The power of effective feedback

While one personally craves feedback from others, they can often hold back on giving constructive feedback to others. Even at the risk of hampering the other person's performance on a task.

We're huge fans of The Office. For the uninitiated, it is an American sitcom about workplace funnies, shenanigans and sometimes dramas. And it was a hoot with Steve Carell playing the funny, inappropriate, borderline narcissistic boss, Michael Scott, with a heart of gold.

In one episode sometime in the middle of the series, Michael is supposed to conduct performance reviews for his employees. It's quite an important day for the workers of Dunder Mifflin, and you can sense the nervous energy in the air. However, instead of providing feedback to his employees, he asks THEM instead for feedback on a call he's had with his boss. As it goes, a whole lot of crazy situations happen before the episode ends. Interestingly, while the employees provide Michael with feedback that he wants to hear, they barely get any feedback out of him!

Now, when compared, Michael Scott seems like a bit of an exaggerated take on real life bosses and superiors. However, there's one thing that seems to be real to life in most situations with the fictional manager—that employees may crave more feedback than offered in most situations.

Hi, I'm Nishtha and this is the Sketchnote Startup Podcast. Here's where we talk to you about the world of startups, productivity tools, personal developments, stories and a lot more. And today I want to talk to you about something that seems extremely basic, but is often really difficult to get right, especially in the context of the workplace—giving feedback. And not just any sort of feedback, but an effective one.

A recent study published by the American Psychological Association confirms something that we've known for a while now: While one personally craves feedback from others, they can often hold back on giving constructive feedback to others. Even at the risk of hampering the other person's performance on a task.

Let me tell you a bit about the study first. This pilot study was conducted by doctoral candidates at the Harvard Business School. In it, the tester deliberately presented themselves with a very visible flaw to participants. However, less than 3% of them informed the tester that their lipstick was smudged, or they had a chocolate smudge still visible on their faces.

What's more, the study also spoke to participants with work-based scenarios, and the awkwardness was quite palpable. One of them spoke about an awkward work situation. “Someone was repeatedly interrupting a Zoom call due to likely a bad condition. They had no idea they kept talking over people. It was embarrassing to watch as the problem kept happening and was not corrected,” the participant said. Another spoke about an instance where their coworker told others to complete a task on a Slack channel, without realising that it sounded mean. They didn't ask politely when all they needed to do was say it nicely. None of the coworkers brought it to the task assigner's notice.

The same study also spoke to people who did not receive feedback. Like one participant who spoke too quickly during a presentation and later realised they made the information too hard to understand. These potential feedback receivers who did not receive feedback often tend to feel worse when they figure that no one confronted them about their issues.

The problem, lead researcher Nicole Abi-Esber says, is an inherent unwillingness to confront others. It can cause awkwardness to the person providing feedback and embarrassment to the one receiving it. Worse, you can upset the person getting the feedback.

But when the truth finally dawns upon the person who should've received feedback, the most common thought is: Why didn't anyone tell me?

I want you to imagine this scenario. You've been tasked with making an extremely important presentation to your seniors, and you're very stressed. The night before the presentation, you worked on the slides endlessly, added the numbers necessary, and slept off anxiously. The next morning, you do a dry run with your team. Some of them notice that a few of your numbers are off, just before you're about to make the all-important presentation to your boss.

Would you: Want your teammates to sound you off on the numbers? Or would you rather they stay mum?

This is not even a question up for debate, correct? You obviously want to be informed about this issue so you can fix it and spare yourself the embarrassment later. Yet, for fear of awkwardness, and an unwillingness to confrontation, not many will come and inform you.

And this is a rather straightforward example of problematic data. If you happen to be with your friends and your tone is a bit upsetting, many will avoid telling you so. Right?

The idea, say the researchers, is to put yourself in the shoes of the person you're about to give feedback to, just for a second. Ask yourself, would you want feedback in this situation? Most likely you would, and this can empower you to give feedback to others.

Francesca Gino, co-author of the paper says, “Feedback is key to personal growth and improvement, and it can fix problems that are otherwise costly to the recipient. The next time you hear someone mispronounce a word, see a stain on their shirt, or notice a typo in their slide, we urge you to point it out to them—they probably want feedback, more than you think.”

While the study was quite wide and encompassed everything from imagined feedback, memories of real feedback and even lab settings, it does have some shortcomings. For example, the authors say, it couldn't measure the effects of power dynamics. And that's something we'd love to talk about today.

We've established that feedback is important. Criticism is crucial for any human being to thrive. Whether it's in the setting of a workplace or in their private lives. And timely feedback is vital to ensure it has the same effect as desired.

To that end, let's talk about a very important word in this context—constructive. Feedback must be delivered in the right spirit to avoid it being taken the right way. Especially when power dynamics do come into play. When you're a senior at work, you can't let your feedback sound like a sermon or let your juniors feel unappreciated by the exercise.

Obviously, given that you're in a position of power, how you word your feedback is as important too. Like we said earlier, imagine yourself to be in the shoes of the feedback receiver. That allows you to look at two things. Whether or not you even want the feedback at that point in time, and how you want it. Avoid comparisons with other teammates like “Look at how so and so works, you need to match up to their efficiency levels” and definitely avoid using harsh words and a mean spirit. Words like inefficient, pathetic, threats to take them off the project or worse, fire them, have never really made for good feedback.

Understand that feedback is meant to be given to people you hope to uplift, and put on the right track, especially as a senior in an organization. If it comes down to threats of firing, yeah that's not really feedback. You want a positive reaction from your feedback session. And I don't mean just the person receiving it saying, “Oh my god, thank you. This changes everything!” It also means the feedback must be taken in the right spirit and then acted upon with tangible results!

