Feedback has a rough reputation. From a performance review in the workplace to a loved one saying, “we need to talk,” most people don’t relish receiving critiques and criticism.
However, feedback is also an effective method of improvement, both personally and professionally. After all, honest assessment is the first step towards eliminating negative behaviors and taking your performance to the next level.
Our complete guide covers effective strategies for both giving and receiving feedback. No matter what your experience level is regarding feedback, you’ll find a variety of useful tips and techniques.
What is Feedback?
Feedback is information about an individual’s performance and their progress towards achieving a specific goal. It’s not necessarily advice or praise. Instead, it’s both constructive criticism and positive suggestions designed to help the recipient improve.
Feedback is given with the purpose of changing or encouraging specific behavior. It’s used in a wide variety of situations including:
- Between colleagues
- From parent to child
- Between friends
- From manager to employee
Giving and receiving feedback isn’t always easy. People don’t want to hear negative comments about themselves. If feedback isn’t delivered correctly, the message will likely fall on deaf ears. Likewise, the receiver must use strategies to turn the feedback into actionable improvements effectively.
How to Give Feedback Effectively
Let’s start by exploring the strategies used to give feedback.
Pick an Appropriate Moment
When and where you deliver feedback is often as important as how you deliver it. Picking the right time and place helps make feedback easier for the recipient to hear and act upon. When delivering feedback, focus on two factors:
- The physical environment
- The emotional state of the recipient
Always give feedback in a quiet, private location. In the workplace, bring the person into your office or a small conference area. Never give feedback to an individual in front of others.
Maintain Emotional Awareness
Emotional awareness is the ability to recognize and understand:
- Your own emotions
- The emotions of others
When delivering feedback, pick an appropriate moment. Anger is often a huge barrier to effectively receiving feedback. Avoid giving someone feedback when they’re upset.
For example, imagine you’re a manager in a retail store. A rude customer has confronted an employee, who then raised their voice in response. Even if the altercation wasn’t the employee’s fault, you don’t want to give them feedback immediately. Instead, give them a few minutes to calm down before discussing the situation.
Aim for Neutrality
The most common mistake people make when delivering feedback is trying too hard to be liked. They downplay real issues in an effort to spare the other person’s feelings. There’s a popular saying, “Good advice grates the ear.” Effective feedback is rarely what the recipient wants to hear.
Another common mistake is delivering feedback in too harsh a manner. If the person’s performance is substandard, it’s easy to feel anger towards them personally. However, delivering feedback in an angry tone is likely to obscure the information you’re trying to deliver.
Also, pay attention to any biases you might have. For example, an employee you dislike personally might perform their job functions at a high level. Don’t deliver needlessly harsh feedback just because you don’t like them. At the same time, don’t praise a poor-performing employee just because you’re on friendly terms with them.
Ask for a Self-Rating
One of the most effective ways to begin a feedback conversation is to ask the person to rate their own performance. This strategy has two advantages:
First, it immediately sets a cooperative tone instead of an adversarial one. People can’t get mad about issues they raised themselves. Even better, they likely have some idea of a solution to a problem they’ve self-identified.
Also, asking someone to rate their own performance tells you a lot about their personal insight. If they’re a terrible employee, but consider themselves an awesome one, they might struggle to improve. Poor self-assessment often signals a lack of introspection, which is the ability to judge one’s own mental processes.
On the other hand, an excellent employee who rates themselves poorly might need more encouragement or positive feedback.
Use the Sandwich Method
Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, famously said, “Sandwich every layer of criticism between two layers of praise.” It’s an idea that spawned what’s called the Compliment Sandwich.
The idea is simple. You don’t want to overwhelm the recipient with negative information. Instead, start by detailing all the positives. Next, discuss the negatives. Finally, end the feedback session by summarizing the positives again.
While the Compliment Sandwich has numerous benefits, it also has some drawbacks. Namely, it’s often a bit simplistic, especially when giving feedback for a complex job or situation. Instead of a Compliment Sandwich, consider the Constructive Criticism Burger. It’s a way to deliver feedback with more nuance.
Here’s how to build a Constructive Criticism Burger:
- The Top Bun
First, start with some positive comments about the situation. Thank them for their time. Say you’re excited to meet with them and look forward to productive communication.
