rather than take that for granted, you can have a sense of wonder about it. How incredible is this development? You may have struggled with a sick feeling in your stomach every time you’ve ever taken the stage and yet now, simply by smiling, that sense of nausea fades to the background. Bring a sense of wonder to that and you may find it allows you to more easily remember and incorporate these new skills into your repertoire. Our next letter is T, with T standing for Test. At various points along the way, it can be helpful to Test your progress, perhaps in new environments. To continue with our public speaking example, let’s say your confidence is growing at Toastmasters.
A new test for you might be to ask your manager if there might be any internal speaking opportunities in the coming weeks, or if she might be supportive of you applying to speak at an upcoming industry event. Again, as you progress here, you’ll be able to determine which test feels right for you. And lastly, we have H, with H standing for Habit. Learning about all the public speaking skills in the world won’t necessarily lead to you being a better public speaker. However, turning a few critical skills into a habit could create some remarkable results. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes, “All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger.” In my experience, it isn’t until the constructive feedback I’ve adopted becomes a new habit – a habit I no longer even have to think about – that I can begin to think about focusing on working with some new feedback I’ve received. So, team, that’s the GROWTH model for using feedback. Similar to the quote from Billie Jean King we talked about earlier in the course, you might think of Feedback equalling Growth as a way to remember both the importance of feedback and our model here. I’ll see you over at Module 4.
Hi there and welcome to Module 4 in our Constructive Feedback course. In this module we’ll look at:
How To Give Feedback
If you’ve made it this far in the course, you’ve already improved your ability to give feedback. As mentioned throughout our time together, there’s significant overlap across the various feedback dimensions. For example, by understanding what feedback is, why it’s important, where we get challenged by it, how to receive it, how to process it, and how to use it – all areas we’ve covered so far – you’ll be in a far better position to give great feedback to others. If you recall, we kicked off our modules with Receiving Feedback for precisely this reason… in many ways, learning how to receive serves as the foundation for how we can give. We will now build on that foundation, occasionally circling back to a few topics we’ve covered to ensure we understand them.
Let’s remind ourselves of the feedback definition now:
Feedback is a response to a person’s activity with the purpose of helping them adjust to become more effective. Feedback comes in various forms, including evaluative (how you did and where you are), appreciative (how you are valued and recognized), and coaching (how you can improve).
And let’s recall just how challenging giving feedback can be. This Harvard Business Article highlights that 44% of managers say giving feedback was stressful or difficult, 21% avoid giving constructive feedback altogether, and a whopping 37% even avoid giving positive feedback, which research has proven is often more effective than negative feedback.
And let’s also recall the 2-year study published in Fortune which found three insights:
Number 1: Employees who don’t get clear feedback quit. Let me repeat this one: Employees who do not get clear feedback quit. So keep in mind here that, despite what you may think, studies point to employees actually wanting your feedback… so long as it is clear, comes from a good place, and they respect where you are coming from with it. For example, I am no position to give feedback to Steph Curry on how to shoot a basketball. So it’s critical here to check your ego at the door… you don’t need to give feedback to someone just because you think it’s your role to do so… you should only give it when you think you have a gift to offer.
Number 2: Not all feedback is equally effective. For example, as a giver to a far more junior direct report, you may be providing task-specific feedback, but not feedback that may be helpful for helping them navigate their career. Similarly, you may be providing plenty of negative feedback, but the primary challenge holding your direct report back is that they don’t have a sense of their strengths… which you can help change by delivering highly-specific positive feedback. Lastly, I’d argue here that the most effective feedback comes from a giver who both cares a great deal about the receiver’s development and has had enough deep 1-1 conversations with the receiver to have a sense of what they want.
And Number 3: High-quality feedback isn’t distributed equally. We covered this in earlier modules, but it’s important to keep positionality in mind here. The research shows that women tend to get far less helpful constructive feedback than men, and black women in particular get even less. This impacts their professional development, their ability to receive promotions, and, generally, their overall career. So as a feedback giver, you have a responsibility to understand both systemic biases and your individual biases. We don’t have time to cover this massive topic here, but a good start is to begin learning about both social identities and biases that humans in general contain, and doing the inner work of excavating your own biases.
Lastly, let’s also remind ourselves of when feedback is effective. It’s effective when the setting it takes place in feels psychologically safe. And we know that psychologically safety takes time to build. This is about ensuring each party feels heard, feels valued, and feels safe enough to share their thoughts, their ideas, and even their disagreements and mistakes without fear of negative consequences. So, perhaps your number one job as a feedback giver, if possible, is to put the work in to build this kind of relationship. Or, at the least, to try to objectively see if this description of psychological safety applies to your team. In my experience, this type of culture doesn’t just arise… it’s built intentionally by mindful leaders. If you haven’t started yet, begin now. If you don’t know where to begin, get Amy Edmondson’s book immediately – the link is in the description. We know that the feedback relationship can also be effective when the mindsets of the feedback giver and the feedback receiver are positive and aligned… which means the foundation here is built on trust and a shared goal of improvement. Lastly, we know that feedback can be effective when it goes beyond calling out a past behavior… in fact, based on our definition, that actually isn’t even feedback. So the kind of feedback we’re talking about is by its nature constructive, that is… it’s pointing to a past behavior but also lighting a torch to help point towards future improvement.
As we highlighted earlier, “Telling people they are missing the mark is not the same as helping them hit the mark.” And, lastly, we know feedback has a chance to be effective when the feedback giver grants the receiver time to process it and even helps them integrate it into their workflow. If you are a giver who has just delivered what may be very challenging feedback for the receiver to hear – and it takes empathy to recognize this – a great next move will be to ensure you and the receiver are on the same page about what it means… and then grant them some space to make sense of it. Additionally, while the actual feedback conversation is important, perhaps just as important is how the feedback giver checks in or otherwise follows up to see if they can do anything to help the receiver make progress on it. And, as we covered, we know feedback is most effective when it falls within the Learning Zone of our matrix here. Remember to consider the axis… if the feedback is delivered with true empathy for the receiver and with a high degree of helpfulness, there’s a far better chance it will land well for the receiver and therefore have a chance to positively impact their professional development.
