7 do’s and don’ts to get better at giving and receiving feedback
When I tell future hires that we practice radical candor here at Front, everyone’s bought in to the idea. What’s not to like about it? Everybody wants to learn fast, tackle problems when they’re still small, and keep office politics to a minimum. And all you have to do is give and receive feedback often, in a caring way! I have yet to meet someone arguing for the opposite.
After seven years of preaching radical candor at Front, what I find to be the biggest obstacle to a successful implementation is not WHY radical candor should be practiced, but HOW to actually practice it. People assume that giving and receiving feedback is easy or intuitive, but it’s not. Giving feedback to someone without them feeling terrible about it is hard. Conversely, it is equally hard, when receiving feedback, to make sure that the person delivering it feels heard and trusts that you’ll take action from it, so that they’re comfortable sharing feedback again in the future.
If you’ve found yourself struggling with either, or if you simply want to make the most out of the feedback you’re giving and receiving, here are the few phrases I’ve learned and used that have been helpful.
1. Share facts about the situation, not opinions.
The first and biggest mistake I’ve noticed when people give feedback is that they share an opinion instead of facts. By definition, an opinion can be disagreed with, but for feedback to be effective, it is crucial that both parties share the same version of events. Good feedback is always factual. For instance, instead of saying “Your work is sloppy” to a coworker, say instead “The last three reports that you sent me had substantial mistakes in them.” Or if talking to your manager, avoid a direct “You’re micromanaging me”, in favor of “You’re checking on my work several times a day, so I feel like you don’t trust my ability to do the job.” The difference might look tiny, but it’s much easier to reply “No, I’m not micromanaging you” than it is to say “No, I’m not checking on your work several times a day.”
2. Feelings count as facts.
Note that being factual doesn’t prevent you from sharing how someone’s actions made you feel. Your own feelings, as long as you’re sharing them in good faith, are facts. I’ve found that the ideal template to give feedback is to say: “When you do X, it makes me feel Y,” where X is a specific action and Y is an emotion. Take the example of a coworker who’s showed up more than five minutes late to your last three meetings together. Instead of attacking their character directly by saying: “You’re always late” or “You’re selfish”, try saying: “When you show up late to a meeting with me, it makes me feel angry. I get the impression that you think your time is more important than mine, so it’s OK for you to be late.” This opens up the possibility for the other person to share their own perspective.
The good thing about grounding feedback in facts is that the following conversation will focus on making sure that both parties find common ground, either by sharing more facts and feelings, or by correcting potential discrepancies in the perception of events. When discussing opinions however, the conversation will most likely devolve into a version of “you’re wrong, I’m right” that will leave both parties more antagonized; nothing good will come out of it.
3. Keep it between you and the recipient only.
Another important attribute of good feedback is that it should be fully owned by the person delivering it. As much as possible, don’t put words in other people’s mouth to make your point. If someone came to you to complain about someone else’s behavior, don’t “forward” the feedback yourself by saying: “X says your behavior is unacceptable.” Instead, your responsibility is to push the person who came to you to share the feedback directly (send them this article if they’re not sure how to do it 😉).
When you’re sharing feedback yourself, it’s no better to hide your own perspective behind a “wide consensus”, which typically goes like this: “Your behavior is unacceptable, and I’m not the only one who thinks that: many others have told me the same.” The idea that several peers have preferred to complain to a third party rather than share feedback directly is both alienating (why didn’t they come to you in the first place? did they not think you could take it?) and discouraging. Critical feedback coming from several directions instead of just one is much more threatening, and therefore harder to hear and accept. No matter what the receiver says now, they’ve already been judged by a sufficiently large jury, most of which aren’t even here to listen to their perspective or hear what they plan to do about it. Even if it’s true, it’s doing more harm than good.
4. Give feedback as soon as possible (after you’ve cooled off).
Last but not least, the timing of the delivery is important. Ideally, you should share feedback about a situation as early as possible: the facts are fresh in everyone’s mind, the damage is still minimal, and bringing up the issue is most natural. However, you don’t want to share feedback so early that you’re still emotional about a situation. If someone’s behavior has angered you, make sure you’ve given yourself plenty of time to cool down: you’ll be less likely to say things you’ll regret later.
Odd as it may seem, receiving feedback seems to be harder than giving it. I’ve even noticed a paradox: the most senior team members and the best performers are the ones who seem to struggle most with it. Maybe it’s because they’ve received less feedback than others and don’t know how to react, or perhaps their internal bar for performance is high and they’re afraid to entertain the idea that they’re not always meeting it, but they tend to be very defensive about the feedback they get.
5. Fight the instinct to be defensive.
Why is it so destructive to be defensive? Our first instinct when hearing feedback is to minimize our responsibility to protect our ego. Whether we’re actually responsible or not for the situation at hand, we are uncomfortable or scared being painted in a negative light, and this makes it hard to listen.
The problem with that is, unless you actually have no responsibility whatsoever in the situation (which happens, but rarely), being defensive only helps make you feel better, but at the same time undermines the whole process. The person giving you feedback will think that they’ve wasted both your and their time bringing it up. You will feel better in the moment, but will be less likely to change behavior, and when a similar situation comes up, the people affected will keep to themselves and may resent you silently for it. What you should do instead is fight the instinct to be defensive. This is hard, but your ego can take it. Make it a point to understand why the feedback came up in the first place, and do a best effort to figure out what your level of responsibility is, as low as it may be.
To do that most effectively, I’ve been using a framework for the past few years that is guaranteed to work. It goes as follows:
- “Thank you.” Show that you’re grateful for the feedback received, as hard as it might be to hear it. Feedback truly is a gift, and if you don’t show your appreciation for it, you’re less likely to receive more of it.
- “This is what I heard.” Rephrase, with your own words, what you’ve understood of the situation. By doing that you’re achieving two things: making sure you’re sharing the same facts as the person giving you feedback, and demonstrating that you’ve actively listened to what they had to say.
- “This is what I’ll do about it.” Acknowledge the issue and do your best to improve. This part doesn’t have to happen immediately: you might need some time to process the feedback and come up with a course of action. This is fine as long as you’ve communicated your intention to do something.
6. Don’t counter feedback with more feedback.
Once again, timing matters here. If you have feedback of your own, make sure it’s not taken as a retort to the feedback received. Don’t turn it into a competition to figure out who’s the worst by replying “but you were late last week too!” to someone pointing out that you were late to a meeting yesterday. You’d be communicating that, even though you heard the feedback, you’re not taking responsibility for it unless the other person takes responsibility first. That’s why it’s so important not to wait to share feedback when you have it 😉
7. Ask for feedback regularly.
Finally, don’t hesitate to ask for feedback regularly. Giving feedback takes courage and effort, so it’s important to make it as easy as possible for others to give it to you. This is especially true if you’re a manager: there’s a preexisting expectation that direct reports will receive feedback from their manager regularly, but the opposite isn’t true, so it’s even harder for direct reports to give feedback. One way to facilitate it is to ask your direct reports on a monthly basis “what questions and feedback do you have for me” and/or “if you were me, what would you do differently” (more on how I run one-on-ones here). By doing this, you’ll kill two birds with one stone: you take an additional opportunity to grow, and you demonstrate that you care about the experience of the people you manage. Win-win!