The Art and Science of Feedback
Updated: Aug 12
Feedback: necessary for the success of any organization, it is one of the most difficult processes to conduct effectively. Done poorly, it has been shown to decrease employee productivity and engagement (Mazur 2021). However, when done properly, it can lead to huge increases in efficiency, engagement, employee retention, and contribute to a healthy culture in the workplace (Mazur 2021).
What is Feedback?
Some say feedback is the distance between reality and desired goals. Others say it is an activity that influences people and encourages them to take action. Currently, feedback is moving towards an image as a two-way conversation that is collaborative, informal, and nonrestrictive. It is no longer just an annual meeting between a supervisor and an employee.
The feedback process has four parts: context, source, message and recipient.
The source is the giver of feedback. Effective sources are trustworthy and have expertise in what they’re giving feedback about. Recipients are more likely to be receptive to feedback from sources they see as credible.
The message is the actual content of the feedback. A positive message praises, appreciates, or lets the recipient know they have met their goals. A negative feedback message means the recipient is not on track to meet their goals. The tone, word choice, and framing of the message is very important. Focusing on the actions and work of a person through behavior oriented feedback also allows the message to be more effective.
The recipient is the person on the opposite side of the message. Their personal beliefs, values, and background will influence how they react to the feedback message. Their sense of self-efficacy, previous experiences with feedback, and other attitudes influence whether they are likely to be defensive in response to negative feedback.
The context of feedback underlies the entire process. It includes things like timeliness, modality, and space. Feedback is most effective given right after an event, and face to face. However, face to face feedback can also result in more cushioned feedback. It is important to give feedback in a private space so the recipient doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Cultural factors are also important in feedback context settings, including things like psychological safety and openness.
(Source: Riordan 2021)
Why is Feedback important?
65% of employees say they desire more feedback and 75% of employees who get feedback say it is valuable (Mazur 2021). So feedback is both desired and highly regarded. Feedback enables your organization to evaluate itself and improve. It contributes to micro and macro level growth. It has been shown to boost employee performance, engagement, and enable organizations to improve productivity.
Feedback is meant to support and improve your organization and its people. It provides acknowledgement of an employee's work and helps make everyone feel like they are represented. In fact, 89% of HR officials agree that ongoing feedback is essential to successful completion of projects (Mazur 2021).
Types of Feedback
There are also several different types of feedback messages: positive, negative, formal, process, personal, behavioral, and backwards and forwards facing.
Positive feedback is the ideal type of feedback for both the giver and receiver. It leaves the receiver feeling acknowledged for their efforts, and appreciated. This includes things like telling the receiver that they did a good job, and pointing out the parts of their work that stood out.
Negative feedback, also known as constructive feedback, highlights the gaps between current performance and desired goals. Although it is not negative in the sense of being bad, It is called negative feedback because it can result in the receiver having negative emotions such as anger and frustration. It can be very effective if used well, but it must be communicated carefully to make sure the other person doesn’t end up feeling attacked or have the opposite effect of disengaging the employee.
Formal feedback or outcome feedback is the most common conceptualization of feedback. It is conducted in a planned setting that has a set time period and is an assessment that is cumulative. Formal feedback can include things like annual performance reviews, and is typically conducted between an employee and a supervisor to talk about the highlights and things to work on from the previous year, for the next year. Although this kind of feedback is important and has some elements to make it effective, the formal feedback process by itself underutilizes feedback. For example, if an employee is assigned a few different projects over the course of a year and starts off strong, but has issues closer to the annual performance review, then that can lead to feedback that doesn’t take into account the earlier positives. On the flip side, if an employee is having issues near the beginning of the year, they will have to wait until their review to get that reflection and become aware of it.
Process or ongoing feedback is the opposite of formal feedback. Instead of being given after an outcome is reached, it is given throughout the course of a project or time period. It is a lot more informal and is useful as people can internalize it and apply it to their current work. These types of conversation are non-evaluative, and can include things such as quarterly reviews or even simple conversations between a supervisor and their employee that occur every day. Negative process feedback is especially helpful, as it is corrective and doesn’t have the evaluative pressure on the employee.
