How to gracefully give and receive feedback

And in time, those around you will follow your lead and do the same for you.

How often do we let important things go unsaid at the office – avoiding the unpleasant task of giving honest feedback like the plague? I submit it’s far too often. We all have our reasons; We want to be perceived as someone who gets along with everyone, we don’t want to hurt others’ feelings, or, frankly, we want to keep our jobs. At worst, this results in failing to call out bad behavior, letting our colleagues say and do things that shouldn’t be tolerated. At best we don’t give people the truth about how they’re perceived, or when they’re acting in a way that’s career-limiting.

The downside of flattery

We tell a mountain of white lies throughout our careers: “Your presentation was great!” (it wasn’t), “You’re really good at [x]!” (you’re not). Giving presentations is a common fear, so it’s only natural to try to make folks feel good when they’ve given a less-than-great performance. Better them than us, we say to ourselves. But when we do this, we’re not helping. In fact, we’re doing our colleagues and our entire organization a disservice; We’re failing to help those around us get better at what they do, correct their missteps, and improve their weaknesses.

My own example

I had been running weekly meetings with my sales team for some time. Each week, a member of the team would research a topic and give a short presentation. The goal was to ensure the entire team was always learning something new. That was the intent, at least. About six months into the weekly meetings, due to the complexity of everyone’s schedules, we ended up doing away with them. One of my direct reports made the comment, “Yeah, I hated when we did those meetings. They weren’t very helpful.” The comment shocked and saddened me. They were a lot of work to coordinate, and if they weren’t helpful, I wished someone would have had the bravery to speak up and say so. I would have immediately changed them. In this case, we wasted everyone’s time, and it was all avoidable.

So, what to do?

When in doubt, speak up. Someone else will undoubtedly be relieved to hear you say something they were quietly thinking to themselves. With that said, when you’re more honest with folks, be prepared for them to be more honest with you - and a good portion of them may not be kind when offering their feedback. Even so, you’ve got to look beyond the person’s attitude, words, and intentions and think about what they’re trying to show you about yourself and how you can improve. Take each criticism as a gift to learn and grow.

Keys for success

When you give feedback, there are a few tools that will help you be more successful. I work with a colleague who’s great about giving honest feedback and, in fact, has called me out on my less-than-stellar behavior multiple times. He always delivers his feedback with kindness, though, and I understand his only goal is to help. It never feels mean spirited or self-serving. Because of his approach, I usually take his criticism to heart and change, though there are plenty of times I continue to fail a few more times in the exact same way before getting it right. So, other than delivering with kindness, what does my colleague do right in offering feedback?

  1. He tells you right when it happens. He doesn’t wait until the next time you screw up. He tells you immediately, giving you a chance to fix it the next time.
  2. He takes the emotion out of the criticism, never making it personal. He simply states the fact of what you did, the impact that it had, and what you should try to do differently.
  3. He doesn’t ever bring it up again. He doesn’t lord it over you, and he doesn’t try to make you feel bad about it.

When giving feedback, I often think about how my colleague would handle the same situation. I don’t always get it right, but I’m learning and getting better every day. If you give feedback right away, focus on the action rather than the person, and forgive others (realizing that we all screw up from time to time), you can also become good at giving feedback. In time, those around you will follow your lead and do the same for you. And if they continue to be complete jerks, then remember to look beyond their jerk faces and receive the amazing gift they’re giving you nonetheless.

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