- The Lettuce
Next, praise areas where the person generally excels. Examples include punctuality, the ability to deliver excellent customer service, or their willingness to stay late when needed. The idea is to set a positive note by highlighting their strong points.
- The Tomatoes
The general praise (the lettuce) can seem a bit bland, so add some zesty tomatoes. During this phase, you’ll deliver specific compliments. For instance, you could discuss a recent incident where they delivered excellent customer service.
Specific compliments serve two purposes. First, they encourage more the desired behavior. Also, they help the recipient feel valued. You’re showing them their hard work is noticed.
- The Meat
The main part of the burger is the meat. This is where you discuss the main points that need improvement.
If you’ve built the other layers correctly, delivering this information won’t seem like bad news. Instead, it will feel like you’re clarifying goals – and you have every confidence the person will meet them!
- The Bacon
Next, highlight their main points again. Summarize their general abilities. Connect the person’s positive attributes to the earlier improvements you want them to make.
- The Bottom Bun
Finally, you want to close the meeting on a positive note. Thank them for listening. Remind them you’re always available if they have questions or need help.
Deliver Critical Feedback Without Attacking
Of course, meat is the most important aspect of the burger. Let’s take a closer look at how to communicate potentially-negative information in a way that the listener will respond to positively:
Maintain a Narrow Focus
Don’t throw a kitchen sink full of complaints at the listener. Instead, focus on one or two behaviors you want the person to change. For example:
- You want the person to arrive on time each day
- You want them to improve their customer service
People improve behaviors quickly and effectively when they only have to concentrate on one thing at a time.
Generally, pick the most serious deficiency to start. Give the person a general timetable to show improvement. Tell them you want to reassess their performance in a few months.
Setting a schedule has two benefits:
If the person doesn’t improve within the given time, despite clear expectations, they might not be a good fit for the organization.
If the person improves, they deserve praise for their success. Plus, setting a deadline prevents the person from feeling as if they’re on a constant quest for improvement with no end in sight.
Keep Feedback Current
People don’t remember the specific mistakes they made six months ago. Keep your feedback related to recent issues. In some cases, you can talk to the person on the same day.
Use a Positive Tone
Maintain a professional but casual environment. Keep your tone light and friendly. Never talk to the person in an accusatory or mean-spirited way when giving feedback.
It’s okay to interject with friendly or reassuring remarks. For example, say something like, “I struggled with this same issue when I first started here” or “It’s complicated stuff, so we don’t expect you to understand it right away.”
Many factors can influence poor performance. If multiple people are failing at a task in the same specific way, consider that the problem might be a lack of training. Accept blame when applicable, and develop new training strategies as needed.
How Often Should I Give Feedback?
Most employees want feedback. However, what’s the appropriate amount of feedback to give? Interestingly, the amount of feedback a person often wants depends on their age.
A report from Gallup revealed that millennials want the most feedback of any group. One in three millennials told their manager that receiving feedback is the best way to improve their job performance.
Unfortunately, many people aren’t getting as much feedback as they’d prefer. The same report found that only 21% of millennials and 18% of non-millennials meet with their manager once a week. The majority of workers meet with a manager once a month or less.
While employees bear some responsibility for requesting feedback, they shouldn’t have to ask multiple times. As a manager, you want to schedule regular times to give employees feedback.
Generally, short, frequent sessions are best. Try to meet with every employee for at least 30 minutes each week. It allows both you and the employee to stay on top of timely issues.
How to Receive Feedback
Learning how to give feedback isn’t enough. You should also understand how to receive it, too. Here are simple, effective strategies to turn the feedback you receive into actionable improvements.
Ask for Feedback
Make it known you’re willing to accept feedback. It sends a positive message that you’re not resistant to a performance critique. When you’re approachable, supervisors and others often view you favorably.
Additionally, inviting feedback helps prevent unwanted surprises. If you’re always expecting evaluation, you’ll likely pay more attention to your performance each day.
You can guide the feedback session yourself by asking questions of your supervisors and others familiar with your work. The following sample questions provide guidance to help others when eliciting feedback:
- Am I prioritizing my tasks effectively?
