How to give (and receive) more thoughtful feedback

Humans are conditioned to respond positively to praise. Yet why do we sometimes wince when a colleague offers up a friendly bit of constructive feedback?

Personally, I’m often guilty of this. I still cringe at the sight of extensive editing in Google Docs, despite years of having my work scrutinized and carved up by newspaper editors in my previous career as a journalist. Tell me 10 things you loved about a piece, I’ll focus like mad on the one single thing you thought could have been better.

Egos at fault

British psychologists Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone took a deep dive into this topic for the BBC. Turns out our minds are especially adept at shunning feedback, and it takes work to condition them that a well-meaning comment shouldn’t trigger a fight-or-flight mechanism.

Feedback can sometimes be hard to hear. That's why it's important to assume good intent and meet employees at eye-level.

Feedback is not always easy to accept.

Nash and Winstone blame our fragile egos: “We all want to meet to our expectation of ourselves,” they wrote, “and so being critiqued – or even just the prospect of being critiqued – can present an enormous threat to our self-esteem and positive sense of identity.”

So how can we learn to quash that instinct to cower in the face of friendly feedback? It helps a lot if the incoming feedback is presented in a way that makes it easy to take in.

How Small Improvements does ongoing feedback

I joined Small Improvements late last year as a product marketing manager. Ongoing feedback plays a prominent role in my day-to-day work environment, and my coworkers rarely shy away from suggesting how something can be improved. Or praising something they liked. But what has impressed me the most is the overall level of care that defines our feedback culture. This ranges from the discussions that shape my day-to-day work to the weekly 1:1 Meetings I have with our CEO Per Fragemann.

Our head of brand and community Linda Jonas is particularly proficient at giving feedback. I remember a post I wrote early in my tenure on 1:1 Meetings. Part of what made the article perform was the guidance and feedback Linda offered from her then base in Sydney, Australia. She not only gave me suggestions on the overall tone and structure of the post but also took the time to identify areas where more clarity was needed.

So even when I woke up to see paragraphs of feedback awaiting me in our Slack conversations, I looked forward to it because it was helpful and immediately actionable. The post turned out to be one of the highest-performing ones we’ve published.

My key takeaways

Here’s what I’ve learned in the last six months about giving – and receiving – thoughtful feedback.

1. Utilize the expert

Linda lives and breathes HR and travels the world meeting with the best and brightest in the industry. She knows the trends and has exhibited a keen ability to predict what people will be talking about six months from now. So it would be foolish of me not to consider her input when I write.

Building on that notion, our product manager Jennifer Beecher finds it helpful to view feedback as an “offer” of help.

“I always go in with the assumption that if you’re an expert in your area, that means you have an expertise that I don’t have,” Jen said. “So I want to try and add on to what you know and expand that.”

2. Approach with and assume good intent

When faced with criticism our natural human inclination, according to Nash and Winstone, is to deflect its pain by finding flaws in the person giving the feedback. Assuming good intent is a key component to any healthy relationship, be it personal or professional. So curb the impulse to believe every piece of feedback has an ulterior motive behind it.

3. Don’t get defensive

Easier said than done, right? Nash and Winstone believe this is because feedback touches upon our deepest insecurities and anxieties. When giving feedback I remind myself not to take it personally or assume that it’s a critique of my overall performance. But I’m not immune to feelings of self-doubt when it comes to my writing. So it helps when I’m able to frame the feedback received as constructive (“I think your piece can be improved by incorporating these elements”), rather than critical (“I didn’t like the blog post”).

For the feedback-giver, this means developing a neutral tone and delivering it in clear, concise terms. Some feedback discussions are no doubt difficult, but there is a way to offer an employee an honest assessment of their work while also providing them with areas for development. Pay close attention as well to body language and tone (something which Deloitte addresses in detail on their blog). This should culminate with…

4. Giving actionable feedback

I’m big on this. It’s so much more helpful – and easier to absorb – if someone suggests “Why not use this other word instead?” versus a vague statement like “I don’t like this.” The more concrete and specific, the better. From the management perspective, telling an introverted employee to “be more extroverted” borders on useless feedback. But suggesting a direct report put together a team outing or contribute one suggestion to a meeting because you value their strategic input are actionable tasks. The desired change is specific and can be measured, compared to a subjective analysis of someone’s personality.

5. Feedback at eye-level

This suggestion was born out of a feedback workshop we did in July. One article in the Harvard Business Review reported a survey of nearly 20,000 employees saying that being “treated with respect” was more important than recognition or appreciation. So no matter the professional relationship between the two people in a feedback discussion, there needs to be a mutual level of respect.

“It’s important to recognize that you have observations and assumptions,” Jen said, “and that (in a feedback conversation) you’re building towards both people learning from the interaction.”