How to get better at giving (and getting) feedback

When it comes to feedback, the ability to give it is just as important as the ability to receive it. Here’s how to do it better — both at work and in your personal life.
Image: People talking in office
An effective, unclogged feedback loop in a work setting allows everyone to help one another get better at what they do.10'000 Hours / Getty Images
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By Sarah DiGiulio

Being really good at giving feedback might not be a skill you’ll put on a resume — or an online dating profile. But both in our professional and personal lives, having the skills to communicate what’s working and what’s not really do underpin success.

Giving feedback is how you help those around you get better at what they do and do their best, explains Ayelet Fishbach, PhD, the Jeffrey Breakenridge Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and Marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. (Her research focuses on self-regulation, goal pursuit, and motivation.)

Most of the time we need someone else’s point of view to evaluate our own standing — particularly when it comes to your career, Fishbach tells NBC News BETTER. “You need a pedometer because we can’t count our own steps.”

An effective, unclogged feedback loop in a work setting allows everyone to help one another get better at what they do — and in a personal setting, it means you’re more likely to address the bumps that come up before they turn into bigger problems.

But while it’s so essential, in a lot of ways giving feedback is uncomfortable to do, explains Kim Scott, author of "Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity", who has developed leadership programs for Apple, Dropbox, Twitter, and other tech companies.

We’re taught from a very young age: “if we can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” — and it’s hard to unlearn that, Scott says. But as a professional, it’s your job to give feedback to colleagues. And it’s part of any healthy relationship, too, she says.

Here’s what Scott, Fishbach, and others say you should know about feedback.

Feedback is more than just telling someone what they did wrong

Scott defines feedback (when it’s effective and constructive) as both praise and criticism. It’s like if someone’s helping you scratch an itch on your back, she says. “You have to tell them: yes, yes, that way; no, no, not that way. You have to do both — or else it’s just dumb luck if they find the spot that itches.”

This praise-plus-criticism definition applies to feedback you might give, in an office setting, to someone you report to, someone who reports to you, or a peer. And it applies to personal relationships, too, Scott says. “It’s the same up, down, sideways, and whether it’s at work or at home.”

The other part of Scott’s definition of sincere feedback is that both the praise you’re giving and the criticism should do two things at the same time: show that you care personally and challenge them directly. People often think that praise shows you care and criticism is the challenge, she explains. “But both praise and criticism should do both things at the same time.”

If you’re offering praise, you’re showing someone you care by recognizing what they’re doing, but also challenging by asking how they can improve on that success. And when offering criticism, the underlying reason should be because you care about helping them — but at the same time you’re challenging them by suggesting what could be done better, Scott says.

And remember that helpful, constructive feedback (whether it’s the praise or criticism part) should be about something the receiver can take action about, and not about a fundamental personality trait (or something else that person can’t change), Scott says.

Telling someone they’re a genius isn’t going to help someone do his or her job better, just like telling someone they’re too absent-minded isn’t going to help someone do his or her job better. Telling someone that his or her well-written reports are helping the team tells them what that individual should continue to do. Telling someone repeatedly forgetting about meetings is hurting the team identifies a behavior that that person can work on changing.

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When it comes to giving feedback, do it in an intentional way

Feedback is essential, but feedback delivered in the wrong way — in an uncaring or mean way in particular — is not helpful, Scott adds. “And it can do more harm than good.” (Or runs the risk of being flat out ignored.)

You want to be sure you’re seeking feedback as often as you’re giving it, Scott adds. It sends the message that you care and are willing to take the time to see things from the other person’s point of view — and ideally sets the tone that that person should care about your point of view, too.

Using a consistent framework can help keep the feedback you’re giving constructive, non-threatening, and respectful, explains Craig Chappelow, Senior Faculty Member at the Center for Creative Leadership (a leadership development organization that offers coaching and education for individuals, organizations, and businesses).

“It keeps you making generalizations about the person. It keeps you from playing amateur psychoanalyst. And it reduces the chances of you making evaluations of that person as an individual. You’re commenting on behavior,” he says.

He suggests using this three-step framework for giving feedback, which works in both professional and personal settings:

  1. Identify the situation: Where were we? What were we talking about? Who was there? What was the context?
  2. Point out the specific outward behavior you observed: What did that person do that worked or didn’t work? Outward behavior means it’s something that you saw happen. You’re not getting inside their head or criticizing how they’re thinking, Chappelow says. “You’re just observing.”
  3. Explain the impact that behavior had on you: Explain why the other person’s behavior did or didn’t work from your perspective. “You’re speaking for yourself and not overstating it, not understating it,” Chappelow adds.

While a framework like this one can help lower the volume when delivering unsavory feedback, it also helps ensure that you’re not lowering the volume too much, Scott adds. She calls it ruinous empathy — and says it’s one of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to giving feedback. “It’s when we do care and we remember to show that we care about someone, but we’re so concerned about their short-term feelings that we fail to tell them something they’d be better off knowing and that the whole team would be better off from them knowing.”

Another tip from both Scott and Chappelow: Give feedback as immediately as possible, rather than saving it up for a one-on-one meeting or an annual review. “It’s going to be fresher on the memory and it’s going to be more important to them,” Chappelow says.

If it’s an option to give the feedback in person, do it, Scott adds. And if possible, criticize in private and praise in public, she adds. (Calling someone out in front of others with negative feedback may trigger a defensive reaction, risking your point getting lost, she says.)

And finally, be humble. You could be wrong about whatever feedback it is that you’re giving, Scott says.

In theory gender shouldn’t make a difference in the feedback process. In practice it does.

Does gender make a difference when it comes to how feedback should be given and received? In theory it shouldn’t, but in practice it often does, Scott says.

In her experience coaching organizations on feedback, she’s found that when it comes to men giving feedback to women, the men are often more likely to pull their punches and give less direct feedback.

For example, a man makes a mistake during a meeting with a client and his male boss tells him in no uncertain terms what he did wrong. A woman makes the same mistake and the same male boss doesn’t say anything to his female subordinate. The male subordinate doesn’t make the mistake again; the female subordinate does and her career suffers as a result.

It may not be a matter of the boss being a misogynist or trying to bring the female employee any harm, Scott explains. He may not even realize he’s treating the employees any differently, she says. “He’s been taught since he was a little kid to be gentler with women.”

Scott’s advice to men giving feedback to women is: Don’t pull your punches. “Remember that women are tough,” she says. “And we’re not water-soluble. It’s not the end of the world if the person cries.”

On the other side of the equation, women sometimes get unfairly criticized for offering honest, genuine feedback. “They get called aggressive, abrasive, or bitchy,” she says. “It happens all the time.”

Scott’s advice to women giving feedback (to anyone) if they have reason to think their feedback might be taken in this way is to not scale back on the criticism — be honest about what you think went wrong. But do scale up on the care personally end of the feedback, explaining that you want to tell them something to help them improve. “It shows that your intention is to be helpful. That’s why you’re offering this feedback,” Scott says.

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