One way to build or at least center this sense of empathy, and recognize the important role you play as a feedback giver, is to think about an employee hierarchy of needs. There are many variations out there, but here’s how I often think of it. At the bottom, the base for most of us, is the need for survival, for a paycheck. After that it may be a sense of security, security that the paycheck will be there next week but also a sense of security by way of the culture – of how the employee feels and is treated within it. Next is a sense of belonging… again, belonging to that workplace culture, a culture that in many ways can be shaped by the way feedback is given. Next is a sense of growth and importance, again… two elements that can be impacted by the feedback relationship. And, lastly, at the top of the pyramid, we have growth and a sense of fulfillment… yet another area that can be impacted by feedback experiences. Feedback givers can certainly have an impact on the top 4 parts of this employee hierarchy of needs pyramid… which makes sense, especially considering that Fortune article which highlighted the role feedback plays in whether employees stay or leave their organization.
Okay, do you have a good grasp of all that? If so, here’s a big picture way to think about giving constructive feedback that has impact.
This tip is about giving feedback that has an ongoing impact on someone’s life or professional development. Giving feedback is a gift. Yes, I know that phrase is often about receiving feedback — but think about it. As a feedback giver, you have the immense honor of shaping the direction of a person’s improvement, even their entire career.
As that last part should have suggested, giving feedback is also an immense responsibility. As such, it can be helpful, especially when preparing to give feedback in a planned feedback session, to think into the future about not only how you hope this feedback will land but also what the feedback receiver may be able to do with it. I’ll repeat: feedback receiver.
So I think about this as Impact After Receipt (IAR). It’s a concept I came up with that is inspired by the National Football League metric of Yards After Catch (YAC). As it sounds, this metric is about how many yards a football receiver gets after they’ve caught the pass.
While it can be easy to think about this as purely the receiver’s speed or skill in outmaneuvering those trying to make a tackle, many other elements are at work here. One element involves the quarterback, who had to throw a pass in such a way that the receiver has a chance to do something with it. Often, this means the pass was thrown not to where the receiver is but to some combination of where they are going and where they might be able to go. Think about it… which receiver is likely to get more yards after the catch, this receiver that needs to dive towards the ground just to make the catch… or this one, who is able to make the catch in stride and with an open field ahead of them?
So think about that the next time you step into an important feedback conversation. Ask yourself: What might the Impact After Receipt be of this one? Depending on context and many other factors, not all feedback you give needs to have a high IAR, but as a feedback giver you should try to bring awareness to those moments when you have the chance for IAR.
You might think to yourself:
If, years from now, the feedback receiver were to take some kind of Likert scale based on what I’m about to share, how might they respond to the following question?
The feedback I received today positively shaped my professional development.
Ultimately, thinking about Impact After Receipt is an act of care. It helps us bring greater thoughtfulness to how we give. After all, for feedback to be a great gift for the receiver, it should be a gift that provides ongoing value.
Next, let’s talk about the profound role of positive feedback. As mentioned earlier, a whopping 37% of managers studied in one survey do not give positive feedback… despite the rather overwhelming amount of research on how doing so not only improves employee morale and performance, but helps point out their strengths so they can double-down on them. In my video on taking an evidence-based approach to debunking five feedback myths, I opened by debunking the myth that positive feedback is not helpful. To reiterate what I said over there, positive feedback positively impacts so many lives and entire work cultures could immediately and dramatically improve if leaders started giving more of it. Okay, so this myth has kind of a single root with several branches coming off it. The root is some ignorance around positive feedback’s ability to highlight a gap. One branch, as mentioned in that Harvard Business Review article, is that many managers believe positive feedback is optional.
As the authors put it, “We can only conclude that managers feel that it’s their job to tell their direct reports bad news and correct them when they make a mistake, but that taking time to provide positive feedback is optional.” They continue on to say: “We think this is a mistake. Our research suggests that colleagues place a great deal of emphasis on receiving positive feedback and that it colors their relationship with one another even more than does negative feedback.” In my own article at HBR I wrote about how I’d spent years as an undergraduate writing student getting my papers filled with negative feedback in red pen. The feedback taught me plenty about my weaknesses – it highlighted those gaps – but I rarely received specific feedback that showed me my strengths.
And if you think about it, not knowing your strengths is also a vital gap to address, in many cases it’s actually far more important than shoring up your weaknesses. So when one professor gave me specific positive feedback by showing me an example of something I did exceptionally well – and then he actually compared it to what authors that I admire had done – it not only highlighted a gap… it also improved my confidence to the point that I pursued writing as a career.
The academic research on positive feedback is vast. This 2020 piece here in Frontiers in Psychology opens with a description about how “Positive feedback has been found not only to enhance performance, and here they cite the classic 1996 work from Kluger and DeNisi, but also to be an efficient intervention to manipulate self-efficacy. So, team, what that last part essentially means is that when someone receives positive feedback it has longer term downstream impact such as protecting that person from stress and also improving their self-confidence. The paper then goes on to highlight its own study with a sample of 102 participants in which the results suggest something I find completely fascinating: positive feedback may even increase flow state – that ability of people to be fully focused on a single activity. This could be because as positive feedback can both improve confidence and alleviate stress it allows the receiver of it to generally feel good about their work and to less frequently be pulled out of flow state due to their inner critic or other self-doubting mechanisms. Put all that together and the case to give feedback, particularly specific positive feedback, becomes quite strong. It really can do everything from helping improve employee satisfaction and development to promoting a culture of appreciation, which many employees, arguably most, are looking for.
Speaking of showing appreciation, I’d like to pause there for a moment because this is kind of another branch off the root. So you may have seen this – a person puts their tough card on the table. And by that I mean they’ve equated positive feedback, even appreciation, with weakness and they want you to know that they can take whatever harsh feedback you can serve up. At some point in your career as a feedback giver, you’ll likely have a colleague or two who brings this kind of mindset.
So coupled with this – that person often also usually holds kind of an erroneous notion that positive feedback is nothing but empty fluff, you may have even heard them say that. Again, our root here is the ignorance around just how impactful positive feedback can be, and maybe even what it is. Yes it can be meaningless and insincere fluff if it’s simply a comment like good job, right. But truly effective positive feedback is specific; it’s something like this: “Hey I appreciated the way you steered our team discussion out of the weeds and back to gaining a better understanding of our customer’s primary pain point – without that we may have come up with a solution to a problem that wasn’t even the problem. So, you know, when you said hey team can we pause here for a moment and come back to our purpose, that allowed everybody time to regroup and get back to our primary intentions. So well done and thank you so much.”
Let’s now talk to the role of time as it relates to giving feedback. By that I mean, it’s important, particularly if you are a people manager, to provide a mix of Planned Feedback and Unplanned Feedback. Why? Because sometimes having a planned feedback session – whether you give a few days notice or it comes during a quarterly performance review – provides a sense of structure and long-term commitment, while Unplanned Feedback can provide the ongoing in-the-moment feedback we all need to stay on the growth path. Keep in mind that feedback delivered during a quarterly performance review should never shock the receiver… there should be feedback touchpoints between you with enough frequency that the quarterly review can be seen as a chance to go deep rather than surface something new.
