Giving feedback isn’t an easy task. Many things can go wrong: the way it is delivered, the things that are said, the timing, the location. The topic might be delicate and embarrassing to discuss, and the person in front of you might not take it very well. You also feel more at ease talking to someone who you know won’t overreact, so the issue is not just about how to give feedback, but also how to receive it. Let’s do ourselves a favour and get better at both.

When feedback is positive

You’d think delivering good feedback would be simple, but in reality, it’s not. How many of us would like more recognition from our manager, our peers, our friends? My guess is: a lot. Now, how many of us give that recognition to our manager, our peers, our friends? I say, very few. So what is it that we want more but don’t give as much? There are a couple of reasons for it:

  • Some people are not mindful or present in the moment to say thank you and really mean it
  • Some people would want to say something, but they don’t know how
  • Some people are too embarrassed
  • Some people never learned to give recognition because they barely received any
  • Some people take it for granted
  • Some people will postpone the conversation
  • Some people think that the other person wouldn’t want it

As you can see, the relationship people have with recognition is almost unique to each individual. Take all these potential reasons and apply them on the receiving end of recognition, and you get another interesting mix of people ranging from uncomfortable with attention to self-conscious for being in the spotlight.

A study published in the Harvard Business Review showed that there is a big gap between how employees and managers see recognition:

“The raters who thought a person was effective in giving feedback were most influenced by the leader’s comfort and willingness to give positive reinforcement. Whether the manager gave negative feedback did not make a big difference — unless the leader avoided giving positive feedback. When we looked only at the managers’ self-assessments, however, we saw a different story. There was a strong correlation between people who believe they give “honest, straightforward” feedback and those who give negative feedback, regardless of whether they also give positive feedback.”

Some managers think that an employee who receives too much positive feedback has a higher risk of slowing down and stop being a top performer. They make the mistake of focusing on the negative – the areas of improvement – which in return give them the image of always focusing on what is not right, which is highly demotivating for employees.

How to better at giving positive feedback:

  • Notice little and big things people do well, for themselves or for others
  • Congratulate them and give them praise without anyone listening
  • Encourage your peers to share ideas in meetings and actively listen
  • Say thank you like you mean it
  • Repeat

How to better at receiving positive feedback:

  • Don’t push back on the recognition for the sake of showing humility
  • Accept that you deserve it
  • Understand what it takes for some people to create that connection with you (particularly introverts who are congratulating you)
  • Think about what made you get that recognition: what did you do, what did you learn that you could do again?
  • Repeat

When feedback is negative

If you think positive feedback is somehow difficult, things get tougher with negative feedback, both on the giving and receiving end. Having difficult conversations is crucial to your own development, the growth of the other person, the individual and group performance, and for your company as a whole. It is also very important in your personal life, with your partner, family, and friends. Avoiding these discussions increases frustration and anger as people will keep doing things they don’t know they shouldn’t be doing.

Creating the best environment possible to have open and honest conversations on things that are not okay comes down to a few things.

How to better at giving negative feedback:

  • Understand what the best way is for the other person to receive it: anonymous survey, face-to-face, in writing?
  • Prepare! What are you going to say? How are you going to say it? Pick the right place and moment to do so.
  • Before saying anything, reflect on the reasons why you are giving this feedback: are your intentions good? If so, communicate that to the person. If not, I would recommend not giving that feedback at all.
  • Focus on the solution rather than the problem: if you only talk about the issue, the conversation is going to be very negative and the other person will feel the need to justify themselves.
  • Avoid the “sandwich approach”, as in giving a negative feedback between two positive feedback. It is too obvious and what you will say will lose its meaning.
  • State facts to remain as objective as possible.
  • Allow the other person time to think about it.

How to better at receiving negative feedback:

  • Anticipate any unexpected feedback by proactively asking people specific questions: “what can I improve?”, “what could I do differently?”
  • Assume positive intent: you are not being attacked.
  • Have empathy: imagine what it must have been like for the other person to have this conversation.
  • Avoid defending yourself – the perception you have of yourself is different than people have.
  • If the feedback was poorly delivered, set this aside to focus on the content and ask yourself: what can I do about it?
  • Thank the person
  • Include the feedback in your personal development document for reference.
  • Follow up with them once you have decided an action plan: they will be happy to see you take it so seriously.