How To Stop Living In Fear Of Feedback

Photo by  Nik MacMillan  on  Unsplash

My first performance review was a total disaster. The eager young man who worked for me learned nothing (except that I had zero business being his boss), and I felt awkward and confused about what I was doing.

In terms of preparation for the review, HR had emailed a document, told me to fill it out, share it with my employee, and send it back for the employee’s file. That was it.

This story happens all too often: new manager receives direct report with zero training or experience in giving feedback; organization needs to update employee file annually and institutes “performance feedback process” with no support; meaningless (and sometimes harmful) conversation ensues between boss and employee; arduous form is filled out and returned to HR.

When we are set up to deliver and receive feedback like this, we dread - and often put off - giving it. What we don't realize is that not giving the criticism (or praise) is more harmful in the long term.

Why Feedback Matters

We all know giving feedback is stressful and hard. So why not just do the bare minimum and move on? Anyone who has suffered from lack of guidance or poorly delivered feedback knows that you quickly disengage, lose focus, and eventually, become resentful.  

In many ways, it's not that different from a small child seeking attention from a parent. The child completes a task, say building a block tower. She looks to her father for approval. If the father’s sending an email on his phone, the child pulls on the father’s leg: pay attention to me. If the father says, “Oh, nice job sweetie,” and turns back to his phone, the child (true or not) receives a signal: what you’re doing is not that important to me. If this becomes a pattern, the child will stop seeking the father’s acknowledgment or support. There's lots of research behind this need for "serve and return" experiences.

At work, your employee completes a project and sends you an email with the results. You take the results up the food chain, but forget to actually thank the employee. She shoots you another email to make sure you got her earlier note. You write back between meetings, “Yep. Got it. Thanks and nice work.” True or not, the employee receives the message: her hard work really isn’t that important to you. Consistent feedback (or lack thereof) like this leads to disengagement. The next time you give the employee a project, she might put a little less time and effort in.

Humans - from birth - seek feedback. It’s how we interact, build relationships, and grow. Without it, we are merely spinning on the hamster wheel, hoping that what we’re doing lands in the category of good or right. And spinning can cause us to get dizzy and fall or merely get sick to our stomachs. 

Not All Feedback is Equal

Just because you give feedback, however, it doesn’t mean you are stopping the wheel. We’ve all received feedback - whether at work or in our personal lives - that has either sent the wheel spinning faster or thrown us completely off track.

For example, maybe someone you didn’t know quite well offered you some rather harsh feedback on a presentation you gave. You weren’t expecting to hear it, and you definitely weren’t expecting to hear it from him. You are taken aback and not sure how to react.

Or, maybe you’ve been given positive feedback from your boss, but you’re not really sure what it’s for. Perhaps she says to you during a 1:1 meeting, “You’re doing such a great job!” At first, you’re happy to hear that (who wouldn’t be!), but as you reflect after the conversation, you’re not really sure what you’re doing that is so great. Maybe she’s just blowing smoke up your ass?

Both examples send the person receiving the feedback spinning. They’re not sure what to make of the feedback. While the feedback providers probably meant to offer valuable suggestions (in the first case) and motivation (in the second), they’ve actually left the employee confused and potentially derailed.


The Good News: You Can Do Something About It

After I delivered that first performance review, I was devastated. I was so determined to be a good boss, but I felt like I had blown everything. I wasn’t really sure what I had done or why my employee reacted the way he did.

While not having any training before the review was somewhat traumatizing, the good news was that I learned that I would never have that type of conversation again. I demanded resources and professional development from my manager (who thankfully agreed), and I got hooked on the feedback literature and training industry. Fast forward many years, and now that’s what I do for a living.

And while I love my job, I realize that not everyone can (or wants to) devote their careers to studying leadership and how to give meaningful and effective feedback in the workplace. And the good news is that there are small and easy things you can do to change the conversation and put yourself on a path to giving effective and inspiring feedback.  

One caveat: while these tips and strategies will provide valuable insights and help you begin giving better feedback almost immediately, remember that there’s no quick fix. This will take time, effort, and learning. You’ll need feedback on how you give feedback (meta, I know). You can look to a more experienced mentor or work with a coach to continue to grow in this area. But without further ado, here are some starters:

1. Stop! In the name of feedback!

Before you give another ounce of feedback, stop, and solicit feedback on yourself. Yes, turn the table around. It’s the best way to build trust and to create a culture of feedback.

After my disaster performance review, I came clean with my employee about feeling pretty bad about our last meeting. I told him that I wanted to wipe the slate clean and start from a different place, with him giving me some feedback. I asked him what I could do to serve him better. It opened up a lot of space in our relationship, and I learned quite a few things about myself. It took courage on his part to share much of this, so I made sure to thank him and not get defensive.

Try this; ask: What are three things I could do to make your life here better?

Then shut up.

Nothing more. Let the person talk. Leave an awkward silence if you have to. 

If you hear, nothing, it’s great, or get some dinky answer, keep digging. If you are relentless, they will budge.

And once you get some feedback, shut up again. Before you defend yourself or respond, just let it sink in. The first words out of your mouth should be, “thank you.” Regardless of the feedback, thank them for giving it to you. It’s not easy to share openly with the boss, and if you want this to continue, you’ll need to show your people you want it, value it, that there are no repercussions, and that you will make a change based on what they’ve told you. This is not to say that you can never dispute what’s been said, but in the moment, thank them and take some time to reflect on what is true about it and what you will change. Even if you eventually go back to that person to share your views, do it respectfully and with the perspective that there is truth within it.

