Many organizations are moving toward a culture of “continuous feedback.” On the surface, it sounds straightforward, but in reality, pitfalls await around every corner.
To avoid them, companies must take an inclusive approach when giving and receiving feedback. Too often, managers lack the knowledge and skills to deliver effective feedback and unintentionally do more harm to their employees and colleagues or miss the opportunity to truly maximize performance.
The idea of needing to be extra careful with how one gives and receives feedback is stressful and, at times, paralyzing. Ultimately, is bungled feedback better than no feedback? I tend to think so.
Research shows that women of color receive less feedback, guidance and mentoring than white colleagues. I’d rather someone strive and give me feedback, even if not in the most ideal way, than not try at all.
It is, however, important to recognize that bias often creeps into feedback. For example, researchers from Stanford University found that when women received developmental feedback, there tended to be a predominant focus on personality and communication style, with 76% of “too aggressive” references appearing in job reviews of women.
A few common pitfalls to avoid when giving feedback:
- Bias that shapes to whom you give feedback and on what.
- Delivering feedback in a way that makes it less likely for the recipient to absorb it effectively, including missing cultural and style differences.
- Imposing your own notions of performance, leadership and talent on others, often shaped by your own experiences, background, biases and dominant culture.
By utilizing insights from neuroscience, cross-cultural knowledge and inclusive best practices, managers and colleagues can take action in delivering feedback more effectively, driving the business and individual growth outcomes they seek.
Below, we’ll take a look at how to do this.
Part 1: Feedback preparation
As you consider the overall mix of feedback:
“Strive for five.” Studies have found that a ratio of 5:1 (positive: negative) feedback may be the ideal balance. Over time, for every piece of critical or constructive feedback you offer, aim to deliver five messages of positive feedback or affirmations.
Often, when people hear the term “culture of continuous feedback” in workplaces, their minds envision an experience where everyone is getting critical feedback at every turn, as in “here’s what you could have done better.” This method has the unintended impact of putting some people in “fight, flight or freeze” mode, causing a constant fear of making mistakes or becoming too focused on the negative and missing the opportunity to lean into an asset-based mindset and approach.
Neuroscience research has found that feedback conversations, as they commonly exist today, activate a social threat response in the brain, interfering with the ability to think clearly and raising participants’ heart rates by as much as 50%. “Strive for five” can help lower these brain processing barriers.
As you consider the content of your feedback:
Ask yourself, how might this feedback be shaped by my own cultural, background or style preferences? Am I expecting others to do things in the way I would? Where do my notions of performance and leadership come from, and how have they been shaped by my own background, experiences and values? Before I jump into evaluation mode, how might I expand my openness to the “how”/approach while staying focused on the “what”/outcomes? If someone else with a different identity acted in that way, would I have the same feedback?
Make your feedback more about you than the recipient; bias comes into play anytime we evaluate others. Affinity bias (rating others who are like us more highly), confirmation bias (paying more attention to information that conforms to our assumptions and beliefs), and many other types of biases shape how we experience and rate others’ behavior and performance.
As you consider the delivery of your feedback:
Implement the platinum rule. “Treat others as they would like to be treated” (rather than the “golden rule” of treating others as you would like to be treated). Cultures around the globe, across racial, ethnic and other demographic lines, vary in terms of norms and values and can shape individual preferences. Increase your understanding and awareness of those differences, aiming to meet the recipient of the feedback closer to their preferences.
For example, if someone has a more indirect style, infuse diplomacy and context into your feedback while retaining clarity and concreteness. You might say something like, “given your relationship orientation, I can see that you care deeply about how others are feeling and may not want to ruffle feathers. I am concerned about the slipping project timelines. To deepen your impact, how might you more clearly hold your teammates accountable for deliverables — in a way that is authentic to you?”
Part 2: Engaging in the feedback conversation
Here are some additional strategies to consider during the conversation:
Tackle the problem, not the person.
To help lower instinctive defenses triggered by incoming feedback, take the position of collaborating with the recipient, jointly tackling the problem or opportunity. Instead of being on opposite sides of the table, imagine yourself as the manager who swings their chair around to sit on the same side as the employee and then collectively figure out how best to tackle it. By using this inclusive approach, you’ll convey empathy as the feedback-giver, which can help the recipient feel valued for their strengths and assets while also honoring the agency they have in owning their performance.
Name the flavor of feedback sought or given.
Often, the many types of offered feedback are lumped under one umbrella and overshadowed by the “critical/constructive” feedback category. It can be helpful to name the nature of feedback given or that you are seeking. In Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, co-authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen identify three primary types of feedback:
- Appreciation – gives recognition for contributions or performance and celebrates progress or accomplishments. Example: “Would it be helpful to hear what I love about the work you did on that project?”
- Coaching – supports growth and development through helping someone expand their knowledge, skills and capabilities. Example: “Is this a good time to share some coaching feedback, or would you prefer we get time at the end of the day? We can put our heads together to debrief the project kick-off.”
- Evaluation – helps someone understand where they are when it comes to their performance. Example: “I’d like to better understand how I’m doing relative to the expectations of this new role.”
By naming the type of feedback you are asking for or giving, it helps frame the content and makes it easier to process. It also creates shared language that can help bridge cultural differences, especially when there may be varying comfort levels in asking for these different types of feedback.
Seek to understand the perspective of the other person.
Make room for the possibility that you might be missing something and that you might be wrong in your impression or understanding of events. Invite the other person to share their perspective and experience and remain open-minded to new information. Make the feedback a two-way conversation.
While it can be overwhelming to consider the many dimensions of effective feedback, it is a practice that has a strong return on investment. It is an art where practice makes progress, and progress better ensures that your intention aligns with impact, resulting in stronger performances from your employees and colleagues, as well as stronger relationships, partnership and trust.
Even when you may only have a minute before delivering “real-time” feedback to a colleague after a meeting, taking the 60 seconds to mentally check these steps can help ensure your message lands as intended.
- To whom am I giving feedback (avoid bias)
- On what (content)
- How, when and where (delivery)
- Why (consider the type of feedback and how to tackle the opportunity together)
Organizations that embrace the intentional practice of inclusive and effective feedback are better positioned for accomplishing their strategic and business objectives — achieving them while also uplifting their people and their performances.
About the Author
June Yoshinari Davis is the chief of staff and director of strategy for U.S. Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In her inclusion and diversity work at Cargill, she led efforts to embed best practices and processes into the organization spanning 150,000+ employees across 70+ countries. Follow her LinkedIn and Twitter.