Lastly, and although these are generalities, I’ve found these Dos and Don’ts about giving feedback helpful as a manager… as have many of the people leaders I’ve worked with.
First up, Do give feedback as close to the observed behavior as feels reasonable. Use your discretion here. Obviously you wouldn’t want to give negative feedback immediately after an incredible performance, nor would you want to wait too long… delivering it so far into the future that the receiver missed many opportunities where they could have used it. And our Don’t here, of course, is don’t hold the feedback until an arbitrary date like a quarterly review. As I tell here in this feedback failure story, I’ve made the mistake of delaying feedback to the point where it seriously impacted the career of my colleague. Don’t make that same mistake. Next up, as a feedback giver, DO encourage feedback from your direct reports. As a giver, particularly if you’re a manager, you have a great opportunity to model what asking for and receiving feedback looks like. In doing so, you’ll also let your colleagues, who may be more accustomed to receiving feedback, have a chance to practice how they give it. However, as you encourage your direct reports to give you feedback, don’t pressure them to give it in the moment. Again, this comes down to your empathy. If we continue with the people manager role… recognize that there might be a difference in power between you and the receiver – it may be exceptionally scary for them to provide feedback to you as they may think whatever they say could jeopardize their relationship with you or even cost them their job. So provide them space to think about it, and work to create the safest possible relationship. At the time of the conversation, you might open by saying something like, “I am so grateful for your time here… I’m always looking to improve and I’m excited to hear any thoughts you may have about how I can.”
Another DO… Do create a safe, empowering environment where your direct reports can ask for feedback. Again, in my experience, two great ways to set the stage here is, first, to ensure you have real and heartfelt one-to-ones with your direct reports. Get to know them, share a glimpse into your life outside of work, and try to make some space to talk about things other than work. Second, you can model this behavior, where it makes sense, asking them for their feedback. On the Don’t side… if your direct report does ask you for feedback, don’t feel the need to talk just to talk. If you don’t have any feedback in that moment, ask for more time. Similarly, if they are asking for feedback on something that is wildly outside of your domain… state that and try to refer them to an expert you know on that topic. Another Do, and this one should be obvious by now, but, wherever possible in the feedback relationship, lead with empathy, helpfulness and kindness. If you feel agitation or even anger leading the way, it may not be a great time for you to deliver constructive feedback. That said, the Don’t here is don’t use kindness to mask direct feedback. Feedback that dances around the topic is not likely to be helpful and is not likely to be clear. As Brene Brown puts it, “Clear Is Kind. Unclear Is Unkind.”
And, often, when it comes to giving constructive feedback, direct is often the best path to being clear. Next up, an obvious one if you’ve watched the previous modules, is Do create time for your direct reports to process the challenging feedback. On the other side, Don’t expect their immediate acceptance and smiles. Many of us in the privileged position of being able to frequently give feedback have been conditioned – by countless articles and even academic papers – that receivers should be immensely grateful and immediately accept everything we just said. Hold your expectations lightly… in fact, it’s often best to leave your expectations behind entirely and show up to the feedback conversation with an open heart and the courage to work with whatever unfolds.
Next up, and this is one we often forget: Do promote self-feedback for your direct reports. Encouraging, and, again, modeling what it means to be a self-reflective manager can help them lean into doing the same. On the Don’t side, however, don’t, in your attempt to encourage them to be self-reflective… don’t force them into demoralizing comparisons. If there’s a colleague or person in the world who you think they could learn from, rather than framing it harshly like “You really need to learn from Everett. He’s your same pay grade and never messes it up like this” you can shift it to something like… “I see your audience so engaged when you shift attention from what’s on your slides to more extemporaneously sharing your story. It makes me think you and Everett could partner up to improve each other’s presentations, as I know he could use some help on the slides and I think he may have some tips for you on how he goes off-script.”
Our final Do here is… Do continue being a student of communications. That’s the game we’re in as feedback givers. You are doing this by taking this course, you can do this by continuing to put your feedback reps in at work, and you can do it by reading many of the great books out there, including Nonviolent Communications, Dare to Lead, Thanks for the Feedback and The Fearless Organization… all of which I’ll link to in the description. And our final don’t… don’t think you’re all good and that you’re the feedback guru just because you read a few good books. I learn something new every day about feedback and I invite you to stay on the same journey.
One final tip about giving feedback. It’s important to consider feelings. Yes, by that I mean how do you want the feedback receiver to feel after you’ve delivered the feedback? Check out this wheel to be reminded of the complexity of our human emotions. Do you think constructive feedback is more likely to be adopted and set the recipient on a growth path if, after they receive it, they feel, say, Inspired and Respected, or if they feel Exposed and Frustrated. Not all, not nearly all of what they may feel in a feedback session is under your control, but you do play a role here and it’s important to keep that in mind. For more information about the fascinating and complex landscape of our emotions, check out the Atlas of Emotions (atlasofemotions.org), a collaboration between the Dalai Lama and emotion scientist Dr. Paul Ekman.
Well, team, that’s a wrap on Module number 4, Giving Feedback. I’ll see you over in the next Module.
Hi there and welcome to Module 5, where we’ll cover why asking for feedback is so important.
How to Ask for Feedback
And how to go about doing it. Asking for feedback is perhaps the most effective way to get the feedback you need. As we covered in Module 3 as it relates to Using feedback, asking for feedback is an act of ownership – it’s you intentionally breaking what is in many places a business world norm of passively waiting for feedback… and going after it to get what you need. We’ve mentioned Kobe Bryant throughout this course. Kobe had Phil Jackson as a coach, one of the greatest coaches in basketball history. Kobe certainly could have been a passive recipient of Coach Jackson’s feedback… indeed, I’m sure many who have played for Coach Jackson did just that. But Kobe went to the next level. He received feedback from Coach Jackson, but, as we covered, it didn’t end there. He also sought feedback from what he called GOAT Mountain – a group of six of the greatest living players. In the academic literature on feedback, this type of behavior is referred to as “Feedback-Seeking Behavior,” abbreviated as FSB. You can think of feedback-seeking behavior as referring to how individuals seek feedback either by reading the actions of others to infer what it means, in other words, to get feedback purely through observation, or by explicitly asking others for feedback.
