The Art of Giving and Receiving Powerful Feedback

Anna Katharina Schaffner

We are social animals, and most of our core learnings are social in nature. That means that we gain our most precious insights from feedback. We need others both as mirrors and as dialogue partners. To understand the impact of our statements and actions, we need to read people’s body language and facial expressions. We need others to test the strength of our interpretations and ideas. In order truly to grow, we also need others to give us explicit verbal feedback on how we are doing, both in our private and in our working lives.

In theory, we all know that giving and receiving feedback is hugely important for our development. We also know that not giving a person honest feedback about areas in which they may not meet the expected standard is not an act of kindness. Instead, it will hold them back and prevent them from developing what they need to develop. And yet, many of us really struggle with giving constructive feedback. 

At Performance Catalyst, we aspire to the highest standards in our work as facilitators and coaches. We seek other people’s and each other’s feedback on our performance all the time so that we can do even better. While we are all quite comfortable with giving and receiving feedback, we thought, why not get some group feedback on how we all give and receive feedback? That’s why we chose feedback as our latest Wine & Wisdom topic.

First, we looked at a couple of models and theories regarding feedback that resonated with us. Then, we shared our favourite practical tips for giving feedback. 

Feedback Models and Theories

The author Kim Scott has developed the notions of “ruinous empathy” and “radical candour”. She argues that ruinous empathy is one of the most prevalent forms of bad employee management. Ruinous empathy is not kindness, but rather a form of cowardness. In order not to hurt somebody’s feelings, or to avoid a difficult conversation that might make us feel uncomfortable, we deprive an employee who is underperforming of the chance to grow and develop. The consequences can be really serious and can even result in their dismissal. Or else they might stagnate in their careers without ever understanding why.

Other forms of unhelpful feedback in Scott’s feedback matrix include “manipulative insincerity” and “obnoxious aggression”. In the case of the former, we remain silent or inauthentically positive when we should speak candidly. In the case of the latter, we do speak, but too aggressively and not with the right intentions. Both do not meet Scott’s criteria for “radically candid” feedback, which is being kind, clear, specific, and sincere.

When it comes to giving constructive feedback, it is also crucial to be mindful of the intention-perception gap. Often, what we intend to convey and how our message may be perceived can be vastly different. Insights Discovery profiles provide some excellent tools for helping us bridge the intention-perception gap, including fostering awareness of our and other people’s communication preferences.

Another concept  that we believe in, is  “continuous feedback”. The idea is that feedback should not be confined to formal reviews or high-stakes situations, but should be a continuous process integrated into daily interactions. We may not want to wait until somebody makes a consequential mistake, for example, or until a line has been crossed, before we give people feedback. Like a plane navigation panel, we can instead constantly help colleagues to stay on the right track, by praising and reinforcing positive behaviours, and telling people immediately what they could have done even better. “You did y and z great. Regarding x, it would be even better if…” is a kind way of phrasing such continuous feedback.

There is also a difference between hot and cold feedback: Providing feedback when emotions are running high (hot debrief) versus waiting for a cooler moment (cold debrief) can impact its reception. When we digest and analyse a situation for longer, we can come up with a more nuanced, reflective, and possibly more objective way of feeding back on it. We can also plan more carefully HOW we want to make our core points. But sometimes, the immediacy of hot, spontaneous, and instantaneous feedback has its advantages, too.

Overall, we agreed that providing kind, sincere, constructive, and continuous feedback is an essential ingredient of the “high challenge, high support” approach to leadership we champion at Performance Catalyst. Effective feedback provides both challenge and support, pushing people to grow whilst providing them with the necessary information, encouragement, care, and support.

Practical Tips for Giving and Receiving Powerful Feedback

Here are some of the practical tips for giving and receiving powerful feedback that we found useful and shared with each other: 

1.    Asking how you meet the standards: 

Frame a request for feedback around established standards, focusing on performance rather than personality. You could say, for example, “How did I do on a scale from 0-10?” It is unlikely that someone will give you a straight 10. You can then follow up by saying: “What could I do to reach a 10?” That way, you should be able to receive quite specific and concrete advice that can help you grow.

2.    Check for understanding:

In a feedback conversation, continuously confirm what you are hearing. You may say, “I heard you say x, is that correct?” That way, you can double-check that you are understanding the message correctly, and, if not, prevent misunderstandings or wrong interpretations. Looping back like that helps you close the intention-perception gap. 

3.    Time and place

Choose an appropriate time and setting for giving feedback, considering both yours and the recipient’s emotional state and the context of the situation. That may be an obvious point, but misunderstandings often occur when we do not prepare carefully enough for feedback conversations, or are rushed, tired, or in a heightened emotional state.

4.    Call it out when it happens:

Some behaviours might benefit from being addressed directly, in the moment. For example, you might say, “When you do x, as you just did, this has the following effect on me and the team…” It is wise to talk about effect sof behaviours, which allows the feedback recipient to reflect on the impact of their actions and to take it less personally. 

5.    Turn it around:

A great opening question for a feedback conversation is: “How do you think you are meeting this standard?” Meet your conversation partner where they are. It is likely that they are already quite aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and it is much better to start from a shared basis of understanding. 

6.    Other points:

·      Start by declaring your intention, and by stating your desired outcome. 

·      Ask what your conversation partner is hoping to get out of the conversation? 

·      Bear in mind core constructive feedback principles: Ideally, feedback should be true, helpful, and kind. 

·      Be mindful that sometimes, people do not react well to perceived criticisms. They may go into flight or fight mode, or become extremely defensive. Yet it might simply take them some time to digest the feedback. Even if a conversation appears to have gone badly, you cannot know what long-term impact your feedback may have had. 

·      Own your feedback and do not hide behind others (as in “Katie thinks you are failing at x… I personally think you are great, I’m really just reporting what Katie says…”). 

·      Don’t ever weaponize feedback – check the purity of your own intentions and remember your carer responsibilities in the roles and power dynamics in which you operate.

·      Make sure that your feedback is always constructive, specific, actionable, and growth-oriented, and that it supports a culture of psychological safety and continuous learning.

In conclusion, mastering the art of giving and receiving feedback is essential for our personal and professional development. By embracing both the challenges and rewards of providing powerful feedback, we can create a culture of high challenge and high support in any setting.


Posted on

April 26, 2024

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