By Tara Swanson and Tim Ottinger

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Earlier, we presented an article on receiving feedback. People told us it was helpful and requested that we provide a companion article on giving feedback as well.

Working collaboratively within and across teams means plenty of opportunities to continuously improve the way we work together. This also means we need to be able to both provide and receive feedback, so we can continue to learn from each other and understand our own impact.

Language and intention matter when giving constructive feedback to others.

When done well, giving feedback fosters trust and improves our ability to get more done faster. When done poorly, we can cause defensiveness and hinder productivity.

So how do we do this thoughtfully with one another?

I was once in a planning meeting with a product delivery team where the lead developer was growing increasingly frustrated with an architect he was working with. When the architect stepped out of the room to take a phone call, this developer started taking shots at the engineer and making sarcastic comments about the decisions that were being made from a design perspective. His concerns were valid. His approach could have been different, and of course, probably not a great idea to suddenly start behaving this way and venting about a person once they leave the room.

Our intention is to Make People Awesome.

We want to give people the feedback that they need to become amazing at their work. In the above story, we would like to have the absent architect receive and consider the design comments and learn from them. This way, the architect may improve his functional skills and provide better solutions going forward.

In the same vein, though, the developer had some good functional skills but clearly had a problem with their behavioral skills. It is unlikely that the best way to move forward is with the developer and the architect countermanding each other’s decisions, fighting for dominance, and feeling resentful/wrathful over their treatment.

This behavioral flaw was likely to lead to a damaging team dynamic in the future if the problem between them was not resolved.

Feedback is wrapped up in human working relationships and is a complicated topic. Many books could be written on this topic, and indeed many have. We will list a few of our favorites at the bottom of this blogpost.

Drawing on many of these sources, we present a simplified pattern here. If you’re in a hurry, you could certainly do far worse than follow this outline!

If you have the time, please consider digging deeper into the literature suggested below. Feel free to recommend additional sources you have found useful in the comments section.

A Process for Giving Feedback

When you deliver feedback, the first step(s) are all about you and not about them. You will spend time centering yourself, being aware of your intentions and relationship, considering your motivation, thinking about outcomes. When you have your internal state all sorted, then you are in a position to help others.

To help make other people awesome, we begin with the steps of making safety a priority.

A few things to consider when you’re getting ready to give someone feedback:

  1. Check your emotional state. The times when we are most motivated to express ourselves are often not the best times to do so. Are you feeling exasperated, offended, angry, wrathful, resentful, frustrated? If so, you are more likely to be speaking from yourself rather than speaking to the other person.

    We all are human, and as such, we tend to assign motivations and intentions to others. We fall prey to the Fundamental Attribution Error. Be sure that you want to discuss behavior, not imagined motivations or intentions.

    Are you willing to take “no” for an answer, or are you deeply invested in them doing as you prefer? Do you feel that you have to be heard and obeyed? Whatever your feedback is, it’s better to work from a basis of improving a working relationship than exerting control.

  2. Check your motivation. What are you hoping will come of the feedback? Do you expect to feel better for having expressed yourself, or will it produce a better working relationship? Do you care personally for the other person’s success? Are you doing this for them, or you? For the team, including them? If you are confronting them selfishly, you might want to consider that long walk again.

  3. Make sure you have permission. There are many ways to be invited to give feedback to another person:
    • You were asked by them to provide feedback
    • You have an agreement in place
    • You are required by company policies to give feedback
    • You have asked them for permission to share your feedback
  4. Consider your relationship with this person. Do you know them well? Do you know what approach to consider? Do you know how to express yourself so that they will understand your motivation and intention?

  5. Talk privately A meeting full of people likely isn’t the best time to provide direct feedback that may be challenging for someone to hear, so look for a time when you can chat with them one-on-one.

  6. Have a plan. It’s sometimes hard to find the right words and courage to give someone feedback. You can avoid biases and opinions by utilizing a simple framework that shares an observation, like SBIN.
    • Situation: Describe the what/where/when specifics around the feedback you’ll be providing
    • Behavior: Share the behavior you witnessed and try to leave out opinions and assumptions. (Example: instead of “you’re clearly frustrated with so-and-so,” try a direct quote if you can, like “I heard you say ‘I can’t work with Greg anymore.’”)
    • Impact: Who did this impact, and how?
    • Next: Where do we go from here? What did we learn, and can we change the way we approach this in the future?
  7. Time is of the essence. Give feedback in a timely manner, but ensure you’re in a good headspace to deliver it. If you need a little time to prep, take it, but timebox it to a reasonable window of time to keep the feedback relevant.

  8. Don’t let it be all about correction. Sometimes it’s important to let people know what you value about working with them, the way they approach problems, and how they deal with people. If your feedback is always about your issues with their way of being, you may convince them that they will never be good enough for you, at which time the “what the hell” effect kicks in. Remember that this is about relationships, and specifically working relationships.

  9. Make it bi-directional. Sometimes it’s good to invite feedback. Ask the person if you’ve been a good colleague for them, and give them a chance to be earnest with you. When they do, consider the rules for receiving feedback.

Feedback delivered. Then what?

Sometimes people need a bit of time to process feedback that they’ve been given. Give them that time.

Even then, you should not feel that you are entitled to changes in the other person’s behaviors. The feedback you’ve given them is information. As separate beings with their own minds and autonomy, they can choose whether to make adjustments or not. If they decide to make a change, they may choose different ways to adapt than you would have expected.

Habits are slow to change. If the other person is willing to make adjustments for you, it still may take a long time to break their old habits and acquire new ones. When you see them trying, let them know you appreciate it. Don’t expect them to make an immediate 180º turn.

Summary and Resources

While there isn’t one “right way” to give feedback, and it may feel uncomfortable or awkward for you at first, each time you flex this muscle, you’ll get better at it and get more comfortable with it.

As the old adage goes, “treat others the way you’d like to be treated.” How would you like to be approached if someone had to give you feedback? This perspective will help you actively listen, empathize, and lead with curiosity instead of judgment.

Feedback is an extraordinarily powerful tool for us to improve the relationships we have with others. Improving our feedback skills will help build safety and trust, leading to higher performance.