Feedback. Barely a moment goes by in which we are not providing it, receiving it or replaying it. We are largely a product of how we have reacted to feedback since we were old enough to be socially aware. How we look, dress, speak, work, drive – even the things we dare not try again – have all been informed by feedback from family members, teachers, friends and colleagues. Considering it contributes so much to who we are and who we are becoming, I find it staggering so little attention is paid to how effectively we deliver, receive and act on feedback.
I had a conversation with a friend recently who has worked for a global bank for twelve years, the last five as a people manager. I was astonished when he informed me that he has never been offered training on delivering feedback, even though he does so many times a day. The more people I speak with, the more I realise this is not an isolated case.
In conversations, meetings at work, scrolls through social media or furtive glances in the mirror or at the weighing scales, we confirm our opinions of others or allow those of others (or our own negative thoughts) to reaffirm what we think about ourselves.
Sincerely delivered, specific and supportive feedback helps identify previously unseen areas for development, introduces new ideas and provides empowerment in the pursuit of challenging goals. Conversely, feedback that is insincere, ill-constructed or overly critical can demotivate and disenfranchise, damaging – or altogether destroying – vital relationships. The negative effect on confidence, esteem and wellbeing can be long-lasting, even permanent.
Against this backdrop – that of the critical nature of feedback and the glaring deficit in our understanding of how to deliver and apply it correctly – I wish to outline some simple yet profound principles that will help transform your approach to feedback within your professional and personal pursuits. In my training on feedback delivery and implementation, I use an acronym called FAST. Effective feedback must comprise the following four elements: From the heart;Actionable; Specific anfTimely
I refer to these as the ‘four cornerstones of effective feedback’ because if just one is missing, the feedback falls down and loses all impact.
From the Heart
Nobody will give a second thought to any recommendation unless they feel the one delivering it cares about them. Empathy is at the root of all meaningful human communication; as soon as we show a genuine interest in the welfare of another person and are motivated by a desire to see them succeed, we open the door to another person’s life.
When I have been sitting across a table from someone delivering feedback and felt a genuine care and concern on their part, their feedback is powerful, even life-changing. The exchange has always begun with questions regarding wellbeing, then feedback has been tactfully adapted to what I might have been able to absorb based on current skill, experience and emotional levels.
I have a fundamental rule when I am delivering feedback: I do not address the subject of feedback until I have asked the recipient three questions about themselves. I may ask about their weekend, family, health, interests, recent events, goals or aspirations. This encourages me to show a genuine care and concern for them and learn more about their lives. This sometimes even provides additional insight into how the individual might be being affected – positively or negatively – by external factors. This then helps me to personalise the feedback based on what they might be prepared to take in.
The first – and, I believe, most important – question to ask yourself in any feedback situation is this: “Is care being shown?” If you are delivering feedback, you must be courageous enough to ask yourself, “Do I really care about this individual as an individual – their progression, welfare, hopes and aspirations? If this question cannot be answered with an honest ‘yes’, it is the wrong time – or you are the wrong person – to deliver feedback.
If you are receiving feedback, you must immediately ask yourself that same question: “Is care being shown? Does this person really care about me as an individual – my progression, welfare, hopes and aspirations?” If the answer feels like a ‘no’, then that feedback should be taken with at least a pinch of salt, or possibly a bucket. Of course, if there are valid statements or recommendations, then have the professional grace to take them on board. However, any statements that are overly critical or appear insincere should not be taken personally; the damage of allowing negative feedback to fester can be irreparable.
Remember the deliverer is also a person. They are imperfect and their perspective is limited, even if their salary doesn’t seem to be compared to yours. Be gracious. Be kind. Don’t be confrontational. Do you have to agree with everything? No. Take something that you can act on and politely discard anything that is unhelpful. Do not let one ill-worded comment rob you of your mental and emotional wellbeing. It is just not worth it.
Seeking out positive, helpful feedback designed to build character and shunning negative feedback is not weakness. There is no badge of honour for how much negative feedback you can take on and stay standing. It sometimes takes great strength and resilience to become selective about whose feedback you listen to, especially when the source of toxicity is a partner, family member, close colleague or manager. However, even if the circle of people starts off incredibly small, carefully choose whose guidance you will follow. Ensure you are only receptive to people who are seeking to build you up; refuse mental and emotional entry to those seeking to sabotage your foundations.
We are all limited people. We all arrive at a point where we our own skills, knowledge and experience have been exhausted. At this moment, we silently cry out for someone wiser, more experienced and more skilful to step in and say: “I can see you’re struggling with this. You’ve done brilliantly to get this far. When I was in this position, here is what I learned and this is what worked for me to move things forward. I suggest you try the following…”. How inspiring would that be if it replaced the atmosphere of cynicism prevalent in many of our organisations?
In my work as a teacher, my feedback to students is broken into three distinct parts. First, I always offer praise on something they are doing well. This brings a feeling of pride to the individual and opens them up to receive any subsequent advice. Secondly, I suggest an area of focus, something they need to do to move the work forward. For example: “Congratulations on using some excellent descriptive language in this piece of writing. To move forward, we need to make sure your use of punctuation becomes more controlled and secure”. Good feedback, right? No! It is not actionable. It is missing the third – and most vital – element.
