How to Give Better Feedback at Work

How to Give Better Feedback at Work

Therese Huston smiling

In our professional lives, we are rarely taught how to give feedback. Outside of once-a-year workshops during performance evaluation season—if that’s something available at your company—there’s very little formal training available, if any. So we rely on observation and direct experience. Which wouldn’t be a bad way to learn, except: Most of us see feedback given only when we’re on the receiving end. (Not exactly a moment of objective observation.) And some managers find giving feedback so stressful or difficult that they avoid it entirely—which doesn’t leave them much room to learn through experience, either.

Therese Huston, PhD, studies cognitive science at Seattle University, and some of the questions that motivate her research are the same ones we ask ourselves periodically at work: Why do some people pursue feedback? Why do others get defensive? How can managers, teachers, and peers give feedback in a way that helps the recipient hear it?

  1. Therese Huston Let's Talk Bookshop, $25
    Therese Huston Let’s Talk Bookshop, $25

Huston’s six-step approach for effective, human-centered communication is the subject of her brilliant new book, Let’s Talk: Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower. The approach reminds everyone in a feedback relationship that they’re playing for the same team. It helps them be open and honest. And it aims to break down the feelings of fear, worry, and shame that so often come with both giving and receiving feedback. Nobody has to lose sleep over an upcoming feedback meeting or walk away from one holding back tears. Even if you don’t manage a team at work, giving good feedback is a skill worth learning—Huston finds these skills apply to relationships outside of work, too.

A Q&A with Therese Huston, PhD

Why do people struggle with receiving feedback?

There are individual differences. There are some people who approach life as feedback seekers. These are people who want to know: How am I doing? To use psychologist Carol Dweck’s language, they have a growth mindset. They’re looking for self-improvement.

But then there are plenty of people who want to improve themselves and their work, but they don’t want someone else to set the agenda. In that case, it’s more like: If I notice my faults, that’s one thing, but if you notice my faults, that’s less okay with me, and I’ll feel defensive.

There’s good neuroscience research out there showing that when people hear critical feedback, some very primitive defenses are triggered in the brain. That’s what’s happening when people have a defensive response to feedback. They’re having a strong reaction as though they’re about to be harmed and need to defend themselves—even though all that’s happening to them is someone saying their presentation ran too long.

Responses tend to vary by person. But all of us, even people who are feedback seekers, can feel threatened if the person giving the feedback doesn’t have the skills to deliver it effectively.

What about giving feedback? What makes that so difficult?

We dread the negative conversation. We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. We worry: If I’m giving you critical feedback, am I hurting our relationship? Am I demotivating you as an employee? So we end up tiptoeing around issues, hoping they’ll just improve on their own and we won’t have to have a difficult conversation. This is especially true when feedback has to happen over video or phone calls.

But you can shift from that frame of negative criticism into one of positive collaboration. If you enter these conversations like, “Hey, can we figure this out together? Because I see this holding you back,” then you become the other person’s partner. You increase trust. You gain their interest in solving the problem at hand.

How do we typically learn to give feedback?

Most of us end up learning to give feedback through trial and error. You don’t get to observe and learn from other people. We usually see people give feedback only when we’re on the receiving end, and it’s hard to be an objective observer when you’re receiving feedback. Some large companies do trainings on how to give feedback, but many managers still walk away feeling that they don’t know how to do it well or know how to handle situations that play out differently from the examples they’re given.

Why is giving good feedback a skill worth learning?

Giving feedback is one of the few areas where every improvement you make yourself translates to improvements for your team. If I, as your manager, get better at giving you, my employee, feedback, then you’ll know what to work on. You’ll know where you’re having the biggest impact, you’ll know which part of your work I value the most, and you’ll know where to focus your energy to improve.

What mistakes do people commonly make when they’re giving feedback?

1. Scripting

Sometimes when we have a hard feedback conversation coming up, we get online and research what people say in this situation. And then we try to memorize it. It’s good to learn a few key phrases, but there are a problems with working off a script.

First, we can’t count on the conversation going exactly to our plan. With a script, you end up being so focused on what you’re going to say that it reduces your capacity to be a good listener. Good feedback is a back-and-forth conversation, not a one-way pronouncement.

Second, we tend to make a script and memorize lines when we’re nervous. But there’s neuroscience research showing that when we’re nervous, the very memory we’re relying on to recall those lines is more likely than not to fail us. That is, if we’re nervous going into the conversation, we’re likely to forget that one brilliant line that was going to save us—and chances are that line wasn’t going to save us anyhow. Then we end up stuck in the headlights without other options of what to say.

2. “They’re a little…”

A second common mistake is a mindset in which we assume the person we’re giving feedback to has some ingrained quality or behavior and it’s not going to change. This is thinking like: You know, Amanda’s a little aggressive. Or: William is just stubborn—what can you do? If you have that closed mindset about someone, it tends to leak out in your conversations with them. Then the person might feel that you’re treating them like a hopeless case, and they might feel defensive.

