How to provide constructive feedback in the workplace

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“Feedback is one of the fundamental things that an organisation can and should do to be healthy,” says Eleanor Nickerson, head of HR for Boost Drinks in Leeds and an HR consultant.

“Yet in my opinion it’s never truly effective unless it’s a systemic/cultural way of life, rather than just being driven by an employee or two.”

“Feedback is a really tricky one,” And she’s not wrong – it’s tricky to give and difficult to ask for.

But just because you want feedback doesn’t mean that you’re going to get it, or get good feedback. The people you approach for feedback might not be skilled at giving it, which can result in inaccurate or useless input.

Don’t fish for compliments

It can be human nature to naturally gravitate towards people that you have good experiences interacting with. But this may not give you the truthful and objective feedback you seek. “You can ask anyone that you want for feedback, as long as it’s relevant,” says Nickerson. “Ask bosses from different departments, clients too. I am a big fan of 360 feedback, however I have seen a lot of companies get confused with this. It’s simply an approach for collecting feedback – it’s not in itself a review without being analysed, interpreted and put into some kind of action.”

It’s important to find your own objectivity and to support the person giving you feedback, as much as you want them to support you. “I get people to identify ROLES from which it would be good to view the performance of their ROLE from,” says Nickerson. “I get them to look to the critical interactions necessary for them to do their role well.”

Come prepared

It’s key to identify what exactly it would be helpful for you to know. So make a list of specific questions that will give the most specific answers, but avoid a ‘yes or no’ answer situation. “In organisations where I’ve tried to help people solicit useful feedback, I’ve created a one-page handout that they can circulate that helps an employee to prepare others to give them useful feedback,” says Nickerson. “It explains why, what’s helpful and what’s not, and so on.”

Feedback is one of the fundamental things that an organisation can and should do to be healthy

Improve on the negatives, not the unchageable

When putting together your list of questions, don’t be afraid to illicit negative responses – feedback should be honest and constructive, after all, we all have room for improvement. For example, ‘please tell me what I do well [in the area of] and what I can do to improve?’. You could ask for two positives and two things to improve, then the person is set up as much as possible to give you something useful.

In order to get really accurate feedback, hone in on specific skills and attitudes separately, but beware that we often seek feedback on things that are very hard to change. “This is an area that can be a bit of a can of worms,” says Nickerson. “People can get really down about it, so I think it’s always better to have someone skilled by your side to help you see a clear way out.”

With this in mind, Nickerson coaches people seeking feedback not to defend. “Ask questions to understand, but don’t defend. The moment you start to defend you lose that person as a critic, and we all need others to hold that mirror up on our own performance.”

Life changing… if done well

Giving and receiving effective feedback, when done well, is life changing, both for individuals and for organisations, believes Nickerson. “If you train the whole organisation about the theory of feedback and then facilitate it into the culture, it becomes not only easy and natural, but people seek it out. It’s a skill to practice that people can take out into their personal lives.”

People have legitimate experiences of one another that translate into their perceptions of each other. “So your perception of me exists regardless of whether I ask you for it or not,” says Nickerson. “The trick here is that people’s feedback on you may be useful or not, and you can choose what to change or not. That’s key to all this. Basically, it doesn’t mean that someone is ‘right’. Change based upon other’s experience of you becomes a choice – do you want that to be someone’s experience of you or not?”

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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