By soliciting feedback regularly, you will create a culture of trust and you will model how feedback should be received.  

Sidenote: you may be thinking, I already do this. Ok, do it better. If you’re the boss, chances are that your people are holding back on you. Maybe you think they’re being 100% transparent and open with you. They’re not. Ask more, ask again, and don’t relent.

2. Feedback isn’t a birthday; celebrate more than once a year

The best feedback is given in the moment, right when something great, or not so great, happens. The person receiving the feedback has the event fresh in her mind, and the person delivering the feedback can provide specifics.

Photo by  Tim Gouw  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

“When you interrupted Lauren in the middle of the meeting we just finished, she never got to finish her point and she didn’t speak up again for the rest of the hour.” The person hearing this feedback will be able to recall the moment he interrupted, why he did it, and perhaps even recall Lauren’s facial expression. The person giving the feedback, can be very specific, pinpointing the exact action and the result of it. 

Feedback that’s specific and in the moment tends to be less personal and dramatized. You haven’t been bottling it up for weeks, it’s not an attack on someone’s personality, and it’s something that can be addressed and solved quickly. In fact, it’s really not that big of a deal.

We tend to make feedback into a big deal, when it’s just not. Annual reviews create this mentality. But if you are giving feedback all along the way, an annual review will not be stressful and it won’t be a surprise. Instead, it will just be a summary of everything that’s been taking place over the course of the year.

If you want to get in the habit of giving feedback regularly, add reminders to your calendar or phone. Go into a meeting looking for a piece of praise you can give to someone as well as an area in which they can grow. And of course, also make sure to solicit the feedback more than you give it.

If you make giving feedback a regular part of your interactions - telling people what they’ve done well and where they could use some work, as these events happen, it will be less stressful on both ends. And most important, you’ll start to see changes on a regular basis (not annually).

3. The good, the bad, and that moldy sandwich

The Good

Feedback isn’t always pretty, and that’s why we think it’s hard. But, actually the pretty stuff can be just as hard to deliver when delivered well. Remember my example earlier of the the boss who told her employee, “You’re doing such a great job!” And then that employee was left wondering what she was doing so well and if the boss really meant it. That’s an example of what leadership guru, Kim Scott, calls “ruinous empathy,” that vague and constant cheerleading that never calls out specifics or seems genuine.

The problem with ruinous empathy and handing out “good jobs” like Costco free samples is that people really never know what it is that they are doing well. This means that they can’t be intentional about doing what they’re doing well on a regular basis. Tell people exactly what they did well and they’ll repeat it. Scott encourages managers to spend just as much time preparing to give positive feedback as they spend on criticism. Call out specifically what the person did well and the impact it had on the bigger picture. If this is articulated, the employee will be able to repeat these actions in reference to other opportunities.  

The bad

We often dread and put off the conversations involving criticism. As we discussed above, don’t. Just say it. In the moment. Well, not in the middle of a meeting with other people, but as soon after as possible. If you wait, it will be a bigger deal to you and the person hearing it. Pull off the bandaid.

Make sure that as much as you can, you give critical feedback in person. An email or text is the least effective and most detrimental path when it comes to giving critical feedback. If you’re not in the same physical space, use Skype. 

Don’t make it personal, because it’s not. The person who works for you is not a bad person. They’ve done something that can be improved because they’re human.

Instead of saying, “You’re quick to judge and you really hurt Alisha’s feelings by putting her down,” try something like, “In our small team meeting, you didn’t hear Alisha’s idea out and you quickly responded that it couldn’t work; by doing that, you may have noticed that she began to tear up and looked like she was about to cry. I want to be sure that we hear people out and encourage innovating thought.”

When you are in the moment, specific, and show the impact, it becomes less about the person and more about the work and moving forward.  

Photo by  Asnim Asnim  on  Unsplash

Photo by Asnim Asnim on Unsplash

The moldy sandwich

Please don’t shit sandwich (a good, a bad, a good) your criticism. People can smell that from a mile away. Seriously, there's research to prove it. One of two things happens: the person receiving the feedback can’t hear anything because they’re just waiting for the “but,” or they hear what they want to hear; the positive feedback on both ends drowns out the criticism in the middle. If you give feedback regularly - both good and bad - you’ll stop feeling the need to create these moldy sandwiches and spare everyone a lot of stomach pain.

4. Bring a solution (or two)

One of my old bosses used to say, “You can bring me a problem, but you need to also bring two solutions.” When you offer criticism, help your employee brainstorm ideas to make a change. Instead of saying, “you really need to improve your data analysis skills,” try suggesting an online course or to find an hour or two where you can mentor the person in this area. Knowing that they have an invested partner will lead to a quicker turnaround.




Feedback is a gift

You may be exhausted after reading all of this. Feedback is hard and it takes time - and lots of screwing up - to get it right. But try this perspective: feedback is a gift. When done well, you are helping someone do more of what they do well and grow in areas they never knew they could.

Remember the employee from the beginning of our story (the one who got to experience the world's most disastrous performance review)? He came back to me years later and thanked me. He thanked me for coming forward and being transparent about where I failed, and he thanked me for opening up the doors for him to be open and criticize me. But, he said that most of all, the criticism that I gave him over the years shaped who he was at work and as a person. He said there were times that my brutal honesty made him "cringe," but that in the end, he knew I cared about him and his growth. And he used the nuggets of praise and criticism to shape his professional career and who he was as a person. Just think, your feedback could change the course of someone’s life.