3. Siding with the problem, not the person

This mistake is particularly common among those who dread getting feedback and might put them off until they reach a tipping point. You’ve thought long and hard about raising this problem that feels huge and can’t go on anymore, and you’re so invested in the problem that you’re not focused on the person in front of you.

Let’s go back to William: He just wouldn’t let go of a point in a meeting this morning. You finally feel ready to bring up this tenacity of William’s not to let up a point. And you’re so focused on the problem that you’re not noticing that this is the first time anyone’s ever told him this. He didn’t know that he was perceived this way. And he might feel sensitive or confused about why this is coming up. To William, it might feel like you’re against him rather than against the problem. But if you can focus on seeing the person in front of you as you’re having the conversation, you can be so much kinder and you can help them get to a solution.

What’s your strategy for effective critical feedback?

Here are four key steps for critical feedback conversations. (I cover more in my book Let’s Talk.)

1. Ask, “How do you think that went?”

First, be sure to ask the other person how they think something went. Find out their perspective before you start talking.

You might ask:

– How do you think that went?
– Where do you see yourself making progress?
– What went well? What would you do differently?

If they articulate that there was a problem, it’s so much easier to have a feedback conversation. Because they brought it up, you don’t have to—and it lets you know how self-aware they are. It sets up the foundation that this is a dialogue rather than one-sided criticism. There’s also research that shows that if a manager asks for an employee’s perspective on a problem first, that employee is more likely to think that the manager is good at giving feedback.

2. Say your good intentions out loud

The second important thing to do is to say your good intentions out loud. That’s something like, “I really want to help you write a good report here.” Or more generically: “I want the best for you. I want to see you succeed. I see you working so hard, and I want that to pay off.”

Research by Leslie John at Harvard Business School shows that stating those good intentions out loud, as awkward and artificial as it might feel, changes the mindset of the person who’s getting bad news or thinks they don’t want to hear feedback.

3. Say something specific and positive

There’s research—again by Leslie John at Harvard Business School—showing that if you start with a genuine, specific piece of praise about someone’s work, they pay more attention when you get to the critical thing. It shows that you’re paying attention to their effort and accomplishments, so the critical feedback feels like it’s coming from that same positive attention, too. It helps them hear it.

It can’t just be a generic feedback sandwich, like “Kelly, you look so nice today. Here’s this problem.” It needs to be very specific and about their work. Like: “Kelly, in that report that you submitted this morning, I was really impressed by how thorough you were in your research. I wasn’t even familiar with those websites. You did such a great job there. But I had this one concern. I noticed…” If you do that, they feel seen and validated as you move into your specific concern.

4. Framing with “I noticed”

When you’re describing something that concerns you, frame it as “I noticed ____ happened” as opposed to “You did ____.” That simple reframing is less likely to agitate the other person’s defenses, and it’s one of the few specific language changes I suggest memorizing.

Let’s say we’re talking about someone’s presentation. Saying, “You went over by thirty minutes” feels harsh, and it might shut that person down. Instead, try “I noticed your presentation went long.” It gives the other person an opportunity to acknowledge, “Oh yes, it did. It went so long. I went thirty minutes over.” From there, you can talk about, okay, so what happened? And now you can brainstorm together to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

We can apply the same format to William, who might be perceived as stubborn. Here, we want to avoid saying, “William, you’re a little stubborn.” Instead, try making it specific to whatever happened and express that you’re on their side. We could say, “I noticed you felt strongly about this point. I’m concerned that people are going to see you as stubborn. And I don’t want them to see you that way. Can we talk about that?” Now William can get into, “Well, wait, why would they see me as stubborn?” You can help the person think about future situations and how they could come across as more open-minded—or whatever the desired quality might be.

How can we tailor this approach to different personalities—both our own and our team members’?

When expressing my good intentions, I find the simple go-to is: “I really want good things for you. I want to see you succeed.” But for some people, that feels too touchy-feely. If that’s you, you could say something like: “I want to see you take your skills to the next level.” Finding the language that works for you, that feels right coming out of your mouth, is important so that it feels genuine.

How you give feedback is also going to vary from person to person. You’ll probably have some team members you can just speak very directly to, like “Oh wow. That didn’t go the way you’d hoped, did it? Let’s talk about that.” Whereas there is also likely someone on your team who’s more sensitive and with whom you want to make sure you start with what you thought went well before going into, “We’ve got some things to work on. But we’ll figure this out, and you’ll do better next time.” With practice, you learn to dial in your feedback based on the individual you’re talking to and what they’re seeking.

If you aren’t sure what each member of your team needs from you, you can have that conversation with them, too. If you ask someone, “Are you in a place where you need more recognition right now? Do you want more coaching and advice?” then it frees them up to tell you the truth. People often don’t feel that they can ask for praise because it seems so odd to go to your boss and say, “Hey, could you say something nice right now?” But if you give your employees permission to ask for those things, they might.

Therese Huston, MS, PhD, is a cognitive scientist, the founding director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University, and the author of several books, including Let’s Talk: Make Effective Feedback Your Superpower. She received her master’s and PhD in cognitive psychology from Carnegie Mellon University, and she is currently doing postgraduate work at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School.

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