In an early episode of 30 Rock, the Tina Fey character, Liz Lemon, has agreed on behalf of the writers of the sketch comedy show they produce to tell the Alec Baldwin character, network executive Mr. Donaghy, that the writers don’t want him to be present (that is, offer uninvited ideas and feedback) during their sketch-writing sessions. Instead of carefully considering what to say and waiting for the “right” moment, however,  Liz approaches Mr. Donaghy as he enters the room and blurts out, “We don’t want you here anymore.” In the spirit of a positive work culture, Mr. Donaghy thanks her for her feedback, but then refuses to talk to Liz and hides in his office for a few days. This example of how NOT to give and equally how NOT to receive feedback makes us simultaneously cringe and empathize with both sides. Why?

We all remember someone who crushed our spirit with negative, badly delivered feedback. (And we can all remember times it may have been best to have not said what we said how we said it when we said it!) Thankfully, though, we can probably also remember someone who encouraged us or even altered our course for the better with positive feedback. What was the difference? Likely it had to do largely with the delivery style of the feedback and to a lesser degree with our personal mindset when receiving it. 

As leaders, it’s up to us to create and maintain a culture of encouragement so that giving and receiving feedback is as natural and connecting as a two-person ballroom dance or a good, old-fashioned game of backyard catch. Effective feedback allows employers and employees to discuss successes and shortcomings in order to produce better results. It also allows teams to work together more effectively, as well as understand their roles within the organization.

In any relationship, the people involved will take turns being the giver and the receiver of feedback, and you need skills to be on both sides of the feedback. Imagine two people with their ball gloves on and a fresh, white ball to toss. They toss it back and forth, alternating between giver and receiver, laughing and interacting as they play. When play time ends, the bond between them is greater than it was before, and they have developed greater trust in each other. 

So it should be when we give and receive feedback. We grow in trust of each other as we exchange ideas, keeping the lines of communication open. We prepare ourselves to be both the giver and the receiver so that the ball–positive communication–stays in the air.

So how do we prepare ourselves to give and receive feedback in positive ways in the workplace?


Giving Feedback

There’s an art to giving it well. 

Think of timing (something Liz Lemon didn’t do!). Many factors affect the best time to give someone feedback on their work or their performance.

If there’s a deadline for a project, then give the feedback before the project is too far along to make changes. 

If it’s an issue affecting work performance, the problem could become bigger if you delay, so don’t!

Sometimes it might be better to hold off on feedback. Perhaps something comes up in a meeting that needs to be addressed, but doing so in front of others would be potentially hurtful. Wait until you can talk to the person one-on-one.

Consider the method of feedback that is best. 

Have something positive to say? Say it aloud for all to hear! Write it in a note. Post it on the wall! Celebrate it! 

Is the feedback constructive or could it be perceived as negative? This is best delivered face-to-face, preferably at a planned time and thoughtfully considered before expressing. (Be sure, too, to follow your HR department policies in this realm.)

Consider the “sandwich” method when providing constructive or negative feedback: 

Start with words of praise. This is your bread on which you’ll build your sandwich. Recognize first that the creator is likely invested in and connected to whatever he or she has created. And while it’s not as extreme as Thumper the rabbit’s rule in Bambi (“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all), there’s value in saying something you do like or that is praiseworthy before delivering the criticism. Think of the whole person, not just what they created.

Next, add the feedback you need to give. 

This is the main content of the sandwich. Ask yourself, How can I be as specific as possible? Instead of merely saying you don’t like something, can you express why a product or idea isn’t connecting with you or specifically what behavior is problematic? 

Always try to do more than just critique. Help solve whatever the issue is. Talk through to find solutions.

Finally, add that final word of praise. (Never serve an open-face sandwich in the workplace.) Assure the person that you are critiquing the work, not the person. Find your inner Thumper and plan something kind and encouraging to end with. 

Receiving Feedback

As shown in The 30 Rock example, even the leader of a company is not exempt from receiving feedback. In a blog for Forbes Magazine, Jaime Hunt, vice president and chief communications and marketing officer for Miami University of Ohio, gets to the root of the challenge of receiving feedback:  

Defensiveness often rests at the center of the feedback problem. Feeling personally connected to your work is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it reflects passion and commitment. Being invested is important — perhaps even critical — to producing excellent work. Rather than quashing that sense of ownership, look at it with a new lens: Your work is strong, but can an outside perspective make it stronger?

So, just as there’s an art to giving feedback, there’s a mindset to cultivate for receiving feedback. 

As with giving feedback, Timing is to be considered. 

Unlike giving feedback, you may not get to choose when you’re going to receive a word of feedback. However, you’re not completely without agency in this instance. If you’re caught off guard by a comment, evaluate your path before responding. An okay response is, “Thank you for bringing that up. I value your feelings. Give me some time to process this.” Also give a specific time by which you will respond (face-to-face). And, if  you are part of a large company, consider the HR policies your company has in place. 

Better yet, find a way to work feedback into the fabric of your work culture. Intentionally create times and places for this to happen on a regular and ongoing basis. No one is caught off guard when a game of catch is planned, and it allows people the opportunity to more carefully consider their words. 

The mindset of receiving feedback

When the moment comes to receive feedback on your work or project or even your overall performance, do what you can to be in a healthy mental space to receive it. 

A good practice to make sure you understand what the person is saying is to repeat the comment back to the person giving the feedback.  You might say, “You said. . . . Am I understanding you correctly?”

Once you’ve taken in the comment, make an internal assessment by asking yourself some questions: What am I feeling ? Does this feeling reflect the reality of the intention of the person giving the feedback? Remember that it’s always best to assume good intentions in other people before allowing defensiveness to win. And if you just really feel like someone isn’t coming from a place of good intention, use the Brené Brown approach to perceived ill intention and ask, “Was there a dig in that?”

Once you have the question of intention dealt with, you can look more objectively at the feedback. Ponder whether what they’re saying reflects the reality of what happened or of the work in question. Do I have a valid reason for doing/not doing what I did/didn’t do? Is it possible to share (or even worth sharing) without sounding defensive?

Be open, too, to the idea that sometimes the person just really does have a valid point or perspective. In that case, you can say, “Yeah, you’re right” and move onto the business of improving or correcting your work or product. 

Ultimately, feedback relates to the kind of culture you as a leader want to cultivate for giving/receiving feedback. Set the example as someone who is open to feedback. Show that you don’t see yourself (as explained by Brené Brown in Dare to Lead) in a position of “power over” others, but rather in a position to have “power with, to, and within”everyone who is part of your workplace.  Create a culture of positive feedback by providing time for feedback  each week in a meeting or setting up a system of some sort. With these practices in place, the mistakes of blurting out impassioned comments and retreating with hurt feelings won’t be part of your workplace culture. 

Looking for more on this topic? 

Check out this checklist on the Brené Brown website:  Dare to Lead | The Engaged Feedback Checklist – Brené Brown

Looking for a more hands-on, in depth workshop about giving and receiving feedback? Our DesignUs culture training program is your solution. You don’t have to stay burdened with unmotivated employees wondering where you went wrong. We’re here to help. Let us design your business from the inside out and the outside in. To learn more or get started with DesignUs, click here.

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