In business as in life, there’s an art to handling feedback.
Get it right, and feedback can resolve conflicts, errors, and low morale. It can even improve productivity and have a healthy impact on your company’s bottom line. But get it wrong—or worse, avoid delivering feedback at all—and small issues can turn into big problems that have far-reaching consequences across your organization.
Even though feedback is one of the most useful tools we have for improvement, often the mere thought of engaging in a feedback session is enough to make most of us squirm.
Personally, I feel conflicted when it comes to feedback—I want it so I can improve, but I loathe the process of receiving a critique that publicly exposes my weaknesses. And it gets worse when I have to deliver feedback to someone else. I don’t want to put the other person down, and in some cases it’s just too uncomfortable to tell someone how I think they can improve.
To help myself and other entrepreneurs who have a tough time with feedback, I dug deeper into the issue.
Turns out there are plenty of research-backed strategies to draw upon that make the act of giving and receiving feedback in business a valuable experience.
Here's Why Feedback Makes Us Feel Uncomfortable
Before we dive deep into those strategies, it’s important to understand why poor feedback can have such a negative influence on our well being. Put simply: our brains are geared to remember negative events more prominently than positive ones, so criticism can really sting.
As Karen Wright explains in Psychology Today, evidence for this so-called negativity bias emerged 15 years ago. Experiments showed that people tend to weigh flaws more heavily than attributes when sizing up other people. Similarly, losses loomed larger than gains in financial risk-taking behavior. In other words, our brains are geared to remember negative events more prominently than positive ones.
One possible reason for this negativity bias is that we're social creatures, and our survival has long relied on being included in social groups. As Wright puts it, "people couldn't survive outside of the cooperative hunter-gatherer milieu in which our psyches were forged. Isolation or ostracism was potentially lethal then, and still is. In some very real sense, our social connections keep us alive.”
According to Wright, the reason we hang onto negative experiences so strongly is because we feel threatened when we receive criticism—"the threat of exclusion, abandonment, and ostracism that accompanies [negative feedback]."
Neal Ashkanasy, a professor of management at the University of Queensland, says this comes back to our sense of identity. “Identity is very closely tied up to the groups we belong to. Strong criticism threatens your membership in that group, and that's a powerful force.”
So when you’re trying to alleviate discomfort in a feedback session, you're competing with a centuries old, primordial fear based response that's gunning for survival. No pressure.
How to Give Feedback
If you're due to deliver feedback to a teammate, you have a fine line to walk. Your job is to share how they can improve their work, without making them feel inadequate or unworthy in the process.
Let's look at some strategies you can use to provide clear and effective feedback that doesn't come across as antagonistic, or as a personal attack.
In a 2014 study, 43% of managers said giving feedback was a "stressful and difficult experience." It’s natural, but it’s detrimental: this discomfort can actually decrease the effectiveness of your feedback.
Liane Davey, writing for Harvard Business Review, says "I find that most managers’ anxiety and discomfort about delivering a difficult message inadvertently makes it come off as antagonistic, rather than supportive."
If you’re feeling nervous about delivering feedback, go for a soothing walk or use a simple breathing technique to calm your anxiety before entering the feedback session.
Act Like an Ally
If you feel uncomfortable delivering feedback, your discomfort may be felt and mirrored by the recipient.
Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, suggests you can reduce your own discomfort by framing your feedback as a way of helping the other person.
"When you feel like you are helping someone, your anxiety will naturally decrease," she says.
According to Davey, it’s helpful if you feel like you're invested in the other's person's success before delivering feedback: “Don’t deliver the feedback until you can honestly say you’re ready to give it as an ally.”
Open the Discussion with Questions
A smart way to open feedback sessions is to open with questions—ask the other person to share how they see their own performance. According to both Ashkanasy and Wright, this can give both you and the recipient joint ownership of the discussion, so the feedback feels less like a one-sided attack and more like a conclusion you and the recipient have reached together.
"You can even ask for feedback about yourself to underscore that the other person is a partner in the conversation, not a target," says Wright.
Acknowledge the Recipient's Strengths
Although it might seem obvious to you when someone is doing great work, it's not always obvious to them. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Development at IMD International Jean-François Manzoni pointed out the importance of acknowledging the recipient’s strong points before addressing areas where they need to improve.
"Advice is more likely to be welcome if it builds on comments acknowledging and celebrating this year’s performance," he says.
Before you deliver feedback, lay a bed of goodwill. Start your feedback by first expressing gratitude for good work before following up with constructive criticism.
Have you ever walked away from receiving feedback wondering how you'll make your work more "lively," since you don't really know what it means? I've had plenty of experiences like this. An editor might tell me an article is not as "meaty" or "useful" as it could be, or that "there's something missing," with no further direction. And I’m not the only one. During my research, I came across frustrated designers dealing with client feedback as vague as “I’m just not happy with this” and “jazz it up a bit.”
