Feedback comes in many forms, a nod, a grade, a tweet, a furrowed brow, silence, thumbs up, surveys, empty chairs, evaluation forms, referrals, glowing testimonials. Much of it is constructive, positive and even glowing. So why do we fear feedback? Both giving and receiving feedback can be met with trepidation and anxiousness. 

Perhaps an experience of poorly delivered feedback left you feeling disempowered and now you brace yourself when you see feedback coming your way. Are you reluctant to give feedback because you anticipate others having similar ambivalence and want to spare them the discomfort? 

Why do we fear feedback?

Let’s unpack feedback a bit to dispel our misconceptions. There is positive feedback and negative feedback, arguably there might be neutral feedback as well but for simplicity sake, we’ll put that aside for the moment. Then there’s giving and receiving. The only one among those that we feel ok about is giving positive feedback. We’ll come back to this shortly. 

Why is feedback such an issue?

Our dominant culture favours knowing and doing over learning and reflecting. On the ground, this looks like mistakes being regarded as bad and to be avoided at all costs. In environments where learning is valued, mistakes are respected as part of the process and not shamed in any way.

We can soften the landing and embed the learning by providing mentoring to assist in leveraging feedback effectively. Pairing more experienced team members with new team members can facilitate skills development in an individual and capacity building across the team and organisation. 

So why don’t we do this?

In a word, insecurity.  When we’re all muddling through and faking it until we make it, we may not appreciate someone’s thoughts on how it could be done better. We take it personally and deflect the feedback. And there’s a good chance a bad experience in the past limits future opportunities for healthy feedback. Broken trust takes time to heal and an intention to overcome. High trust environments have a better chance of feedback being normalised and seen as a way to improve how we do our work. 

In their book “Thanks for the Feedback” Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen use research from the Harvard Negotiation Project to identify the importance of receiving feedback well. It’s where we have a greater locus of control in how to deal with feedback. If this is our starting point for skilling up, it’s likely that getting better at receiving feedback will help us feel more comfortable giving feedback of all kinds. 

The forms of feedback Stone and Heen identify are: 

  • Appreciation – Thanks
  • Coaching – There’s a better way 
  • Evaluation – Here’s where you stand

Think about how you like to receive these forms of feedback. How can you communicate what works for you? Ariana Huffington (founder of Huffington Post and Thrive Global) says her preferred approach is ‘compassionate directness’. She describes an all too common occurrence of choosing between compassion and directness. Her belief is that the power of the two together can be transformative in supporting organisations to overcome problems, achieve peak performance and truly thrive. 

Compassionate directness is defined as “empowering employees to speak up, give feedback, disagree, and surface problems, pain points and constructive criticism.”  Huffington says it must be done “immediately, continuously, and with clarity, but also to do it with compassion, empathy and understanding.”

Imagine what a difference it would make if this were common practice. No really. Take a minute to think about what that would be like. For you. For your team. For your organisation.  Dream a little. 

Giving Feedback Well

Coming back to the topic of giving feedback, let’s explore how we can do it well. After gaining comfort in seeking and receiving feedback, after initial reluctance and awkwardness, you may find that others around you are following suit and offering constructive criticism in helpful ways that are received as care and kindness.

Getting practised at giving feedback can be an important part of normalising it in the culture of your workplace. An excellent resource for readiness in giving feedback is Brene Brown’s “Engaged Feedback” list. In it, she identifies 10 points to put us in the best possible state of mind prior to offering feedback. It highlights the importance of being open and vulnerable as part of setting the tone for the conversation. 

My top four from the list of ten are: 

3. I’m ready to listen, ask questions, and accept that I may not fully understand the issue.

This reminds us to focus on being receptive and committed to understanding more deeply before responding. 

6. I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you.

Blame and being held to account often go hand in hand as our childhood experiences will attest.  Many of us have conflated these into the same thing, but the experience of being held to account without blame or shame can be transformative and helps to reshape how we relate to accountability as something positive that can help us grow. 

7. I’m willing to own my part.

Taking responsibility is not a strength in our society, as this changes we can own up to how we may have contributed to the situation, by not providing sufficient support or information, it may be systemic conditions that contribute but we can still own our part and take responsibility for overcoming the issue. 

9. I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunity.

Putting feedback into the context of development is as important as indicating you care how the feedback is received. 

This is a start to get you thinking differently about feedback. It’s also worth noting that there’s a good chance you were never given an opportunity to learn specifically about how to give and receive feedback. It’s one of the many things we’re just expected to know how to do, that we learn by watching others, and often not done skillfully. 

If you’d like to learn more about improving your feedback skills contact Tathra Street for information about coaching or the group workshop “Giving and Receiving Feedback”.

To book a workshop for your team click here. 

Or to give feedback to Tathra click here