Another crucial, crucial aspect of making sure your feedback is effective is to time it correctly. Timing really IS everything here. Imagine if you were told you'd worn your shirt inside out, days after the event took place. It's too late for you to go back and time and fix it. Similarly, if you're giving feedback too late for the other person to solve anything, it's quite pointless. More importantly, you'll end up giving your two cents when they're least expecting it, which can lead to a defensive reaction instead of an open mind.

Beware though. While you would like to time your feedback correctly, make sure you have all the information necessary about the incident before you do it. Ensure that the recipient isn't highly emotional, vulnerable or lacks the bandwidth to handle your opinions.

Let's say a person working under you has been lagging behind, performance-wise. It would be unwise to simply pull them up without knowing why it is that they're struggling. While you may go off about procrastinating, chances are they're dealing with a health condition or an issue in their personal life that's affecting their work. Even if you do figure they're having a tough time because they're unwell, it wouldn't be prudent to give them feedback on a day they're not doing a 100% healthwise.

Which brings us to the next conditions you must fulfil to give good feedback. A place and time of mutual convenience. Often times feedback can come naturally to us. And while that's okay, you need to take into consideration whether it'll be well received by the intended recipient right there. Like a boss who tends to correct their employee in the middle of a presentation to important clients. While they may have the right intention at heart, the place isn't right to give feedback. It's quite possible that many people you manage would appreciate and prefer getting feedback in a more private setting.

Choose a private meeting room or a cubicle to give feedback. Or if you want to keep things informal, go for a meal or a coffee to keep things light. This works especially well if your feedback sessions are planned to be more generic, monthly or quarterly. Even so, if you do have specific feedback to give, don't wait for your next session to bring it up. Do it sooner than later.

If you're the kinds that have regular feedback sessions with your employees, this will also reduce the amount of anticipation related anxiety that the recipients may experience when you're trying to set a meeting up. Imagine your own superior not being the kind who'd do a lot of one-on-one sessions. If they decide to have a feedback session with you and call to say, “Hey, let's talk tomorrow at 3 pm," you're probably going to spend the whole night tossing and turning, wondering what this is going to be about. “Did I mess up? Am I about to be fired?” You're thinking of yourself in your own team's shoes. Now, see what we mean by the perks of regular feedback?

When D-Day arrives and you're about to provide your planned feedback, make sure you silence your phone and pay full attention to the session. Also, ensure you adapt your communication style and tone to the person receiving your feedback. This isn't a must-do, but it's nice to get feedback the way you'd want it, right? You'd want it to!

After you're done providing your feedback, allow the recipient to tell you their side of the story, and listen without judgements. Acknowledge the fact that you don't always know how gender, race, age and other factors may have influenced them and their decisions leading up to this session. Take non-verbal cues while they speak. Are they being too defensive even if they seem to be telling you they're taking this in the right spirit? Paraphrase what you've just heard and repeat it so you have full approval of the understanding of the situation.

Ask open-ended questions if you think the recipient is a bit of a non-communicator. It's okay, people are different. So your approach must be different too. You may occasionally encounter volatile recipients too, who may get offensive while going on the defensive about your feedback. It's up to you to defuse the situation and bring it back on track. Avoid personal attacks, and allow them to present their side of the story. Ask them how they'd approach the situation and improve it. Some role-playing does help here if you request them to think of the situation from your POV. If nothing works, call time on this session and continue some other time.

Lastly, feedback is nothing if not acted upon. You and the receiver need to both sit and plan the next course of action based on the session you've just had. Too many numerical errors in slides when presentations are being prepared the night before? Emphasise the need of getting it prepared earlier, with plenty of time for double checks. Keep a tab on this in the long run and see if your feedback's been taken well and actioned.

There's one sort of feedback that you must avoid giving behind closed doors. You guessed it! It's praise! First of all, yes, lauding someone for good work done is also a form of feedback. It tells the recipient that they've been doing the right thing in the right way, and it encourages them to keep doing better. This is the sort of thing you should be telling your employees in front of everyone.

When you're generous with praise, and publicly at that, it not only boosts the confidence of the receiver, it also fosters a sense of positivity with other teammates. Even if it's a failed attempt, make sure you call it out in front of everyone and appreciate the efforts. But don't use public praise as a cushion to deliver criticism-based feedback, or you'll undercut the point of praise. A happy, encouraged team is one that will get results. Besides, a positive environment is a dream work condition for everyone!

A hallmark of a positive work environment isn't just a superior who lavishes praise and gives crucial constructive feedback in a timely manner. It's also a boss or team leader who is open to feedback themselves. Yep, make sure you take opinions and reviews from your team too about how you're doing. No one's perfect, but you'd love to be told how to be a more effective leader. Encourage your colleagues to tell you if there are alternate routes to a problem you're solving if they have suggestions for improving work or culture here. That helps immensely!

Finally. Know that giving feedback is an art. You won't always get it right. But with plenty of practice, you can improve tremendously! And that's the goal, right? Improving your ability to give and receive feedback, while you provide your team with yours! Keep at it; we believe in you.

Join us again next time for another fascinating tale from the world of startups and corporates. Also stay tuned for more interviews, byte-sized productivity hacks and much, much more. If you don't already, subscribe to our podcast, available now on all leading podcast platforms. Oh and don't forget to share this episode if you liked it. Tag us on Twitter, we're @SketchnoteCo.

Until next time, I'm Nishtha and this has been The Sketchnote Startup Podcast.


Read about how YOU can give effective feedback too, with Sketchnote's lesson:

You've successfully subscribed to Sketchnote
Great! Next, complete checkout to get full access to all premium content.
Error! Could not sign up. invalid link.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Error! Could not sign in. Please try again.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Error! Stripe checkout failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Error! Billing info update failed.