The concept came to prominence thanks to this classic paper in 1983 by Susan Ashford and L.L. Cummings. This paper, to my understanding, was the first to really go deep in an exploration of what it means for feedback recipients in the workplace to play a major and proactive role – truly to be owners – of their professional development. This all leads to, what they write here, that, “FSB is proposed as an important component of the feedback process.” Earlier in the paper, the researchers first set the scene for why feedback is important. They write, “The positive effect of feedback on performance has been an accepted psychological principle since at least the early 1950s.” Among the paper’s many insights on the importance of asking for feedback, and the paper does suggest that feedback receivers should ask for feedback more often, I want to bring our attention to a few particularly compelling passages. The authors state that “These arguments suggest that it may benefit both individual and organizations to not only give subordinates more feedback (and recall here some of the research we covered in the giving feedback module about how many managers completely avoid giving constructive feedback at all)… as the current literature suggests… but also to promote the use of inquiry as a FSB strategy (in other words, to promote the use of asking for feedback as a strategic tool in the workplace). They go on to say that, “Such a promotion can be best achieved by attempting to reduce some of the risk and effort costs involved in this strategy… in other words, the culture matters… if there’s psychological safety, it will be far easier for everybody in the organization to engage in feedback-seeking behavior, because the team, or department, or even the entire organization will see it as a proactive act of growth. “Managers,” they say, can play a major role in manipulating the ‘shared meaning’ of this act.
Rather than a sign of weakness and uncertainty, asking for feedback could come to represent a confident desire to understand one’s strengths and weaknesses.” Note how the authors specifically call out strengths here. We’ve covered it throughout this course but I can’t reiterate it enough… knowing your strengths is often just as and sometimes more important than understanding your weaknesses. A great ballet dancer, for example, could not have become great if they spent most of their time trying to shore up their weakness in geometry. Or, to get even more specific, they wouldn’t have been able to carve out their unique and differentiated strengths as a ballet dancer – perhaps their incredible ability to maintain posture and balance during dynamic pirouettes – if they spent most of their time trying to leap further. If you are interested in learning more about the importance of strengths, you might check out a book called Strengths Based Leadership. I’ll link to it in the description. The authors of our paper on FSB here conclude with “Opening up this channel of feedback will allow employees to obtain more accurate appraisals of their work at the times when such appraisals are most valuable.”
Lastly, let’s look at one other passage from this paper. “The perspective presented here is also beneficial in that it more accurately reflects how individuals actually acquire and respond to feedback in their organizational lives. In situations where no verbal feedback is being given, our perspective argues that the individual is processing environmental cues and is deriving feedback information from them.” In other words, even in environments where nobody is providing feedback, feedback still remains. They continue with, “Second, it is probably accurate to conceive of the individual as having several goals in his or her organizational life beyond present performance and that each of these goals may serve as the organizing function of FSB.” In other words, as a feedback receiver, you would do well to ask for feedback on a range of topics… from specific feedback directly tied to the task you are currently working on… to perhaps more general feedback around how you may need to develop to move within your company from a director to a vice president.
Even if we move out of the 1980s and into the modern era, we still find research highlighting the powerful role of asking for feedback. Consider this quote from a paper in 2022 titled “Learning leadership and feedback seeking behavior: Leadership that spurs feedback seeking.”
“Lifelong learning is crucial for professionals to continuously develop and update their knowledge and skills, and for organizations to create and sustain competitive advantage. In this regard, feedback seeking is a powerful vehicle to gain new knowledge and insights in one’s development and performance.”
Okay, so let’s jump out of the research and into how to go about asking for feedback.
First, come at this with a pure intention. What do I mean by that? Well, you may have experienced someone who seeks your feedback not necessarily to learn but to quickly get your approval so they can move forward with a project. That’s not really asking for feedback. Or, similarly, some seek feedback as a way to appease someone or to perform humility — in other words, it’s more about the performance of being perceived as a humble feedback seeker than it is about gaining “new knowledge and insights.” So, to the extent possible, try to seek feedback genuinely and not with hidden motives. Number two, ask your manager. This seems simple enough, but it doesn’t happen as often as it should. And remember, that you don’t need to wait until a quarterly performance review to do this. You might even start next week by saying to your manager, “Hey, I’ve been watching a course on feedback, and since we’ve been working together for INSERT TIME PERIOD, I’d like to get your feedback on how I’m doing… maybe what you see as my strengths and areas for growth.”
Number 3, and this is especially true if you are a people manager, you should be regularly asking your team… either via a survey, directly going individual by individual, or even going to the group after a project. If the latter, you can pull everybody together after a project and ask how they think it went… what worked and where you might have been able to do a better job as their leader. When this works, and it often does, you’ll both be receiving great feedback and also modeling for your team what feedback-seeking behavior looks like. Number four is about indirect feedback seeking. Study those in your field (or beyond) who inspire you. Maybe you see these folks shining on LinkedIn, or you saw them wow an audience at an industry conference, or you’ve been reading their blog for years. Rather than merely be inspired… see them as a case study worth really digging into. What qualities do they bring to the table that you admire? What are their strengths… and is there anything about their strengths that you may be able to learn from to improve your own strengths or weaknesses?
Number five is about establishing peer-to-peer relationships, either within your organization or beyond. The research on peer-to-peer feedback is vast, and it suggests that we can learn as much or more from meeting with a few peers than we can from meeting with our manager. If you’re a digital marketer in a large organization, for example, you might reach out to another digital marketer at your same level who works on a completely different part of the business. Perhaps you set up a monthly 1-1 conversation to share insights with each other. You might also join an organization in your skill domain… this will connect you with a variety of peers who likely have a similar skillset but have learned to apply it across different sectors… again, this could be a great opportunity to get feedback. And, lastly… although there are plenty of other ways… ask for feedback after you interview somewhere. Although some on interview panels aren’t allowed to share their feedback, many are willing if you really push for it. This type of feedback can be especially helpful because this interviewer likely knows the type of talent they need and has perhaps already interviewed many other folks. Their feedback can help you see how you stack up in your field. I’ve personally provided feedback to a few folks who I had great interviews with, but who, for various reasons, didn’t fit what I was looking for. On several occasions, these folks sent me a response about how my feedback meant the world to them and will help both with their development and in their future interviews.
Okay, team, that concludes Module 5, asking for feedback. I’ll see you over at our final module.
Hi there and welcome to Module 6, the final module in our course on Constructive Feedback. The topic here:
How to Build an Effective Feedback Culture
This is a big one worthy of an entire book, but I’ll work to address as many new points as I can without repeating too much from earlier in the course. For those who may have stumbled on this video rather than the course, I’ll pause here just to say that while I think you’ll find value in Module 6 here, if you are serious about improving your feedback culture at work I’d highly recommend starting at the beginning of the course this module is part of as you’ll build some foundational knowledge that will make everything we’re about to cover here make sense on a much deeper level.
