The Feedback Files: Everything You Need to Know to Give and Receive
For managers and employees alike.
WFH, You STILL Need Feedback
You are reading this because you want to be a great employee, you’re committed to your professional development and, most likely, you want to get promoted. (Don’t be modest; we all want to get promoted.)
Receiving feedback gives you the roadmap to make all the above happen, including your most important goal: Getting promoted. What is so much more challenging now is that many of you are working remotely and, as a result, your companies are likely forgoing annual performance reviews, so feedback may be extra hard to come by. Yet, with WFH and the physical distance that it creates, feedback is even more critical than ever.
I know… even just the word feedback can get our hearts racing. We all anticipate the worst; it brings out the perfectionist in us. Potentially, you believe your performance is on target, or you don’t interact with your boss often and you don’t want to bother her. It feels easier, and certainly more comfortable, not to rock the boat.
However, if you’re going to be an outstanding employee, you must know what you are doing well and where you need to improve to grow professionally, and you cannot do that without feedback. You need to hear about your performance from the person that makes recommendations for promotions, your boss.
Asking For Feedback
How do you ask for feedback?
If you have a good relationship with your boss and are comfortable being direct, try saying something like, “Theresa, I am working on several projects that I know are critical to you and the company, and I want to do a good job. The WFH dynamic makes receiving feedback even more important. I’d like to hear your thoughts on what you feel I am doing well and where I need improvement.”
That’s it — short and to the point. Notice that there is a benefit here for your boss and the company. It would be hard for even the busiest manager to pass on sharing feedback when you ask like this.
Let’s look at another scenario. What if you are an introvert, or if you don’t have a good relationship with your boss, or maybe it’s awkward? We’ve all been there. In this case, write out the words you would use and practice in a mirror until you are comfortable. And if you can’t get comfortable or can’t secure a virtual face-to-face with your boss, then sending an email is always an option. Again, make it short and direct. Ultimately, your goal is to ask for a conversation about your performance in a way that benefits your boss and feels frictionless.
You are getting ready to receive feedback from your boss. How do you prepare?
Stay calm, be confident, and remain open and receptive throughout the conversation. Your goal is to be curious, and consider asking for examples of what you do well and what you need to improve. Even if the feedback feels unexpected or off-base, do not be defensive. I know — firsthand — that it is not easy to hear negative feedback, and then not defend yourself or explain, but I encourage you to ask questions and do your best to fully understand. It’s possible you have misunderstood them, they miscommunicated, or perhaps there is confusion about your boss’s expectations of you. Take the opportunity to gain more clarity, and try asking prompting questions, like, “Can you give me an example?” or “Tell me more?” or “What do you mean?” Your goal is to fully understand the feedback so that you can process it, while never putting your boss on the defensive.
Next, you want to offer gratitude. Of course, that’s easy if the feedback is positive, but I recommend using this tactic even if you don’t fully agree with the feedback. The key here is the words you choose. As an example, “Theresa, I appreciate the time and effort you put into preparing for this feedback conversation. I’d like to process what you shared and revisit it with you in a couple of days. Does Friday at 2 pm work for you?” Notice that I did not agree or disagree with the assessment, only thanked her for her time and effort, and scheduled a follow-up. Now I have time to get my emotions in check, fully process the shared feedback, and think about moving forward.
Feedback Received, Now What?
If you feel that the feedback is accurate and you understand the requested changes, jump on it! When you next speak with your boss, mention improvements that you are making based on her feedback. For example, “Theresa, I have been working on my attention to detail — you may have seen a difference in the most recent marketing reports. Again, thanks for helping me in this area.” With this proactive method, every boss will be eager to give you feedback and support your professional development.
But what do we do if we disagree with the feedback? Hopefully, you stay calm and receptive, and you ask lots of questions to eliminate misunderstandings and miscommunications with your boss about your performance. While it’s unfortunate, it happens. They say one thing, and we hear something different. The best you can do is internalize what they say they’re looking for from you and demonstrate that you aim to improve your performance.
Another scenario is that the feedback is mostly positive, yet we fixate on one or two negative pieces. In this case, it’s a good time to do some active soul searching, try reaching out to a trusted peer or a former colleague, and ask for their honest assessment. It is possible to have blind spots about your performance, and your boss is trying to help you.
