Giving helpful feedback

3 things you need to know about the feedback you are doling out

By Dina D'Avirro Varacalli

Giving helpful feedback

Feedback, especially in a work environment, is very important not only to recognize that it exists at every turn but also to make good use of it. But feedback is a two-way street. Learning to receive feedback is important, but let’s not forget the other direction. Knowing how and why to give feedback is beneficial to the giver and the whole team. Effective feedback could mean anything from a minor but needed course change by one individual, to a complete overhaul of an entire team’s outlook. Giving good feedback means you know why you’re saying it, how you’re saying it and even how it’s being heard. Here’s 3 things to keep in mind to make your feedback truly effective.

Why you give feedback can be the difference between it being acted upon or even received.

Not all feedback is created equal. Kim Scott’s theory of Radical Candor explains that feedback is made of two components: how much you care about or “give a damn”, and how much you challenge the other person by saying what you really think. These two orthogonal axis’ give us four kinds of feedback: radical candor, obnoxious aggressiveness, manipulative insincerity and ruinous empathy.

Radical candor

Imagine overhearing four different comments to Team X after their presentation about their new product (which is awesome). One person says, “That was a waste of my time. Learn to give proper presentations.” – that’s obnoxious aggression, they said exactly what they felt without caring about improving the presentation. Another says, “That was fun. See you at the next meeting.” – that’s manipulative insincerity, they don’t care about future actions nor do they say what’s on their mind. Another colleague says, “The team did such a great job on the product. Keep up the good work!” – that’s ruinous empathy, they found the good things to praise but didn’t give any productive comments. Finally, you hear, “Great product, the team really killed it! But next time, slow down so we can understand all the awesomeness, and stop clicking your pen.” – that’s radical candor, they care to encourage your accomplishments but are willing to tell you what they think about your presentation style. What factors come into play in giving feedback (caring and challenging) can make a world of difference in the feedback being effective.

How you give feedback can be the difference between being effective and being a waste of time.

Effective feedback means your words are heard, understood and accepted. It doesn’t necessarily mean your feedback will be acted upon, but it gives the receiver something useful to work with. When you give effective feedback, you’ll be asked for more, and your opinions will be more readily heard. Here’s four tips to help you get your message across:

Make feedback about behaviors, not personality.

All feedback should come as a direct reaction to some behavior or action. Your comments should be about that behavior/action, not about the person’s personality or intelligence or any other trait. Telling your teammate that they are nervous in front of crowds is begging for the message to get lost in denial or anger. Telling them they were speaking quickly and clicking their pen, gives them the chance to understand your meaning.

Make feedback personal, explain how you have been affected.

Since you only know what you experienced, limit your comments to your thoughts and feelings. Then the receiver has a chance to assess the validity of what they’re hearing. When you say you had a hard time following the presentation because they were speaking too quickly, they have a chance to assess the impact of their actions.

Be specific, give examples.

Being specific in you feedback and giving specific examples lets the person focus on facts. They will be less inclined to react emotionally if they know exactly how you felt and when. Telling your coworker that you couldn’t follow the details of the new UI because they were flying through the screenshots and the clicking really distracted you from understanding all the technical language, you give them facts to focus on and a direction to go in.

Feedback can be all in the timing.

Feedback should be timely, recent enough that the actions you’re talking about are remembered but not so soon that the person isn’t ready to hear comments. Starting feedback by saying, “Remember the presentation you gave a couple weeks before the holidays…” automatically shifts any factual discussions into the land of once upon a time where facts become fiction. Approaching someone as they collect their laptop and clicky-pen from the conference room table may mean treading on already frail nerves.

What you say depends a lot on who you say it to.

Everyone is different, no two people will witness something in the same way. No two people have the same experiences, teachings or cultural history such that they understand the exact same thing from the same comment. Working in a multicultural environment means being mindful of cultural differences that might affect how someone hears you.

Be conscious of your word choice. Different cultures hear different things in response to “upgrader” words, like “absolutely” or “totally”; or “downgrader” words like “kind of” or “a little bit”. What you think is the tone of your message or an underlying assumption may be completely lost on someone from another culture. If a British colleague says, “I suggest you think about this option”, the German colleague hears, “Think about this, it’s up to you.” But the British are famously understated and the Germans are typically more direct. To get your meaning across to a German colleague you may need to say, “You need to start doing it this way from now on.” Conversely, the German colleague’s message would be lost in aggression and arrogance to a British coworker without first some positive feedback then starting by saying, “Here’s a few small suggestions…”

Finding the appropriate balance between positive and negative feedback for each culture is important. Russian colleagues may appreciate the directness of simply giving negative criticism without masking it in positive feedback first. Americans may not be receptive to negative feedback without first some positive comments. The Dutch say what’s on their mind and don’t couch their negative feedback with any downgraders. Koreans, on the other hand, find direct negative feedback as extremely rude and arrogant.

Navigating a multicultural environment, even in the closed case of feedback, can be complicated. For a more in depth look, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer explores navigating a multicultural work environment.

Learning to give feedback effectively can make the difference between the feedback being understood and acted upon; and a colleague being insulted and ignoring your comments. More importantly, if you learn to give effective feedback, you will certainly be encouraged to give more by the receivers. Your opinions and comments are valuable and learning how to give them properly gives you your voice.