Okay, so we’re going to break this Module down into 5 parts.
Part 1 will be to look at a feedback relationship model so we have a visual way to understand how the many dimensions of feedback we’ve covered in this course relate to each other. From there, we’ll move to an in-depth exploration of Feedback Literacy, a concept we’ve mentioned a few times throughout the course but haven’t unpacked. If some part of your role involves building a feedback culture – and I’d argue that everyone’s is – then a large part of what you will be doing is working to improve the feedback literacy of yourself and others. As such, it makes sense that we understand what feedback literacy is. In Part 3, we’ll keep working with Feedback Literacy, this time exploring some practical ways we can develop in each of its three foundational areas. In Part 4, we’ll dive into feedback culture, including an exploration of the ways in which we can categorize the various feedback types that exist within a culture. This will take some of the information we’ve covered throughout the course, and give you a new way to look at it so you’re able to think about feedback at the organizational level. And, in Part 5, our last part and a fitting close to the course since we opened with a mention of how Slack made feedback the epicenter of its effort to grow into a $1 billion dollar company, we will cast our gaze beyond the constructive feedback that occurs between individuals at work and towards Organizational Feedback Systems – the ways in which organizations, as a whole, can be strategic in how they receive and process customer feedback and market feedback. After all, for constructive feedback between employees to continue having the ability to even exist, the larger organization must be effective at leveraging feedback so it can stay alive and competitive as a business.
Okay, so let’s begin with exploring the Feedback Relationship Model.
At the core, we begin with Feedback literacy. If you recall, this is your capacity to effectively give, receive, ask for, process, and use feedback – all of the things – think of it as the collection of all the pieces we’ve covered in this course. Whether you are having a challenging conversation with a direct report whose performance is pulling your team down, or are learning from audience survey results that the presentation you spent months preparing didn’t land well, or are preparing to ask a respected colleague in your field if she might be open to serving as your mentor, or are working diligently to integrate the audience’s feedback you received into your next performance… all of these are part of the feedback relationship and are actually opportunities, what you’ll hear me referring to as Experiences… that can allow us to improve our feedback literacy by putting the reps in. So before we move forward here, I want to call attention to the openings in the lines of this model, the dots that you see here. This represents each element of the feedback relationship holding its own space… with the dotted lines representing fluidity as each element can influence and be influenced by the other. Also notice that there are three levels to this porous nature. In our initial view here, this would mean that what we are describing as the total set of our Feedback Literacy can leak out to impact other areas. Likewise, those other areas can leak into our feedback literacy.
So here is how it works, starting from the inside out. Feedback literacy is at the core because it contains everything and, although developing it takes being in relationship with others, it is an individual capacity we can develop. Extending from this core individual capacity are the specific feedback skills we’ve covered in our time together. So you’ll see in the next level here we have giving, receiving, processing, and generally experiencing feedback. Let experiencing here be a reminder to get into the arena… as we said earlier, we can intellectualize and read about feedback all day long, and yet still not make much progress toward the development of our overall feedback literacy.
All of these parts, then, extend into the enclosed outer layer of the feedback culture. While elements outside of the feedback culture can impact the culture, and while the feedback culture you are primarily part of can leak out to positively or negatively influence other cultures, we enclose it here so we can focus our thinking on it. In my experience of feedback at work, while we are part of multiple feedback cultures, there is usually one that we typically inhabit and influence most. As we progress here, you might think about which culture that is for you – perhaps your direct team or the team you work closest with or, depending on your environment, the primary feedback culture may simply be the relationship you have with a colleague or two.
If you are leading some feedback training for your team or organization, you may find, as I do, that this visualization makes it far easier to discuss feedback in general and each part in particular. It also helps to break down some of the boundaries we have with feedback – where we put certain folks into certain camps. This visual shows that we’re all working towards improving the same core even if as individuals we have differences in terms of how our time is spread across the different feedback parts.
One last point about culture here. It is both an expression of and a contributor to a group’s feedback literacy. When managers receive advice to build a healthy feedback culture, they can now see this means recognizing existing elements of the culture that may not be as developed… and modeling and otherwise helping their team develop the skills that feed into feedback literacy. For example, a manager may find on their team that folks are excellent at receiving feedback, but upon thinking it through further, it could just be that their team basically says yes to all feedback as soon as they get it… this can often be the case on teams with very early-in-career colleagues. If this is the case, you might highlight their openness to receiving feedback as a strength while letting them know you also want their thoughts about it before they move to adopt it. You might also find other areas where they can develop it – for example, perhaps they can be more proactive by asking for feedback rather than only waiting for it, or perhaps they can begin to flex their muscle to give feedback to you or in peer-to-peer relationships where they can share feedback with others in areas most closely aligned to their greatest skill. For example, you might have an early-in-career but incredible copywriter on your team provide feedback to others who aren’t as strong in writing. These types of lighter-touch feedback relationships can help early-in-career colleagues begin to build feedback confidence.
Okay, let’s now move to Part 2, developing a deeper understanding of feedback literacy. Let’s say in the morning you saw the smiles of your colleagues and many heart emojis on your screen as you virtually presented quarterly results to your global team. In the afternoon, you receive a note from a regional manager who felt their territory wasn’t given the time it deserved in your presentation. That evening, to power through getting some extra work done, you have a cup of matcha (I’m a big matcha fan here)… but let’s say you have it a bit later than usual — and you struggle to sleep at night because of it (I have definitely done that on many occasions). In her book, Feedback Fundamentals and Evidence-Based Practices, industrial psychologist Dr. Brodie Riordan refers to these types of moments as “feedback events” and she leads the reader through an inventory of twenty-five she captured just on a typical day in her life. Dr. Riordan’s point was to challenge our idea of feedback as primarily what happens during the quarterly performance review by showing us that feedback is literally all around us. Once we bring awareness to the ubiquitous nature of feedback, we begin to see its stunning dimensionality and modes of expression — how it includes not only the traditional manager-to-employee direct feedback relationship but also the subtle non-verbal gesture of your colleague, the self-reflective feedback that arises from observational learning as you compare your performance next to the performance of someone you admire, and even the wisdom of your body as your nervous system kicks in to try to protect you when you’re stressed. Feedback literacy encompasses all of these elements.