Some of Ireland’s creative community were so fed up with this kind of feedback that they got together to create a series of posters illustrating the most frustratingly vague feedback they’ve received. The series includes feedback like “I like it, but can the snow look a little warmer?”, “The sandwich needs to be more playful”, and “Make it pop.”
The best feedback I've received has always been specific and actionable. It tells you exactly which area to focus on, and how to improve it—or, at least, what exactly is wrong with it.
To act on your feedback, the other person needs to understand exactly what you mean. It can be tempting to offer vague feedback, especially when you're not sure yourself why you do or don't like something. But telling someone "It needs to be more readable," or "It's not as lively as I'd like" isn't very helpful.
As Jonas Downey highlights on Signal v. Noise, delivering specific feedback is crucial: “Instead of saying, "Hey this design looks bad and weird," you’ll say, "This doesn’t fit in well with our usual styling."
Specifics and actionable steps give your colleagues direction about what they need to improve, and how they can go about it.
How to Receive Feedback
So what about receiving feedback? Writing for Harvard Business Review, management consultant Peter Bregman says feedback "exposes you to yourself, which is why it is both tremendously unsettling and exceptionally valuable."
While it can be tough to be on the receiving end of feedback, there are a few things you can do to make the experience less fearful, and more effective.
Solicit Feedback from People You Trust
Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College, says negative feedback is most useful and well-received when the person receiving the feedback initiates the exchange.
“It's important to recognize that it's human nature not to want unsolicited, negative advice. We don't want people to tell us something negative unless we ask for it and are ready to hear it,” he says.
We also tend to have trouble taking on feedback from someone we don't see as an authority figure. According to William Doherty, a family therapist at the University of Minnesota, this often causes problems in families with stepparents, where the stepparent is seen by the children as "ineligible" to provide feedback.
At work, this situation could arise from a colleague offering criticism or praise. Because we expect this from people of authority, feedback from colleagues can come across as a power play—especially when it's unsolicited.
While it won’t always be possible, try to actively connect with those you respect for feedback sessions. This way, you'll naturally be more receptive to what they have to say, and your work will likely improve more as a result of the interaction.
Set Expectations with "Thirty Percent Feedback"
One of my favorite approaches to feedback comes from Jason Freedman at 42floors.
Freedman himself discovered the approach after asking one of his investors for feedback on a product mockup:
“...he (the investor) asked if I felt like I was ninety percent done or thirty percent done. If I was ninety percent done, he would try to correct me on every little detail possible because otherwise a typo might make it into production. But if I had told him I was only thirty percent done, he would gloss over the tiny mistakes, knowing that I would correct them later. He would engage in broader conversations about what the product should be.”
After that meeting, Freedman took on the idea of "Thirty Percent Feedback":
“So a few months later on a different project, I came to him with some questions on a project that was still in its early stages and we wrestled with the direction together. I didn't polish anything and he made sure not to critique things he knew I would fix later. It was really freeing.”
Jason’s unique approach can help you set expectations for the feedback you want. By asking a trusted mentor or colleague for "Thirty Percent Feedback," you can avoid the frustration of what feels like nitpicking before you're ready to focus on tiny details.
It also helps you focus your energy and hard work on the right areas, because you can get useful feedback on the broad direction of your work early on.
Provide Regular Updates to Your Team
One way Freedman incorporates Thirty Percent Feedback at 42floors is to encourage his team members to demonstrate what they have accomplished to the entire team on a regular basis. Rather than seeking feedback when a project is near-complete, this method helps employees get used to sharing work that's not perfect, or finished, and adjusting their approach during the earlier stages of a project.
Team members at Basecamp also share weekly status reports called "heartbeats." Although employees do keep “open projects” so that other team members to see what they're working on, team member Jonas Downey says "the heartbeats proved more successful than the open project" when it came to getting feedback from others.
“The open project is like a dirty workroom—people feel bad wandering in and criticizing what you're doing while you're doing it,” he says.
Heartbeats, on the other hand, are regular updates that are open for discussion and feedback. It's a systematized way for the team to share ideas and feedback with each other as they work.
Separate Yourself From Your Work
Downey also suggests trying to separate yourself from your work when receiving feedback. "If you're working on a project you care about, you're invested," he says. "Sharing your work puts your ass on the line, and hearing a negative reaction will sting."
But, Downey also admits that "the only way to make something great is to recognize that it might not be great yet." If you can separate your own emotions and self-worth from your work, you'll be able to improve more by taking on useful feedback.
Karen Wright at Psychology Today adds that taking a deep breath can help when receiving negative feedback. "It's probably going to hurt," she says. "Try not to talk too much. Instead, lean back and learn."
Above all else, remember that feedback isn't easy for anyone—not the giver nor the receiver.
Because we’re wired to cling to negative feedback, and are often emotionally invested in our work, no matter which strategies you use to handle the exchange, the act of sharing and receiving feedback calls for a careful, respectful approach.