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Giving and receiving feedback does not come naturally to most people. However, both skills are important for our development and growth.
Watch: The Secret to Giving Great Feedback
In this video from TED, cognitive psychologist LeeAnn Renniger shares a scientifically proven method for giving effective feedback and the importance of pulling feedback from others.
There are many different formulas for giving good feedback. At the City, we recommend the following strategies based on cognitive and behavioral science. This is not a one-size-fits all formula or script, but it can support you in planning a difficult conversation. You can also use some of these techniques to give more specific and meaningful positive feedback.
- Start with a question
- Explain the situation, focusing on specific actions and behaviors
- Share the impact
- End with a question that focuses on the future
Start by asking if the person wants feedback, or giving them a choice in how they receive it. Even if they are your employee, asking them if it is a good time is important. This lets the receiver know that feedback is coming, and aligns with the principle of choice in trauma-informed supervision. Be prepared for the person to say “No” or “Not right now”—otherwise you are not really providing choice.
- “I noticed some employees were upset after you sent that email about our new policy. Would you be interested in some feedback?”
- “Do you have a few minutes to talk about what happened at the job site today?”
- “I have some thoughts about the presentation you made to the management team. Is now a good time to discuss that, or should we set up a time?”
Whether the feedback is positive or negative, focusing on specific actions and behaviors is important. Saying “Great job!” is less meaningful than telling someone exactly what they did that was great. In the case of negative feedback, providing a data point—what happened and when—is essential.
Vague criticism like “You were under-prepared for that meeting” or “You were loafing on the job” is inappropriate because it makes assumptions about someone’s intention or motivation. Instead of making a general statement, you should share what you specifically observed or experienced.
- “I really liked how your report included direct quotes and photos from our program participants.”
- “You were in your truck eating lunch when I showed up, while the crew was working in the rain. I asked them if they had taken a break yet, and they said they hadn’t. They were five hours into their shift. I also noticed that your boots and clothes were dry.”
- “Your presentation had a lot of text on the slides.”
Share the impact of the person’s behavior or actions. This is important for both positive and negative feedback.
- “Your use of photos and quotes really communicated the impact we’re having in the community in a way that numbers just can’t show.”
- “As a leadworker, you’re responsible for making sure the crew takes breaks. This is even more important in cold, wet weather when not stopping to eat can affect their productivity, safety and morale. I also worry that if you take breaks or spend time in the truck as they’re working in bad weather, they will resent you.”
- “Reading text on a slide while someone is talking can create a distraction. This is worse when there’s a lot of text, or the text is hard to read.”
The goal of giving feedback is to reinforce or change something. Feedback conversations that look backward are less productive than conversations that look ahead to the future. Inviting the other person into the conversation also aligns with the collaboration and empowerment principles in trauma-informed supervision. It’s best if your questions are open-ended. If you are a supervisor, you should also ask the employee how you can support them and be open to their feedback too.
- “What ideas do you have for making sure the crew takes breaks, or to make them feel more comfortable telling you when they need a break?”
- “With a repeat of this presentation coming up to all staff, I was thinking we could pull images and charts from our annual report and use them in the slides instead of the text. What do you think?”
When receiving feedback, you can apply the guidelines above to get clarity and plan forward.
People are often reluctant to give feedback, especially if there is a power difference with someone else. Being proactive and asking how things are going or how something went can help you get the feedback you need. It will also make someone more likely to give you feedback later if you show you are open to their perspective.
You can also ask questions when someone gives you vague or inappropriate feedback. For example, if someone says you are unreliable, ask for a specific example of when they were counting on something and you let them down. Similarly, if a customer is upset, listening attentively and asking questions to direct the conversation can help you better understand what happened and how you might resolve an issue.
Taking a pause
It is natural to have an emotional reaction to feedback, whether it comes as a surprise or is about something you feel insecure about. If you are having difficulty managing your emotions, consider asking for a moment to pause and reflect. You could say something like, "You've given me a lot to think about and I'd like to take some time to reflect before I plan forward. Can we come back to this conversation tomorrow?" Taking a pause can put you in a better mindset to consider the feedback you received and how you might move forward. Just be sure you return to the conversation as soon as possible.
Work Culture Conversations
Feedback isn’t just for individuals. Performance Excellence and the Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative collaborated on a work culture conversation guide. The guide can be used one-on-one or in teams to discuss how we want to be together and what we want to stop, start, and continue doing.
- Article: Stop Serving the Feedback Sandwich (5-minute read)
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant discusses the problem with sandwiching negative feedback between compliments, and shares a different approach.
- Blog Post on Feedback (4-minute read)
This post by Rachel Pacheco, author of Bringing up the Boss, discusses the importance of feedback for managers and her preferred strategies.