The concept of feedback literacy has roots in the world of education where it primarily focuses on students receiving and adopting feedback. As I’ve brought the term into organizations by expanding the concept to include the capacity of all people to effectively give, receive, ask for, process, and use feedback, something magical has happened: the dismantling of the invisible walls that too often separate groups of givers and receivers. When this happens, managers at all levels are able to take a more holistic approach to developing their feedback capabilities; they see themselves not as purely feedback givers but as on the endless path to becoming more feedback literate, with “giving” as only one dimension. Individual contributors who once felt disempowered and merely passive recipients in the feedback process now understand the challenges their managers may have in giving them feedback and feel more confident in exhibiting feedback-seeking behavior. And, perhaps most importantly, introducing feedback literacy creates a common language and a common ground for all employees to recognize that feedback is multidimensional and an ongoing developmental path that everybody is on. Through conversation, leaders can create an individualized approach to help employees begin building their feedback literacy. Getting it into a development plan is important for integrating learning into each employee’s workflow. Beyond introducing the concept of feedback literacy, I’ve found it helpful to visualize what I see as its three primary developmental areas.
I’ve also found it helpful to provide a brief glimpse into what each area means and then allow the individual to take it to the next level regarding how it might apply to their development. So here’s how we can think about each part of feedback literacy. We start with feedback literacy at the core, as it develops at the intersection of each part. In one part, we have the intrapersonal. This refers to the skills within our own mind, including those involving self-awareness, open-mindedness, and emotional intelligence… how we’re able to bring awareness to and work with our ever-changing emotional states. In this sense, it could be said that the intrapersonal serves as the foundation for how we enter into feedback relationships. In my experience, if things are chaotic in our inner worlds, that will likely manifest in our outer worlds – often in ways we don’t expect. From there, we move to the other side of our venn diagram with Interpersonal. If intra- is our inner and individual state, inter can be seen as the outer and relationship state. Interpersonal refers to the relational skills, including those comprising verbal and nonverbal communication. These enable practices like active listening that are critical for developing feedback literacy. At this point, you may be wondering… it seems there’s a connection between intrapersonal and interpersonal… in that a relatively stable inner state would be needed to engage in authentic active listening. You are correct! These qualities not only feed into feedback literacy, they feed into each other. From there we move to the top of the diagram with Experiential. This is about the feedback experiences we have across our personal and professional lives. As we’ve said, we must pursue meaningful feedback experiences in order to improve not only in our craft but in our feedback capabilities. The primary way we’ve covered to be proactive about this aspect of your development is to ask for feedback wherever and whenever you think you need it. Let’s now move to how we can develop each of these parts. Let’s start with a cleaner view of our diagram and then break it apart.
Okay, we can begin with Intrapersonal: Self-awareness is a vital dimension of intrapersonal skills, and self-reflection can effectively build this capacity. Through practice, we can develop a heightened awareness of our emotional states. Improving our ability to recognize and be with (rather than respond to) our own emotions will help keep us receptive and grounded during challenging feedback conversations. More often than we know, our inner emotional states can lead to our behaviors… and, for many of us, we often exhibit those behaviors without having any real awareness of the underlying emotional state. Through awareness-building practices, we can ultimately get a better handle on what we’re feeling, what that feeling feels like, and even what behavior we want to engage in as a result of that feeling. For me, personally, when I am lacking awareness, I tend to rather intensely pick and bite my nails when I have a feeling of uncertainty about something. Also, without awareness, when I’m scared about the health of a loved one, I find my default behavior is to get something to eat… this distracts me from feeling the underlying feelings of fear and listening to what they may have to teach me. As I recently wrote in a blog post, Feelings are trailheads that lead to insight… that is, if we bring awareness to them and gently investigate them, they often lead to insights we wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. We can also bring awareness to our inner chatter, and in doing so, begin to build an inner system of talking to ourselves that better serves us.
Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist who offers a unique blend of neuroscience and mindfulness, speaks often about the ways in which we can work with our negativity bias to incline our mind towards more skillful chatter. I’ll provide a link to his work in the description. And, last but not least, we can bring awareness to our reactive tendencies. So what I mean here is that, even if we can’t yet access the feelings that cause us to react in certain ways, we can develop awareness of what our habitual reactions are and then work backwards from there to understand where they came from and work forwards to think through what a more skillful response would be. This is what I did in discovering my tendency to eat when I’m scared about the health and well-being of loved ones… I first noticed my behavior to eat and then worked backwards. This is still a work-in-progress, and I still tend to eat in some of these circumstances, but through awareness I now reach for healthier foods and am in more control of how much of them I eat.
So, how can we go about building these intrapersonal qualities?
The ways are limitless, but can include a few of the following: Mindfulness practice. To put some structure around this, I’d recommend trying out an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. This is an evidence-based mindfulness development program and, at the very least, you’ll add many new self-awareness tools to your toolkit. If you need some guidance on where to start on this, reach out to me. I had the privilege of having an incredible teacher and experience. You can also take up journaling. There are hundreds of fun prompts, routines, and even journaling communities you can join. You can also work with a licensed therapist. Speaking from personal experience, I can’t imagine where I’d be in my self-awareness development if I hadn’t spent many hours over several years working with therapists trained in different styles. Last on our list, and there are certainly many other powerful alternatives that I’ve leveraged, is working with a certified coach. Again, if you aren’t sure where to start here, feel free to reach out.
Okay, so let’s wipe the slate clean and begin again, this time with ways to develop interpersonally.
Our relational skills can be built through various means, including by setting intentions and goals. You can think of setting an intention as what you do prior to entering into an immediate relationship – for example, prior to a regularly-scheduled 30-minute call with a colleague, you might set an intention to listen to them fully, without thinking about a response as you do. By setting new intentions and practicing, you can build and refine new skillsets through direct experience. Goals, on the other hand, are longer-term. A goal here might be, over the next 6 months, to break your habit of trying to multi-task while on a video call with others. Many small intentions may go into each call, but, if you’re often trying to work on other things or looking at other screens while on calls with colleagues, it may take months to dismantle that habit and build a new one – this is where a longer-term goal comes into play. One way that can help you progress toward your goal is to find someone who embodies some element of the future state you want to achieve, and then consciously observe them. If you always leave a meeting with a particular colleague feeling heard and valued, you might practice observing how they create an environment to make you feel that way. Next, you can improve interpersonally by directly asking others for feedback.
