Many organizations are moving to an explicit culture and system of continuous feedback. On the surface, it sounds straightforward. In reality, pitfalls abound—and this presents a real opportunity to take an inclusive approach to giving and receiving feedback to avoid those common pitfalls. Too often, managers lack the knowledge and skills to deliver effective feedback, and unintentionally do harm to their employees and colleagues or miss the opportunity to truly maximize performance.
To be sure, the idea of needing to be so careful about how one gives and receives feedback might be stressful and at times paralyzing. Ultimately, is bungled feedback better than no feedback? I tend to think so. Research shows that women of color receive less feedback, guidance and mentoring than white colleagues. I'd rather someone strive and give me feedback, even if not in the most ideal way, than not try at all. However, it is important to recognize the bias that often creeps into feedback—for example, one study found that when women received developmental feedback, it tended to be overly focused on personality and communication style, with 76% of "too aggressive" references appearing in reviews of women.
A few common pitfalls to avoid when giving feedback:
- Bias that shapes to whom you give feedback and on what.
- Delivering feedback in a way that makes it less likely for the recipient to absorb it effectively, including missing cultural and style differences.
- Imposing your own notions of performance, leadership and talent on others, often shaped by your own experiences, background, biases and dominant culture.
By utilizing insights from neuroscience, cross-cultural knowledge and inclusive best practices, managers and colleagues can take action to deliver feedback more effectively, avoid these pitfalls and drive the business and individual growth outcomes they seek.
Part 1: Feedback Preparation
1. As you consider the overall mix of feedback, strive for five. Studies have found that a ratio of 5:1 (positive: negative) feedback may be the ideal balance. Over time, for every piece of critical or constructive feedback you offer, aim to deliver five messages of positive feedback or affirmations.
Common pitfall avoided: Often, when people hear the term "culture of continuous feedback" in workplaces, their minds envision an experience where everyone is getting critical feedback at every turn—"here's what you could have done better." This has the unintended impact for some of being in "fight, flight or freeze" mode, in constant fear of making mistakes, or too focused on the negative—missing the opportunity to lean into an asset-based mindset and approach. Neuroscience research has found that feedback conversations, as they commonly exist today, activate a social threat response in the brain, interfering with the ability to think clearly and raising participants' heart rates by as much as 50 percent. "Strive for five" can help lower these brain processing barriers.
2. As you consider the content of your feedback, ask yourself: how might this feedback be shaped by my own cultural, background or style preferences? Am I expecting others to do things in the way I would? Where do my notions of performance and leadership come from and how have they been shaped by my own background, experiences and values? Before I jump to evaluation, how might I expand my openness to the "how"/approach while staying focused on the "what"/outcomes? If someone else, with a different identity, acted in that way, would I have the same feedback?
Common pitfall avoided: Making your feedback more about you than the recipient. Bias comes into play anytime we are evaluating others. Affinity bias (rating others who are like us more highly), confirmation bias (paying more attention to information that conforms to our assumptions and beliefs) and many other types of bias show up in how we experience and rate others' behavior and performance.
3. As you consider the delivery of your feedback, implement the platinum rule: Treat others as they would like to be treated. (Rather than the golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated). Cultures around the globe, across racial, ethnic and other demographic lines, vary in terms of norms and values, which can shape individual preferences. Increase your understanding and awareness of those differences and aim to meet the recipient of the feedback closer to their preferences.
For example, if someone has a more indirect style, infuse diplomacy and context into your feedback, while retaining clarity and concreteness. You might ask: "Given your relationship-orientation, I can see that you care deeply about how others are feeling and may not want to ruffle feathers. I am concerned about the slipping project timelines. To deepen your impact, how might you more clearly hold your teammates accountable for deliverables, in a way that is authentic to you?"
Part 2: Engaging in the Feedback Conversation
1. Tackle the problem, not the person. To help lower instinctive defenses that are triggered by incoming feedback, as the feedback-giver, take the position of collaborating with the recipient to jointly tackle the problem or opportunity. Instead of being on opposite sides of the table, imagine yourself as the manager who swings their chair around to sit on the same side as the employee, and together face the problem/opportunity on the other side of the table, collectively figuring out how best to tackle it. This inclusive approach conveys empathy, can help the recipient feel valued for their strengths and assets, and honors the agency they have in owning their performance.
2. Name the flavor of feedback sought or given. Often, the many types of feedback that can be offered is all lumped under one umbrella, overshadowed by the "critical/constructive" feedback category. It can be helpful to name the nature of feedback given (or even better, when asking for feedback, naming the type of feedback you are seeking). Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen identify three primary types in Thanks for the Feedback:
- Appreciation gives recognition for contributions or performance, celebrates progress or accomplishments. Example: "Would it be helpful to hear what I love about the work you did on that project?"
- Coaching supports growth and development through helping someone expand their knowledge, skills and capabilities. Example: "Is this a good time to share some coaching feedback or would you prefer we get time at the end of the day? We can put our heads together to debrief the project kick-off."
- Evaluation helps someone understand where they stand when it comes to their performance. Example: "I'd like to better understand how I'm doing relative to the expectations of this new role."
By naming the type of feedback you are asking for or giving, it helps frame the content of the feedback to make it easier to absorb and process. It also creates shared language that can help bridge across cultural differences, particularly where there may be variances in comfort level in asking for these different types of feedback.
3. Seek to understand the perspective of the other person. Make room for the possibility that you might be missing something and that you might be wrong in your impression or understanding of events. Invite the other person to share their perspective and experience, and remain open-minded to new information. Make the feedback conversation a two-way one.
While it can be overwhelming to consider the many dimensions of effective feedback, it is a practice that has a strong return on investment. It is an art where practice makes progress, and progress better ensures that your intention aligns with impact—resulting in stronger performance for your employees and colleagues, stronger relationships, partnership and trust.
Even when you may only have a minute before delivering "real-time" feedback to a colleague after a meeting, taking the 60 seconds to mentally check these steps can help ensure your message lands as intended.
- To whom am I giving feedback (avoid bias).
- On what (content).
- How, when and where (delivery).
- Why (consider type of feedback and how to tackle the opportunity together).
Organizations that embrace the intentional practice of inclusive and effective feedback are better positioned to drive their strategic and business objectives to desired impact and results through uplifting their people and their performance.
June Yoshinari Davis currently serves as director of strategy and chief of staff for the U.S. division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She has previously held leadership roles at Nike, Target and Cargill.