Take a Fresh Look at Feedback

As you engage in your day-to-day work, you’re giving and receiving feedback all the time—about things that concern you, your values, and behaviors that you like—whether you mean to or not. Feedback comes through via unconscious facial expressions, comments during meetings, or your level of enthusiasm.

Being intentional and strategic about feedback is a tremendous way to strengthen relationships, become more self-aware, and check your assumptions at the door. But be careful: if feedback is “weaponized” into a way to only deliver criticism, your good intentions can backfire and you can do great harm to your relationships and your organization’s culture. Feedback, like any other tool, can be used to harm or to heal.

Giving Feedback

I participated in a training a few years back by The Management Center in the SAW model of giving feedback:

  • S: Share your experience (what you loved or what concerned you) and how it affected you; mention why you think it matters.
  • A: Ask if you got it right and specifically acknowledge that you may have made assumptions. Although your experience is always valid, your assumptions, understanding, and perception can be wrong.

I don’t remember if this was in the training or not, but in my experience, this step is easy to skip. This step is critical! Depending on the situation and on the person you’re talking to, consider whether it might help to give the conversation a break at this point, and allow the other person

  • W: Wrap up with next steps and state what you expect or will do next. It’s fair game to make a request of the other person, don’t go into the conversation with an expectation of what the outcome will be. Allow the other person to have a say in determining next steps or even a solution.

I’ve found it helpful to prepare in advance what I want to say using the SAW steps, keeping the following characteristics in mind. The Management Center even offers this worksheet to help you prepare.

Critical Characteristics of Good Feedback

Having had experiences both good and bad, I’ve found each of the following elements to be invaluable when giving feedback:

  • Offer it in a timely manner. Although you do want to wait until strong emotions has subsided, don’t wait too long. You don’t want to forget—or allow the other person to forget—the details of the situation. No one is well served by dredging up things that happened months or years earlier.
  • Get permission first. Don’t startle someone with feedback that you think is important. Instead, ask them if you may speak to them about your experience or something you observed. Don’t assume that your intended recipient is in a moment of being able to hear what you have to say just because you are in a moment of feeling eager to speak.
  • Don’t speak from emotion. Emotions are an important part of our individual landscapes, but, when concerns arise, the situation can only be helped by waiting until you feel more objective. Anger can often feel like a moment of clarity, but allow anger to subside just as you would any other emotion.
  • Be specific. Talk about a single behavior or pattern of behaviors, not a person’s general character. Feedback should never be a smokescreen for making sweeping judgments. It’s often best if you talk about one example or one pattern per conversation. Even if you have multiple topics to cover, it can be hard for the listener to take it all in. Give the recipient time and space to incorporate one thing at a time, especially if your goal is to improve a situation.
  • Be accountable; speak from your experience. Never pass along messages for others and never report to someone else that “Many people think…” or “I’m not alone in… .” Individuals should be responsible for providing, or holding back, their own feedback.

If you are a manager, be particularly careful about this, as it’s a fast way to damage your organization’s culture and trust in you and among staff. If one staff person comes to you with a complaint about another, so long as it doesn’t put anyone in an unsafe position (e.g., bullying, harassment, etc.), as that person to first take it up directly with the other. The next step is to offer to join the conversation with the key aim of slowing it down and encouraging the development of innovative solutions–or, better yet, bring in a skilled, disinterested facilitator.

  • Keep it positive. Consider the possibility that all feedback can be shared as positive, whether you are offering praise or constructive suggestions. It may be a little unorthodox, but consider what it looks and feels like if feedback is given with the intention of supporting the other person in their own evolution, not telling them what you don’t like or how you think they should do something. In the end, it’s up to the other person to decide how to respond to your feedback. Why not give your feedback a chance by finding a way to make it positive?

Receiving Feedback

Receiving feedback well also is important. If you don’t seem open to feedback, you can come across to others as unconcerned at best, unpleasant at worst.

But soliciting useful and honest feedback can be a tricky endeavor in professional settings. Whereas feedback happens naturally in personal relationships, according to your family or social culture, norms feel more rigid at the workplace and on nonprofit boards, and it can be harder to read others’ cues or know how to respond in the moment.

Keep It Coming—and Going!

There are a few ways to get high-quality and helpful feedback, including, first and foremost, modeling good feedback yourself. Make it your practice to intentionally give and consciously receive feedback often. It oughtn’t wait for a loaded conversation or after you’ve been stewing on something. Stay attuned to your capacity to engage in thoughtful feedback and use it to build trust, open communication, and grow personally.

Adapted from a blog post that I originally wrote for Exponent Philanthropy. Reprinted with permission.