Let’s say you are typically more shy and reserved in meetings, and you’ve received feedback about how others would like to hear from you more often. You could set participating more in meetings as a goal, let a trusted colleague know this is your goal, and then regularly ask them for feedback about how you’re progressing. Another way to develop interpersonally is to record yourself and then study those recordings. I’m reminded of an assignment when I was an Executive MBA student that involved studying films of ourselves and others based on presentations and facilitated conversations. Having a mirror into my performance, coupled with studying (not just watching) the verbal and nonverbal cues of myself and others, allowed me to address several interpersonal weaknesses. I even noticed small adjustments I could make that made a big differences, such as how, when presenting, I’d often subtly hold my breath which caused me to work harder… or how, when facilitating, I had the habit of more often calling on folks who were to my right even if more folks on my left were raising their hands. Lastly, be a lifelong communications student. For several years now I’ve worked with Master’s-level communications students at the University of San Francisco, and one thing that has become clear to me is that the more I know the more I realize I can grow. You might begin by getting a copy of a book called Nonviolent Communications, or you can look up the work of Oren Jay Sofer who specializes in mindful communication practices.
Next, let’s see how we can more intentionally step into the experiential.
As mentioned here, one way to gain experience, especially in a feedback-averse culture, is by proactively asking for it. This will allow you to see and learn from different feedback delivery styles and practice how you receive and process each. You could also combine this with journaling… perhaps carving out time after you’ve received feedback to reflect through journaling on everything from how you felt to what you learned in the process. It’s only through these kinds of intentional practices that you can see, for example, that your default reaction has always been to get overly defensive upon receiving even relatively minor negative feedback. With this new awareness, you can develop more skillful means – such as perhaps taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself – when you notice the defensiveness arising. And reflecting after feedback can work for feedback givers as well; after giving particularly negative feedback to a colleague (which was hard for me to deliver for several reasons) I found it helpful to reflect through writing on how it went and on how I felt before, during and after. Another way to develop experientially is to do a 24-hour feedback inventory.
As Dr. Riordan did in the Feedback Fundamentals book, you can jot down all the moments throughout your day (at work and generally in your life) where some type of feedback event happened. This is a great exercise, in part, because it helps you see that feedback is all around you… it just takes bringing awareness to it, and, once you have that, you can begin to wring insight from it. Additionally, especially if you are part of a large organization with a robust talent and development department, you may find that you can get some opportunities to practice feedback through leadership training opportunities. If nothing exists, you might request a 60-minute feedback training session for your colleagues – organized and led by someone internally or externally. Even these practice experiences are the experiences we need to improve. Lastly, you might consider taking on a stretch assignment at your organization. Remember the quote from Angela Duckworth earlier in the course? She said she’s never seen an organization get feedback right. So, this could be your opportunity to take something on – perhaps creating a constructive feedback training session or working with a group in your organization to help collect, organize and use customer feedback. Again, it’s all part of centering feedback and gaining the experience we need to develop our overall feedback literacy.
Okay, moving on to Part 4: Feedback Culture Exploration.
When I first began providing feedback training, I sat across from Khai*, who was about to become a first-time people manager on a newly formed team. Khai courageously admitted feeling scared to give feedback to their new teammates, then rattled off a range of great questions, including: “Before giving feedback, should I spend a few months getting to know my team so that we first have a strong rapport?” and “Should I only give feedback on areas within my subject matter expertise?” For Khai, moving into a people manager role meant they had to rapidly understand what it was like on the other side of the feedback line. I learned that Khai’s apprehensions were born out of the challenging workplace culture they were leaving behind. In their previous job, they hadn’t had a healthy feedback culture modeled for them, one in which everybody on the team, regardless of title, felt psychologically safe and had the skills to give and receive feedback effectively. In essence, rather than tap the wisdom of individuals to form a continuously-learning collective genius, Khai’s team was assembled into one large group of passive feedback receivers (those who were perceived as knowing little and needing feedback all the time) and one very small group of feedback givers (those who were perceived as all-knowing givers) – neither of which had received any feedback training. After many conversations with leaders from global companies, I’ve come to realize both how common and how unhelpful this grouping can be for developing a learning culture. The “good enough” assumption with feedback has a cascading effect, whereby passionate and promising future leaders like Khai grow into the kind of managers in the various studies we’ve highlighted who struggle with nearly all aspects of feedback. So we have managers struggling to give it, employees wanting it, organizations not investing much in it, and educational psychologists like Dr. James McKenna highlighting that in increasingly volatile and competitive industries it’s a key to building a learning culture that can help organizational resiliency. Where to from here? Let’s dive in.
Whether you’ve consciously built it or not, you have a feedback culture. And this culture is significantly impacted by the feedback literacy of individuals within it. For example, if teammates are afraid to provide feedback to each other – because they don’t quite know how or lack psychological safety, or both – vital knowledge will remain trapped within individuals rather than unleashed for the benefit of the team. In such cultures, I’ve also seen “shadow learning” taking place, whereby individuals secretly pursue all types of learning opportunities but feel the need to hide that they did it, which again keeps insights locked within the individual. If we take the classic metaphor of a team as an organism, you can imagine individual parts of the organism becoming stronger but the overall organism itself remaining no more resilient. Fortunately, threading feedback literacy into your culture is in all of our hands. While I still recommend all employees receive formal feedback training, leaders can dramatically improve their learning culture by having feedback literacy-centered conversations with their teams (and encouraging all people managers to do the same). Below is a simple but effective three-step process for facilitating these much-needed conversations. I recommended breaking these into multiple meetings. Step one: pull your team together to discuss feedback, not to give and receive it, but to discuss what it is. The goal of this meeting should be to allow everybody’s insights to surface to co-create a feedback definition. You might use the feedback definition from this course as a guide, tweaking as needed. The important part here is that the members of your team feel a sense of ownership… feel like they’ve contributed to this definition.
Step two then is introducing feedback literacy – perhaps leveraging the many frameworks and graphics we’ve used throughout this course to do so. Lastly, working with each individual teammate, you can co-create with them a feedback literacy development plan. You might find it helpful to include this as part of an ongoing professional development plan you have with each of your direct reports. For leaders ready to step beyond their team, here are a few key questions worth asking as you work to improve the larger feedback culture. Number 1: Are employees receiving the feedback they want and need? As we covered, employees who don’t get such feedback are far more likely to leave the company. As a follow up to this, ask: How do we know? Second, you can ask: Are we training our employees across our organization how to seek feedback from those outside of our organization so that they are staying at the top of their field? Too often, we think of talent development as skills development that must happen internally… but the world is vast and talent is everywhere… often the best opportunities to grow your internal talent is to encourage folks to gain insights from outside of the organization.
And, third, you can ask: what feedback training are we providing new people managers? These new managers are your future. They are often fired up and hungry to learn, but, just as often in my experience, we wrongly assume they have seen feedback excellence modeled for them. As a follow up, we can ask this question directly: Are we assuming these new people managers have the feedback literacy skills required to grow their own career and empower their direct reports?
