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How to Benefit from Feedback in the Workplace

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As a leader, you give feedback to your team and receive feedback from your boss and, hopefully, from your team. Face-to-face communication is the best way to deliver and receive feedback, as it gives both parties a chance to speak at the moment, rather than letting possible questions, resentments, or misunderstandings linger and build.

You and your team benefit from feedback in the workplace when it enables you to adjust processes, resources, and behaviors, create a stronger and more supportive culture and avoid repeating or escalating problems. Feedback also demonstrates a concern with the other person’s future and support for their growth in the organization—attitudes that spark motivation and engagement.

Feedback to Your Juniors

According to research on feedback, the more senior a person is, the more critical they become of their juniors. As a leader, you can guard against becoming overly critical and gain more benefit from feedback by:

  • Describing behaviors and their effects rather than judging
  • Depending on and referring to your own observations
  • Taking the opportunity to praise as well as correct
  • Being specific rather than generalizing; avoid absolutes like “never” and “always.”

For example, instead of telling someone, “You have a bad temper,” which is an opinion, provide details of an observation or particular encounter you witnessed, such as, “When you shouted at the customer, two customers left the store—the customer you were shouting at and an additional who overheard?” Instead of telling someone, “You talk too much,” say, “You had a lot to say during the meeting, which meant we ran out of time before some of the other team members could contribute.”

Another opportunity to course-correct without personal injections is to refer to the rules that govern your workplace culture. For example, if someone consistently arrives late to a meeting, you can simply cite the rule governing prompt attendance. Long explanations aren’t needed.

Positive feedback is always welcome by your juniors, but it is more welcome when specific. “You’re a hard worker,” is good to hear but lacks any specifics that one can repeat. Instead share, “Your focused work, detailed graphics, and decisive conclusion on the XYZ project are reflected in the amazing quality of your report,” is even better.

Whether positive encouragement or critical feedback, it’s important to give the other person a chance to respond by asking about their thoughts or view of the situation. That give-and-take ensures that you are both hearing the feedback in the same way. It also opens the opportunity to discuss how behavior might be improved, changed, or supported.

Finally, watch for the effect of any feedback or action plan. Acknowledge improvement and thank the other person for continued effort. Make sure that the promised support appeared and determine whether further action is needed.

TIP: Feedback that is purely negative and provides no route to improvement will be ignored.

Feedback from Your Superiors

Receiving feedback from a boss can be stressful; in fact, it may be one of the most difficult conversations next to providing feedback! More than one study of medical professionals found that they were much more likely to accept feedback from their patients than from their bosses, colleagues, and peers.

Your first impulse might be defensive if your stress response is fight. A flight or freeze response might look like you listening to the feedback your boss is providing but in actuality, your internal thoughts override your listening skills. Regardless of whether the feedback is positive or negative, simply because the person delivering the feedback is higher ranking there is a normal trigger of stress. Taking time to control your first reaction helps to ensure a more pleasant and productive discussion, one that enables you to garner the benefits from feedback.

Active listening is an integral part of understanding why you are receiving feedback and how it might benefit you. You engage in active listening when you look the person in the eye, keep an open mind, reframe from interrupting, provide clues that you are listening (“yes, I see”), and ask clarifying questions such as “Can you give me an example?”

If you want to ask for feedback from a superior, be specific and in the moment. For example, you might want to ask if a report was clear and if you provided enough data for decision making. A general, “How am I doing,” usually prompts a one-word answer that doesn’t benefit you or the person whose support you want.

Always thank the person providing feedback, even if you are feeling less than thankful. You want to keep interactions professional and encourage the person to return with feedback that might one day make a tremendous difference in your career.

TIP: Feedback is a dialog, whether it goes from you or to you.

Feedback from Your Team

While an open-door policy is a good one, your team will seldom supply feedback unless you ask for it. Again, you need to be specific about what you are asking: “What can I do to ensure…” or “What did you like about…” or “How do you feel about the times when….” Make sure you understand the feedback by summarizing what was said, asking for examples, or asking clarifying questions.

When you receive feedback, you need to accept it graciously even if (perhaps especially if) you disagree. Take the time to reflect on the feedback, just as you would if the information came from a superior.

Finally, act upon the feedback. You need to show the team that their feedback has some effect, a change or improvement in how you lead or how the team itself interacts. When you are grateful for feedback and apply it, you establish an environment of trust that encourages future feedback and also establish the benefit from feedback, both giving and receiving.

If your team hesitates to provide feedback, then you may need to work on issues of trust. One way to do that is to admit your own mistakes while approaching the mistakes of others without blaming or accusing. Positive feedback to your team also helps build trust, as they realize that you notice their successes as well as their failures.

You may need to rely on nonverbal clues. If your team is happy, if team members seem to enjoy working together, if the team responds with enthusiasm to your suggestions, you are receiving very positive feedback even without anyone detailing it. Under those circumstances, repeatedly asking for feedback becomes an annoyance. On the other hand, if your team is constantly calling in sick, experiences high turnover, and shows other signs of stress and unhappiness, you are receiving negative feedback whether or not anyone says so.

TIP: You have to ask for feedback from your team; their willingness to give you feedback is a strong clue to whether you have successfully developed a culture of trust.

Key Takeaways

The benefits of feedback are most apparent when the feedback is specific, cites real-life examples, and includes an action plan when appropriate for effecting change. Whether you are giving or receiving feedback, a calm and receptive attitude rooted in active listening will enable the most positive and productive response.

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