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How to Give and Receive Constructive Feedback at Work

By Jacquelyn Adams

Receiving constructive feedback is fun, right? With all my preaching about continuous learning and personal growth, I got a dose of my own medicine the other day, and was reminded how much I still need to grow. It all began with a colleague asking if I was open to receiving some feedback based on her recent observations. Cue existential dread. Her tone didn’t hint at forthcoming accolades, and to be completely frank, I was in no mood for criticism. I was working my butt off and had a few different wins in my back pocket. Why couldn’t she focus on the positives of my performance as a trainer?

It took less than two seconds for all these thoughts (along with a whole host of excuses as to why I could not have this conversation right now… or maybe ever). Yep, this is all coming from the preacher of self-improvement.

This personal experience underscored a fundamental paradox in the workplace: receiving feedback allows us to improve, yet we are strongly inclined to reject these opportunities because of the discomfort they cause. How can we turn feedback into a constructive, rather than a destructive, force?

The Psychology Behind Feedback

Psychologically, giving feedback can trigger our own anxieties about being judged or disliked. Similarly, receiving feedback can activate defense mechanisms, feeling like a threat to our self-image. Understanding these psychological underpinnings is crucial in delivering feedback that is not only heard, but also embraced. The fear of giving feedback often stems from a lack of confidence in our judgment, and the apprehension of damaging relationships. It’s akin to walking a tightrope where the fear of falling off on either side — being too harsh or too lenient — paralyzes us. But for the sake of improvement, we must take a deep breath and step forward anyway.

Leadership: Setting the Stage for Feedback

Leadership plays a critical role in cultivating a feedback culture. Leaders who openly give and receive feedback set a powerful example, demonstrating that feedback is not just tolerated, but valued. When leaders actively seek feedback for themselves, it dismantles the barriers of hierarchy and creates a more egalitarian and open communication environment. An organization that fosters open communication and continuous improvement naturally creates a fertile ground for feedback. In such cultures, feedback is not an occasional event but a daily nutrient for growth.

Making the Feedback Work for you

Effective feedback focuses on behavior, not personality. It’s specific, using concrete examples, and always offers a path forward. It’s a skill that can be honed with practice and mindfulness. To be constructive, feedback must combine honesty with empathy. It’s about guiding, not scolding; about inspiring change, not instilling fear. The goal is to create a dialogue where feedback is a tool for growth and improvement, not a weapon of criticism. A common pitfall in giving feedback is vagueness, leading to confusion and misinterpretation. Focusing solely on negatives without acknowledging strengths can demotivate and discourage. Additionally, failing to follow up after feedback makes the process feel insincere and incomplete.

Taking Action: Your Next Steps

Consider the steps you can take to contribute to a feedback-rich culture in your organization. It starts with one voice, one piece of feedback at a time.

  • Embrace Feedback as a Growth Tool: Challenge yourself to view feedback not as criticism, but as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. Actively seek out feedback from your peers and superiors.
  • Practice Giving Constructive Feedback: Start with a small, manageable goal, like giving one piece of constructive feedback to a colleague each week. Remember to focus on behaviors and outcomes, not personal traits.
  • Develop a Feedback-Friendly Environment: Encourage open and honest communication within your team. This can be done through regular feedback sessions or by simply fostering a more open dialogue in daily interactions.
  • Reflect on Received Feedback: After receiving feedback, pause. Take a moment to reflect on it. Ask yourself: How can I use this feedback to improve? What are the actionable steps I can take?
  • Follow Up on Feedback: Whether you’re giving or receiving feedback, make it a point to follow up. This could involve checking in on progress, offering further assistance, or acknowledging improvements that have been made.
  • Acknowledge and Reward Openness to Feedback: Recognize and appreciate when team members actively engage in feedback processes. This positive reinforcement can help build a more feedback-oriented culture.
  • Work on Communication Skills: Enhance your ability to express your thoughts clearly and empathetically. Consider training or workshops in effective communication, especially in giving and receiving feedback.

So, after I finished my internal meltdown, how did I receive and respond to the unsolicited feedback? With gratitude. She took a risk and put herself out there for my benefit. I submitted a commendation for her in our employee recognition system at work, ensuring she received not just leadership acknowledgment but also a token of appreciation in the form of a gift card. Her willingness to engage in a potentially difficult conversation, offering feedback in a manner that was both thoughtful and diplomatic, truly stood out. As we each strive to navigate the complexities of workplace communication, let us remember the power of our voices in shaping a culture of growth, empathy and continuous improvement.

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Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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