Ultimately, suppose the majority of the feedback is off-base and inaccurate. In that case, you have three options: 1) Have a thoughtful and respectful conversation with your boss sharing your perspective and using examples, 2) Have a conversation with your HR liaison and ask for a recommendation on moving forward, or 3) Discount the feedback and start looking for your next career move.
Feedback for the Boss
Now let’s address the tough one, feedback for your boss. A trick is to apply the same approach to feedback that we just reviewed for employees.
Let’s say your boss has given you a big project, and she has a habit of not doing regular check-ins nor being available for your questions. You could say, “Theresa, I appreciate that you assigned the strategic planning project to me. I know how important this is to you and the company, and I want to do a thorough job. I would like to ask that we schedule weekly meetings/zooms to review. I want to understand your thinking and ask questions throughout the process. How does that work for you?” Pause, let her answer. Make sure to end the conversation with your appreciation, saying something like, “Great, thank you for your ongoing support.”
Again, most bosses will be comfortable with receiving feedback like this because you are asking for what you need to be successful, which, of course, also benefits them and the company. Also, take a moment to notice that I avoid yes/no questions. Instead, keep your questions open-ended so you can have a dialogue as in “How does that work for you?”
FOR THE MANAGERS:
Prepping to Give Feedback
How do you share informal, ongoing feedback with a direct report? Before sharing feedback, confirm your employees are ready:
- Make sure your staff knows your expectations of them.
- Provide training and ongoing direction until they are up to speed.
- Share with them how you enjoy pointing out their successes and giving encouraging direction when needed. This exchange prepares them for receiving your feedback.
After confirming that you and your staff are on the same page, start the informal feedback dialogue by finding employees doing great things and telling them. Giving positive acknowledgment for their work, particularly in front of their peers, will motivate your staff and build their confidence. Plus, nothing increases productivity better or faster.
But what happens when the reverse is true — you find an employee that isn’t meeting expectations? As soon as you see an employee in need of course correction, address it immediately.
Here’s my formula for impactful and motivating feedback: Start by identifying something that the employee is doing right and provide positive acknowledgment. Then, move to the area where you want an employee to make a change or behave differently — their area of opportunity. Share what you are seeing and what you expect instead — be specific. Ask how they will deliver on your request, agree on a timeframe for the change and offer your support. Always end on a positive note, sharing your appreciation of their commitment to focus on their area of opportunity.
Let me give you an example. Once you are in a one-on-one meeting or Zoom with the employee, say something like, “Mike, as a Marketing Manager at our company, you are doing a great job on your social media postings. They are relevant and creative. I appreciate your contribution. I see an opportunity in your management of the company’s internal newsletter. You seem to struggle with deadlines, and I do not see the same creativity, which we both know is your strength. The newsletter is 25% of your job responsibilities, and our staff relies on it to stay current on company news. I need you to make it a priority. What can you do differently to make the newsletter as timely and engaging as your social media work?” Pause and allow the employee to think about your feedback and respond. If they are unsure, offer up, “How can I support you in this area of opportunity?” Together, you and the employee can discuss solutions. You need them to commit to making a change. It’s a good idea to finish the conversation by saying, “Mike, I appreciate how you received my feedback, and I look forward to helping you grow in your career.”
Notice how I turned potential negative feedback into an opportunity. No one wants to screw up, but it happens. It may be a lack of clarity on expectations, or maybe the employee needs additional training. You can’t know until you have the conversation. The more specific you are in your feedback, the more valuable your discussion will be with the employee. Addressing employee challenges does not have to be uncomfortable. At the end of this feedback session, you both should feel good about the interaction. It is easy to be grateful if you receive feedback delivered in the right way — direct, given with compassion, and focused on an issue and not a person.
Amazing Leadership Requires Openness to Feedback
When you lead, do you also listen? Do you consult your team? Do you curate trusted advisors and look to them for guidance in the face of a difficult decision?
I was watching the news, and one of the United States generals was asked to comment on why Ukraine has fared better than expected in the war with Russia. There were several reasons, but the one that stuck with me was that Putin’s inner circle, including his generals, never differ from him out of fear. While this type of leader operates at a level that most of us will never encounter, there is a takeaway for everyone.
As a leader, you want to surround yourself with people who have your back and give honest feedback. This requires a level of trust, respect, and confidence we can develop as leaders. Having this type of dialogue elevates everyone’s performance. The general went on to say that if you don’t have people on your staff who disagree and challenge you, you need to make changes to your team. I would add that if you are not asking for their input, then you need to change.