- How can I make your job easier?
- Am I communicating effectively with the entire team?
- What are the two main ways I could improve?
Poor-performing employees don’t normally seek feedback. If you make it known you’re willing to accept feedback, you’re already creating a positive impression.
Reflect Before Responding
When most people hear something even slightly negative about themselves, their first instinct is to defend and explain their actions.
When receiving feedback, you want to listen quietly and reflect on the information. It’s okay to ask for a moment to reflect. You can say something like, “Thank you for this feedback. Before we continue to the next issue, let me pause to think about what you’ve just said.”
Practice Active Listening
Hearing is the passive process of letting the words said to you flow into your ears. Listening is different. It’s an active process where you seek to understand the speaker’s intended message. When receiving feedback, you want to use a technique called active listening.
Active listening requires an open mind. You want to reserve judgment. Avoid becoming defensive or evaluating the speaker’s words. Evaluation is done later. For now, you want to understand what the speaker is attempting to communicate.
Active listening involves two components:
- Non-verbal cues
- Verbal responses
Non-Verbal Signs of Active Listening
It’s not enough to simply listen. You must show the speaker that you’re paying attention. When you display visible signs of listening, you’re encouraging the speaker to continue talking.
Maintain appropriate eye contact. Looking at the speaker directly in the eyes conveys attentiveness and respect. However, don’t overdo it. Excessive eye contact often comes across as intense or even creepy.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about eye contact. Try looking at the person’s nose or their entire face. Also, allow your gaze to move around the room at times.
Smile and Nod
Use smiles and nods to demonstrate that you understand what’s being said. Large head nods often convey agreement, so keep your nodding small and understated (as you’re remaining judgment-free for now).
Also, keep your smiling subdued. You don’t want to grin from ear-to-ear during your performance review. Instead, use a small smile to signal attentiveness.
Maintain Good Posture
When listening actively, lean slightly forward or sideways. Also, slant your head slightly. Use your body to convey that you’re listening intently. Don’t let your body language indicate boredom or irritability.
Additionally, you and the other person should sit during a feedback session. Standing often feels confrontational, especially if you’re talking to someone for a long time.
Many people have no problem listening to someone talk while also checking their phone or performing other simple tasks. However, you definitely want to avoid this behavior when receiving feedback. Stay off your phone, don’t look at your watch, and otherwise steer clear of even the appearance of distraction.
Take notes if you like. It’s the one activity that you can politely do while also listening. However, make sure you take notes on a piece of paper. Avoid taking notes on your phone if at all possible because it looks you’re surfing the internet.
Don’t try to write down everything said word for word. Instead, focus on the key ideas. Keep your notes brief but understandable. If you miss anything important, write down a description of what you missed and then ask the speaker about it at the end of the feedback session.
Verbal Signs of Active Listening
Verbal responses also indicate they’re paying attention. However, you want to use them sparingly. Active listening isn’t about developing a back-and-forth conversation. Instead, you want to use verbal cues to help the speaker organize and focus their thoughts.
Ask relevant questions to help clarify the message. Try to rephrase the speaker’s ideas in question form. For example, “When you say you’re concerned that I’m barely arriving to work on time, would it put you at ease if I arrived 15 minutes early?”
However, don’t ask too many questions. Doing so can make it seem like you’re having trouble following the speaker’s ideas. Instead, try to make your questions as specific as possible. Use questions to show that you understand the speaker and want more information about the topic.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement involves using simple phrases to reassure the speaker that you’re paying attention to them. Examples include:
- “I agree.”
- “That’s a valid point.”
- “That’s a good insight.”
While positive reinforcement can provide encouragement, use phrases like this sparingly. It can sound fake. Also, it can add unnecessary emphasis to ideas that the speaker doesn’t want to emphasize.
Usually, you appear more engaged by using non-verbal cues such as head nods instead of generic phrases such as “I agree” and “very good.” When it’s your turn to talk, you want to add something more meaningful.
Reiterate Key Points
At regular intervals, try to summarize the key points the speaker made briefly. It’s usually appropriate to do so as the speaker switches topics. For example, “You’re saying that when I make mistakes on my time sheet, it ends up delaying paychecks for the entire team.”