Behavioral feedback is opposed to personal feedback. It focuses on the actions and work that a person does rather than on their characteristics. Behavioral feedback is most important to keep in mind while giving out negative feedback. Saying things such as “the presentation lacked good graphics and other elements of visual interest” is more effective than saying “you created a boring presentation.” This also helps with making feedback sound specific and based on evidence rather than opinionated. Something that can help with making feedback sound behavioral is avoiding words like “you” and “I” so it does not sound accusatory.
Personal feedback focuses on the person as a whole. Personal feedback is not preferred. This is because it erases the line between effort and outcome and instead makes it dependent on inherent ability. Saying things like “you are a really good public speaker” sounds good in theory, but it can have unintended consequences for failures. If the receiver has a slip up the next time they present, they will chalk it up to their inherent ability, not something in the process or situation that didn’t work out. This can demoralize people and make them less likely to fairly evaluate their performance.
Backwards facing feedback is the natural orientation of feedback. It is used to evaluate behaviors that have already happened. However, people cannot do anything to address these behaviors or outcomes and can get defensive about it.
Forwards facing feedback orients feedback to address the future and give people an opportunity to internalize and apply their feedback. Saying things like “I hope your next presentation has more visual graphics” instead of saying “Your presentation did not have enough visual interest” not only allows people to understand their negative feedback but also provides an opportunity to do something about it.
How to give Feedback
Giving feedback can be a challenge. Not all feedback is positive, but that’s what makes it valuable. Oftentimes, people who have to give critical feedback find it uncomfortable to do, or are concerned about its reception. This can lead to measures that try to cushion criticism with praise or evade it altogether.
To avoid this, a good framework to use is the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) model. First, the giver begins by describing the situation with when a certain behavior happened and its surrounding context. Saying something like “At the team check-in meeting this morning,” will make sure the recipient is aware and shows the feedback is directed at a specific instance, not an attack on the person as a whole.
The behavior is addressed next. It is important to be very specific and not person-focused in this instance, and being as empirical as possible. This means saying something like “I felt a little disrespected by your comment about the pictures in my presentation” rather than “you tried to discredit me” or “I know you don’t like me anyway”.
Finally, tie off the feedback with the effects of the behavior. Saying something like “I was embarrassed by your comments because everyone laughed and would have preferred to hear them in private” talks about the giver’s feelings, and why it is important to change the behavior. It also gives an alternative for the future so the recipient can feel like they can use the feedback with their future actions (Center for Creative Leadership 2020).
When giving feedback, it is important to also allow people time to process it. Because emotional reactions are often “knee jerk” or instinctual, hearing negative feedback can trigger that. When that occurs, giving people the time and space to process the feedback rationally can help not escalate or accidentally hurt other people’s feelings.
While giving feedback, practicing active listening is essential (Riordan 2021). Giving feedback is more than just talking, it is also about listening to the recipient without distractions or prior biases. The way the giver perceives the conversation and the way the recipient perceives it can differ in important ways. To avoid misunderstandings and make sure there is a common understanding of the information being presented, listening by paying active attention and repeating your understanding of what the recipient says can help.
How to Receive Feedback
When receiving feedback, it is important to remember it is there to help one grow. It is not meant to put people down or point out their weaknesses, but to make them better people.
However, even with this, it can be difficult to hear negative feedback. People tend to react emotionally, even if they don't think they are. There are certain triggers in feedback that can especially elicit emotional responses (Soundview 2019; Stone & Heen 2015). “Truth triggers” occur with the actual feedback message, if it does not look helpful or truthful to the situation. “Relationship triggers” are about the giver of feedback. Because feedback occurs in the context of relationships, the relationship between the giver and the recipient becomes the focus of this trigger. For example, this could be a supervisor that is perceived to be unfair in other areas giving feedback. And finally, “identity triggers” occur internally. If feedback makes the recipient feel overwhelmed, threatened, or lose their sense of self, they are more likely to respond emotionally (Stone & Heen 2015).
These emotional triggers can be conquered by actively listening, asking questions to clarify the feedback, and focusing the feedback towards future behaviors. Additionally, assuming the giver of feedback has positive intentions with their feedback, owning the response portion of the feedback conversation, and being aware of the response internally can also help mitigate emotional triggers.
Overall, giving and receiving feedback are critical leadership skills. Need help with creating a healthy feedback culture or training your supervisors to give feedback? Please call or book a free consultation with us to discuss.
KCC Webinar: The Art and Science of Feedback
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