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Managers, here’s how to give feedback as an ally, not a critic

Many leaders understand the importance of delivering feedback, but forget it can be more harmful than effective if delivered improperly.

Managers, here’s how to give feedback as an ally, not a critic
[Source image: cirquedesprit/Getty Images]

“You’re not good enough. You need to change.”

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These exact words weren’t said to me, but they couldn’t stop ringing in my head.

At the time, I was a junior developer working for a large internet media company in New York City, when my supervisor called me into his office and began going through a list of bullet points of mainly negative feedback. While he didn’t actually verbalize the words “negative feedback,” he might as well have said exactly that.

I knew his intention was to give me helpful guidance. Most managers and leaders believe performance feedback is a critical skill, one that helps their employees improve, but it’s become such an integral part of the status quo that they don’t see how it might be more harmful than effective. As Harvard Business Review contributors Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson write: “Over the past 30 years, companies have been so focused on creating cultures of feedback, that we’ve forgotten why we’re doing it in the first place. [However,] feedback rarely, if ever, achieves its desired objectives.”

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The problem with feedback

Here’s the thing: Telling people they are missing the mark is not the same as helping them hit the mark, Bregman and Jacobson conclude. It often has the opposite effect.

I agree. Something I’ve learned while growing my company over the last 15 years is that feedback isn’t effective when it inflates — or bruises — someone’s ego. Just as my supervisor went through a list of all my shortcomings all those years ago, the culture I’m striving to create with my business is the exact opposite of this.

Your “constructive” feedback isn’t fooling anyone

There’s a reason why we cringe anytime someone wants to offer us “constructive” feedback. Hearing this term begins the process of preparing ourselves to feel psychologically unsafe.

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No one likes to feel as if they’re failing. And these feelings often have a trickle-down effect that permeates throughout your culture, creating a tense environment full of fear and anxiety. “Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning [no matter how well intentioned]. It impairs it,” say authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in their Harvard Business Review story. What the researchers found instead: “Getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.”

Be an ally (not a critic)

As leaders, we need to go beyond feedback and shift our focus from critic to ally. “When you’re someone’s ally,” write Bregman and Jacobson, “you display caring for them, confidence in them, and commitment to them. In your presence, they drop shame and defensiveness, and instead focus on becoming better.”

All of this sounds great, you’re probably thinking, but how to put it into practice?

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The researchers recommend the following three-step formula to help engage team-members better:

  1. Show empathy. When faced with challenges, let them know you understand how difficult, annoying, and frustrating this must be.
  2. Express your confidence in them. Showing that you believe in their ability to handle struggles reinforces their own self-assurance.
  3. Offer to brainstorm together. But first, make sure to ask permission. “Ask them if they would be willing to think with you about the situation,” Bregman and Jacobson emphasize.

Focus instead on helping your team thrive and excel

“To escape the feedback trap,” writes Inc. contributor Robbie Abed, “you have to purposefully decide to help your employees learn and achieve excellence.”

At my company, it’s crucial for us that the positive comments we offer aren’t fluffy bits of flattery, but genuine observations. I’ve always lived by the principle that honesty and transparency are true indicators of respect, and I’ve made it a point to build our culture around this.

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To me, helping your team thrive and excel means removing the anxiety around criticism and approaching your feedback as an opportunity for conversation—or a reciprocal talk that makes space for the other person to talk and help them open up.

Part of this dialogue involves highlighting someone’s efforts over their innate ability. This means acknowledging aspects of their performance that are under their control—their planning, creativity, and initiative. Rather than giving “constructive” feedback, remind them of the big picture and how they can be more goal-oriented.

“Whenever you see one of your people do something that worked for you, that rocked your world just a little, stop for a minute and highlight it,” say Buckingham and Goodall.

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This is due to the fact that learning what excellence looks like can start a sequence of events to create more excellence. And after that, your once hard-to-take feedback can create a culture of success.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of Jotform, an online form-builder.

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