Feedback: The Good, The Bad, & The Outdated

Ask people what they dread most about work, and giving or getting feedback is likely to snag a spot in the top 10. It’s so unpleasant that people often find themselves asking “What is feedback and why is it important?”. Basically, feedback is an evaluation to help someone grow. Why it’s important depends on the circumstances in which it is being given and received.

Feedback freaks us out, both on a psychological and physical level. Giving it is often hard because you’re simultaneously balancing office and interpersonal politics, as well as tempering your personal opinion with objective facts. Getting it is hard because you get defensive, your heart starts racing, and suddenly the room feels hotter than Gwyneth’s infrared sauna. Even if you trust your team, it’s terrifying. That’s not a personal foible, it’s an evolutionary response.

Companies have been giving feedback for so long that it’s built into the foundation of most organizations. But how and why we give it is often flawed, the tools we use are outdated and not one-size-fits-all, and here’s the kicker: not everyone knows exactly what it is. Feedback is, at its most simple, information provided to individuals about their performance when there is a specific goal in mind. This is “constructive feedback”. This is the most common conception of the word and what is often necessary in a corporate setting, but not what is always used.

For years, companies have needed to shake up the process, but change is often slow, although it doesn’t have to be. If Corona has taught us anything, it’s that dramatic changes can be made quickly when they need to be. And with feedback, they need to be. We need to stop offering criticism or observations with no room for growth and labeling it feedback.

What It Is, And Is Not

Feedback is not advice, but it can help people figure out their future direction. It is not(usually) an objective fact, but it can offer insights to spur growth. It is not criticism, but it may critique what someone has done. So what is it? Feedback is an evaluation of a skill or performance that examines whether or not that action met the intended goal. If not, the observer offers direction on how to achieve that goal. it’s also an avenue to help employees, managers, and even CEOs examine what they’re doing and do it better. At least, that’s ostensibly what it is. Assessments, rubrics, evaluations, and ratings all fall under this enormous umbrella, though not all of them meet the criteria.

Why It Matters

Putting aside the importance of personal development for a second, feedback can have huge implications for your job. This is because it’s embedded in most organizations. Rarely do we find an established organization without an HR process built around giving, getting, or evaluating it. It’s used to determine raises, your future at the company, and how your performance is viewed by upper management. So you need to care about feedback because your company does. On a more personal level, as difficult as the process of getting it can be, it can be a great opportunity for learning and development. Personal growth and career development helps you stay engaged, active in your career, and honestly, happier.

Why It’s So Terrible

At the most basic level, criticism is terrifying because it automatically puts our bodies in a fight-flight-freeze framework. Your body becomes physically primed for conflict. Getting criticism triggers the same parts of your nervous system as a physical attack. Your body and brain can’t tell the difference between being chased by a hungry tiger and hearing that your presentation skills could use some polishing.

You may automatically go on the defensive without hearing what’s being said to you. The words may be “I know the point of the presentation was to clarify our company values, and I think that most of them were clear. The slide on communication was a bit unclear; I think you could cut down the amount of text to make the main points more obvious. Overall, it was a good presentation.” What you’re(usually) hearing is some version of “I’ve made a horrible mistake, I’m not good enough.” Knowing that the person across from you or the report you’re reading is to try and help you grow as a professional doesn’t always temper those uncomfortable emotions.

How To Make It Less Terrible

Observations from our peers are inherently flawed, and more companies than ever are basing someone’s future path, the possibility of promotion, and pay raises all on distorted feedback from colleagues. Even saying that, feedback can be helpful as long as you understand its limitations. Performance reviews and other tools cannot dramatically change the way someone works overnight. They can help build a framework for future development. Even though giving and getting it is hard, it’s much more effective when done on a consistent basis. An annual review isn’t going to cut it. While there’s some debate about how often it should be given, the sweet spot seems to be between every 2-3 months, with check-ins on progress every few weeks.

In a nutshell: make feedback less awful by giving it consistently, supporting whomever has received it in their growth, and remember that it is not the end-all be-all of developmental tools. We offer tips on how to give and get feedback below.

Giving Feedback

First things first, feedback should always be given in a face-to-face setting. It helps clarify what’s being said, and turns the process into a conversation rather than a critique. You’re trying to help someone, and offering on the spot clarification makes that much easier.

Surveys show we tend to be “nicer” when we’re giving feedback that may lead to a promotion, but “harsher” when giving feedback to help someone improve their skill set. Just being aware of this bias can help us improve what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.

Optimizing feedback means understanding why the feedback is being given. Is it to help someone improve a specific skill? Then it needs to be given with suggestions to improve. Make sure that you’re offering clarity on how to achieve a goal. Just saying “Your presentation wasn’t great” is not going to help. Saying “Your presentation wasn’t well-designed; I think it would be more effective if you started with Point A, and then moved to Points B and C.”

Finally, don’t try to manage the emotions of the person receiving notes from you, but do be aware of how they’re feeling. Asking if they’re ok likely won’t help; it may even come off as condescending. We often want to make others more comfortable, but you cannot always fix how someone feels, nor should you. Uncomfortable emotions are part of the process. Your job is not to act as a therapist, especially if you are not close with the person you’re speaking with. You can be empathetic without overstepping your bounds.

Getting Feedback

The paragraph above emphasizes that we should be aware that we carry biases into every part of our lives. The feedback you’re getting will be biased because humans are biased. Our experiences build our brains, and that means that every person sees the world a little differently. It doesn’t mean you should discount what’s being said to you. It does mean that you should take what you’re hearing with a grain of salt.

Unless you’re being graded on an objective skill, like your ability to speak Spanish or build a website from scratch, you’ll be hearing an opinion on how you work. A good general rule matches up with an old adage: 3 times told and you believe it. If you’ve heard from 3 different people that your language is abrasive or that your final reports could use another round of polishing, it may be time for some self-reflection.

When you’re on your way to hear how you’ve been doing, try to go in with a growth mindset. Every “mistake” you make at work is an opportunity to learn and grow rather than a complete failure. Rather than focusing on what you’re not doing well and dwelling, you view criticism or failures as learning opportunities and ways to improve. Keeping an open mind and remaining non-judgmental, both about what you’re receiving feedback on and what you’re hearing, helps you leave with a more positive experience. This will bring up uncomfortable emotions. That’s also an avenue where you can grow. Most importantly, separate your personal identity from your work: your work is not your worth.

Final Notes

After all this, you have a better understanding of what feedback means. At Quala, we like to build our processes based on best practices, and help others improve how they work. While our ultimate goal is to reconnect teams, we also like to reconnect individuals to who they are at work. Our virtual events help teams reconnect and reset. Quala also offers observations and evaluations on personal and group performance.

With regards to the deeper dive into feedback, now you know what it is, and what it isn’t. We didn’t do a deep dive into the different types of feedback, or why we refer to it as such. Hint: it may be the focus on past actions. Keep an eye out for a future blog on the different types of feedback! Or read this advice from HBR on how to give better feedback in the meantime. We can’t wait to talk with you again.


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