The third part of the feedback is the challenge. This is the invitation to act, to implement, to practise. After offering the above feedback to a student, my challenge might be as follows: “Add a further paragraph to your story. Highlight all of the commas and full stops you are using to show that you are remembering to include them in your sentences.” That’s much more like it! That will drive forward the progress of the student’s writing and hold them accountable for implementing the feedback given.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all feedback given was broken into those three elements: praise, recommendation and challenge? That sort of feedback meets the first and second corner stones. It comes from the heart, shows genuine care and can be acted upon. Too much of the feedback passed between colleagues, families and partners lacks one of these two cornerstones: either it lacks empathy or it can’t be implemented. Only with both parts fulfilled can feedback spark meaningful change.
Feedback that lacks specificity also lacks power. If the individual giving the feedback is not specific, they undermine their own credibility and professed expertise, robbing the recipient of an opportunity to grow. Generalised feedback shows a lack of due care, preparation and is not actionable, so fails to meet all three cornerstones.
Many people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’. You offer praise, give suggested improvements and end with more praise. As mentioned, when I offer feedback to students, I do so in three parts: praise, recommendation and challenge. Whilst the ‘praise sandwich’ structure might boost the confidence of someone in the earliest stages of development, it eventually becomes a disservice as it gives a false impression of progress and can erode trust. People need to be shown how to improve and be given specific action points. As long as it is delivered empathically and with a clear path to progress, there is no rule for the ratio of praise to recommendations. The sincerity of the one delivering the feedback is always more critical than how the points are structured, but any recommendations must show sincere desire to help the individual and be accompanied by specific strategies or actions that can be implemented.
For example, imagine someone telling someone else: “As you have said you would like to improve your fitness, I recommend you go to the gym.” This is actionable, but not specific. If that same person said, “Go to the gym each Friday at 6pm for 60 minutes and do these four exercises to improve your leg strength and overall fitness,” then that changes everything. Specificity is the key to progress because it empowers the other person to act.
I am confident much of the feedback delivered in our workplaces, communities and homes is well-intentioned, but can lack sensitivity, specificity and ideas as to how it can be applied. The more specific the feedback, the quicker the progress.
The more time that elapses between the event occurring and feedback being received, the less impact it will have. Timeliness is key. Even if a more prolonged and detailed evaluation is not feasible immediately after the event has taken place, even a small verbal affirmation will help provide necessary assurance and boost confidence. There is no influence so marring to performance in the workplace as uncertainty.
There’s an old adage: “Actions speak louder than words.” If a time is agreed for feedback to be received and the one delivering it runs over in a previous meeting, arrives late or does not show up at all, what is really being said? “You are not my most important priority.” If that is how the person is made to feel, feedback will be meaningless and treated with contempt. When someone is delivering feedback, the one receiving it should be made to feel like they are the only person on earth. The deliverer is in a significant position of trust regarding the recipient’s career, confidence and (in some cases) mental and emotional well-being. Timely feedback is more likely to show empathy and retain sufficient coverage to be both specific and actionable, thus meeting the other cornerstones. If it is late or rushed, it is at best likely to lack sufficient detail or sensitivity to have any real impact. At worst, the lack of care shown can be significantly damaging to the other person.
What happens if the individual receiving the feedback is late or doesn’t turn up? It is a sign of disrespect to the person that has prepared to deliver it. It says, “I don’t care what you have to say – I don’t need your help and don’t feel like I can learn anything from you”. This creates a negative impression and breaks trust.
If you are delivering feedback, be prompt. If you are receiving it, turn up on time and be prepared to chase up someone – even if they are senior – when feedback is not being received promptly.
If you serve as a leader, I appreciate the heavy burden you must carry. It must be relentless. However, those for whom you have stewardship are your greatest asset. They are diverse, unique and hold incredible potential. Yours is the privilege of working with them, guiding them and supporting them. Ask them how they feel. Ask about their families and their health. Ask about their ambitions. Then deliver feedback from the heart, remembering where you started from and considering where that person across the table could go. They might be a future leader; treat them like they already are and they will make you a great one now, as well as becoming part of the legacy you hope to leave behind.
If you are a colleague receiving feedback from someone with more experience, be respectful of this and seek to learn from them. Catch them by surprise – be inquisitive and eager to learn. Be humble and ask questions. Even if the feedback you receive doesn’t meet one or more of the cornerstones, try to see past these imperfections and do not allow raw emotion to cloud the situation. Easier said than done, of course, but even if only one thing is taken and meaningfully acted upon, there will still be progress. Do not allow an ill-worded comment or piece of criticism to negatively affect your self-esteem.
I appreciate there are many pressures at play: being parents, children, siblings, partners, relatives, friends, colleagues, and the list goes on. We are often tired. We are often frustrated. We are often discouraged. However, let us not damage ourselves – or our relationships – by allowing negative emotions or thoughts to compromise the way we interact with others.
Let us give feedback from the heart and ensure it is actionable, specific and timely. The way in which we communicate in our workplaces, communities and homes – amongst rapidly evolving situations – will be a key factor in improving quality of relationships, productivity, happiness and success.