How To Deliver Constructive Positive Feedback At Work
Feedback seems to come in two extremes: the overtly blunt or overly subtle.
The overtly blunt just tell like it is (or rather how they think it is), which is great when they approve but brutal if not. The coached ones will at least caveat the conversation by saying, “I prefer being direct,” to which most people will nod – and take cover.
The overly subtle tip-toe around what they are trying to say: all the while being empathetic to the employee, but ultimately not saying anything. The person walks away feeling good about themselves, but also unclear about how or what to improve. And many times they continue doing what they were doing – to the detriment of the team.
Both leave the employee lacking: one lacking useful knowledge of what to change and the other lacking self-esteem.
No wonder we seem to have a love-hate relationship with feedback.
The other tactic I have observed in corporate culture seems to be the “tickle-and-slap” method. This is when your manager starts the conversation off with a compliment, then follows up with what needs to change. The obvious challenge here is that it is routine, formulaic, and expected. People only feel the slap and assume the tickle is contrived.
While attending writer residencies and workshops, I’ve been fortunate to learn a better way. The following process is inspired by Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process.
“What I experience is that people get up from Critical Response and they cannot wait to go back into the studio. That is my definition of good feedback.”
1. Mention What Worked
When giving formal or informal feedback, there is something to be said about initially responding on a positive note. This does not mean lying or being dramatically vague like, “I loved it!” Even if that’s how you genuinely feel, endeavor to be specific.
The key in this step is to utilize these prompts:
- I was surprised by…
- I was touched by…
- …was very compelling
- …was meaningful to me
These statements demonstrate that you were really listening. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that all humans, whether artists or employees, seek to be seen, heard, and accepted. Echoing back how their work was meaningful to you gives them a hint that you “get it” even though you may not “get it all.”
2. Prioritize Their Questions
Corporate protocol leaves questions for the end. Flipping the script by asking for questions first focuses the feedback session on what the employee is seeking. What are they hoping to hear or get input on?
The tendency is to respond with yes/no questions, but the key is having them frame it as open-ended as possible. For example:
- Where does this analysis fall short?
- What part is most helpful?
- [In the case of a year-end review] How am I tracking relative to a promotion?
The employee may be shy and disregard this step altogether, but that is their choice. On the other hand, their response may surprise you.
By turning the tables, we learn what kind of feedback the employee actually wants.
3. Ask Neutral Questions
I remember when I started interning at a media company, my manager asked me to build out a model to forecast digital traffic. I built a monster of a model starting with country population, average household size, internet usage, all the way down to the percentage of traffic going to our little website.
It was clearly thorough, but way overkill for the question without any meaningful insights. Just assumptions upon assumptions. Before correcting me, he simply said, “So tell me, what were you going for with these drivers?”
Traditionally, many managers simply dive into their opinion which creates an unintended, but naturally defensive situation. The neutral question gives space for the team member to say their peace and explain, instead of defend.
Other examples include:
- I’m curious why you approached it this way. Can you unpack it for me?
- How does this setup compare to XYZ?
- What result were you hoping for?
4. Share An Opinion
Finally! But there’s a catch here too: ask if the employee wants to hear it.
“I have some thoughts about this. Would you like to hear them?”
I hear you thinking: really? Yes. Asking for permission gives the employee an option to say no. Maybe they are not ready to hear what needs to be said. By giving them an out, you give them a sense of control in a difficult situation.
While most people you work with may be able to roll with the punches, it is better not to assume until you know them better. And I would say, even if you do know them, people have a right to not be who you think they are. So just ask.
Following these steps in order prepares the employee to receive meaningful feedback. It is also a process that primes the manager to listen. Something we all need to practice daily.
Sounds like a win-win.