So one way to think about a culture at work, and in our focus here, a feedback culture, is as the soil upon which effective feedback is either neglected or cultivated. Like the soil of our earth, the culture exists whether or not we intentionally try to shape it. So a neglected feedback culture, then, is one that is not intentionally cultivated. To continue with the soil metaphor, in such a culture, weeds and other invasive qualities may sprout. This can include toxic cultural elements, such as managers belittling colleagues rather than providing helpful feedback. In many cases, neglected feedback cultures are actually feedback-averse cultures.
By this I mean cultures where feedback is generally avoided, which means employees aren’t receiving comprehensive feedback training and new employees aren’t seeing healthy feedback relationships modeled for them. And if this culture is neglected at the people-level, there’s a good chance there’s neglect at the organizational level, where the organization itself is not effective at seeking and receiving feedback. A healthy and effective feedback culture, however, is built with intention. It’s a garden that is pruned and nurtured and generally cared for – with the result being colleagues at all levels who are number one, working to build their own feedback literacy and number two, feel psychological safe enough to give and receive feedback regardless of where they sit in the organization’s hierarchy. One helpful way to frame everything is to look at our Workplace Feedback Categories alongside a Feedback Growth Pyramid.
There’s a lot here, but let’s begin at the top left.
Internal refers to both the feedback happening internally in our minds and the feedback kept internally in our organization. So if we work down the left side, this covers the self-feedback in our minds, the individual feedback we receive from our colleagues at work, the customer feedback we receive directly from our customers, and market feedback. Market feedback in the internal sense is about the effects on our business that we experience based on what’s happening in the market. For example, even before it’s a major topic of public discussion, we may begin seeing signals of labor market strength as employees seem to be asking for raises at a higher rate than usual. If we move to External at the top right, we begin with Sought. This is feedback outside of our organization that we intentionally seek. So at the Individual level, this could be feedback you seek by asking an industry leader if they are open to serving as a mentor for you.
At the Customer level, this could be feedback about some part of your organization that you see posted on public sites like LinkedIn, G2, Yelp, Reddit forums, or elsewhere. Similarly, external market signals could be a result of publicly-known market shifts that maybe haven’t impacted your business yet – such as the Federal Reserve changing interest rates or a tense geopolitical situation that may have an impact on your supply chain strategy. As you see, there can be barriers at every level here. For example, a company may be one of those rare few who offer their employees training on feedback communications, but they may be missing the boat when it comes to having a strategy for listening to the external market signals that could seriously disrupt their business model. Based on my experience and review of the decades of feedback literature, one way to move from feedback category awareness to real action is to pair our category diagram with a Feedback Growth Pyramid – as we have on the left. From here, you can begin to map each category to corresponding growth initiatives… such as… when it comes to collecting External Market Feedback… what’s our culture?
Do we provide training on this? What accounts for an event here… and are these events regular and planned or are they forced on us when the market changes and we’re often in catch-up mode? Another example could be: when it comes to organizing Internally-received Customer Feedback… have we mapped out the many ways, Events, this can happen? Do we provide customer feedback training to our colleagues, or is a wild west of customer feedback coming in from everywhere and not being sorted or routed in any way? And, lastly, what’s our feedback culture as it relates to the customer feedback we receive? Does everybody feel they have a role to play? Does everyone feel incentivized to play this role? How do we know?
This mention of feedback collection leads us to Part 5, Feedback Systems at the Organizational Level, where we’ll cover what I call the 3Cs of Organizational Feedback Systems.
Step 1 here is about collecting feedback from various sources. One metaphor that may be helpful here is to think about all the tributaries that feed into a river. The goal here is to map out all the most important feedback tributaries and to create a process for how they are being monitored. For example, if we think about collecting customer feedback – those tributaries would include the internal feedback our customers send us privately (and ensuring they have easy ways to do so) and it would include monitoring the most important areas where they are providing public feedback.
From there, we can move to step 2 – which is to ensure all that feedback flows into a central place where it can be seen in aggregate. This could be a Slack channel, for example. Once there, it’s helpful to Classify it. For example, is this External feedback about a particular product or service? Is it positive or negative feedback? You can get as detailed as is helpful here. For example, it may be helpful to note if it’s coming from a Fortune 100 customer who you have a significant deal with as opposed to a customer from a small business who is simply on a free trial. We then move to Step 3, Communicating. Some organizations end at Step 2, thinking that the feedback river is enough, but the river contains everything and can be an overwhelming source of information to the point where it’s irrelevant for many people who are receiving it.
The river metaphor continues here, as Step 3 is about creating feedback lakes from the river, that is, ensuring that the classified feedback is routed to the most appropriate people or teams. As in our example, a batch of feedback from Fortune 100 customers on a particular product could be routed to the product team responsible for that product, to the enterprise technical sales team who can follow up directly with their customer points of contact, and perhaps to the marketing team who can determine if and how to respond to the public feedback. So, on the whole, we’ve taken what can be a complex but always-on organizational feedback initiative – again, one in which Dr. Angela Duckworth has never seen an organization get right – and we’ve turned it into a rather simple three-step approach we can keep top of mind as we work to improve our efforts and build a truly elite feedback culture across the organization. Again, like everything we’ve covered in this course, this is much easier said than done, but putting a process in place is vital.
Well, team, you just completed what is perhaps the most in-depth course available on constructive feedback. Congratulations on not only prioritizing this important topic, but focusing on your growth. Now what? Here are some recommended next steps. First, this was an epic achievement! By sharing it with others on social media or elsewhere, you will create a ripple that will help others see and prioritize the importance of taking feedback seriously. The world needs it! Second, share the course with your teammates. Building feedback literacy takes all of us acting as a collective. As your teammates level up their skills, you’ll level up yours. If you’re bold enough, you might even incorporate this course into your organization’s professional development plan so that all employees level up together. Third, use what you learned – at work, at home, wherever. Keeping everything trapped in your mind but won’t be all that helpful for you or humanity. Fourth, keep learning about feedback. I’ve been at this for a while, and I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface.
There are many ways to keep learning, including by reading many of the books I’ve recommended, but an additional way is to sign up for my newsletter on cameronconaway.com.
This will ensure you are the first to know about my Feedback Facilitator Certificate Program – an in-depth course that will build on what you learned here and prepare you to be a confident feedback trainer at your organization and beyond… a leader capable of delivering comprehensive training to all employees. We’ll get to work together directly and I’ll be keeping the cohorts very small to ensure you leave the program fully prepared. Spots in the program will be offered based on the order you signed up, so if you have any interest at all I’d go ahead and get on the list.
Congratulations again on your achievement here. May you and those you love be well.
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