Also, try to repeat specifics back to the speaker. For instance, “Instead of delivering the files to the Communications Department on Wednesday, I should hand them over to Legal on Tuesday.” Feel free to refer to any notes you’ve taken. Generally, people don’t care if you memorize information; they care if you have reliable access to it.
Switch from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset
A fixed mindset is a rigid way of thinking. It typically results when a person is told they’re smart and talented while growing up. They often become adults who believe they already know everything they need to know.
A person with a fixed mindset believes their intelligence is static. As a result, they continually strive to prove how smart they are, both to others and themselves. Characteristics of someone with a fixed mindset include the following:
- Avoids challenges
- Gives up easily
- Avoids effort
- Ignores criticism
- Feels threatened by the success of others
A growth mindset focuses on constant improvement. It’s a mindset that develops when a child is told that they’ll succeed if they work hard. They’re not labeled as smart or talented. Instead, they’re repeatedly told that their work ethic determines what they’ll accomplish in life.
People with a growth mindset constantly seek new knowledge. They love to learn. Characteristics of a growth mindset include:
- Embraces challenges
- Puts forth effort
- Encourages success in others
- Learns from criticism
The ability to learn from criticism is key here. When you have a growth mindset, you welcome feedback because you’re not afraid of change. Instead, you’re focused on constant improvement. Every instance of constructive criticism is an opportunity to grow.
Developing a Growth Mindset
Don’t worry if you didn’t develop a growth mindset at a young age. You can still embrace it as an adult. Here are several strategies to help cultivate a growth mindset:
- Embrace your imperfections. Understanding and acknowledging what you don’t do well is the first step towards improvement.
- Reframe challenges as opportunities. Consider the task at hand not as a problem, but an adventure, which often makes it easier to manage fear and apprehension.
- Trust yourself. It’s easy to lose track of your goals if you’re mainly focused on pleasing others. Instead, focus on impressing yourself through continual self-improvement.
- Value the process. Achieving goals is important. However, the process is often frustrating when you focus only on the result. Instead, learn to enjoy the actual work itself.
- Embrace feedback. Other people offer valuable insights into what you do well and where you could improve. Remaining open to constructive criticism is a powerful way to develop a growth mindset.
What Are the Benefits of Feedback?
Feedback has a variety of tangible benefits for both the individual and the organization they’re a part of:
Improved Job Performance
One of the biggest barriers to success is a lack of clarity about expectations. Regular feedback is the best way to set expectations and evaluate performance. When people know what’s expected of them, they can perform at their highest level.
Improved job performance has two benefits. First, sales often increase because employees are performing their jobs well. Additionally, employees feel an increased sense of job satisfaction because they’re receiving praise and appreciation regularly.
Improves Personal Abilities
You should welcome feedback even if you hate where you work. Feedback helps you improve your skills in the workplace, which makes you a more marketable employee in your field. Whether you’re looking to find a new job or earn a promotion at your current one, feedback is an effective tool for personal growth.
Helps Retain Employees
It costs a lot of money to hire and train an employee. Barring serious issues, it’s almost always more cost-effective to retrain an employee than hire a new one. Feedback helps you identify poorly performing employees and develop a retraining strategy to get them on the right track.
Feedback is an excellent opportunity for supervisors and employees to connect. You can check-in and gauge the employee’s feelings about their job. Ideally, you can spot a dissatisfied employee and take steps to improve their morale.
Prevents Recency Bias
Recency bias is an effect where a supervisor assesses an employee not based on their overall performance but instead based on their most recent actions. For example, if an employer missed a day of work recently, the supervisor might feel like the employee has chronically poor attendance, even if they’ve been on time for the rest of the year.
Frequent feedback helps reduce recency bias. By documenting an employee’s performance on a regular basis, the supervisor can review records to develop an accurate picture of employee behavior that doesn’t rely on personal memory.
Feedback’s reputation is often undeserved. Done correctly, it doesn’t have to be critical, confrontational, or awkward. Instead, feedback is an effective way for two people to work together to improve performance and prevent problems.
Use the strategies above to deliver and receive feedback efficiently and productively. The key to improvement is honest, constructive assessment from others. Feedback is a powerful tool for achieving your goals!