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How to give and receive feedback

Feedback can be an uncomfortable thing to give and to receive. Here are some tips that can make it a little less painful.

Drew Foster

12 May 2020

5 minute read

In a development team we give feedback all the time. We call them code reviews, performance reviews, one on ones, design QA, project reviews, bug reporting, retrospectives, standups, meetings, emails, comments, conversations...

There are many formal and informal ways to give and receive feedback every day. In an age where we’re often working in different locations, this form of communication is important to get right. How do you get the improvements you desire while still making people feel valued and supported?  

Humans are pretty bad at giving feedback

Let’s first take a look at why we’re often not very good at giving feedback so we can see how it can be handled more effectively. 

It’s uncomfortable: Working away at problems on a screen all day is what we’re used to doing. The trial and error we employ with code can be easy – code has no feelings. When dealing with people and trying to ‘fix’ them, we often run into that icky area called feelings. It’s probably the number one reason we avoid giving direct feedback – we’re nice people, we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. The issue can arise though that the longer we wait to give feedback, the larger the issue becomes, and ultimately the feedback is tougher. 

It might be taken the wrong way: When giving feedback it can be difficult to tell if the recipient will digest the feedback as personal criticism, or if they will respond positively. We forget to let people know that our intentions are to help them grow, not hurt their career. We worry about demoralising versus empowering. 

Where do you begin? You know there’s something that needs to change with a colleague's performance but how do you construct feedback that will have the effect you want? If you’re an adult who has made it this far in life you know that there are things you can say and many other things you shouldn’t. So what does that look like in the feedback-giving context?

The purpose of feedback is to help someone grow. This is the #1 thing to keep in mind if you worry about the reasons why we’re bad at giving feedback. Keep your intentions pure - not petty, pedantic or nasty. Ask yourself “Is my feedback something that could help my colleague’s career?” 

Tips for giving feedback

  • Ask permission
  • Focus on behaviour, actions and impact – not character
  • Be timely

Ask permission – A person must be willing to listen to what you have to say. Asking first if someone is willing or not to hear your feedback gives them options. They can  say “no”, in which case your message would have been lost anyway, they can say “later” which means they’re open but your timing isn’t right, or “yes” which means they’re receptive to your feedback. Whatever their response, you’re closer to engaging with a person whose mind is open to what you have to say. 

Focus on behaviour, actions and impact – not character – It’s important you choose your feedback wisely. That means choosing feedback around things a person can change. For this reason it’s advisable not to criticise a person's character. First off, they can’t easily change who they are. Secondly, they’ll most likely feel attacked. If your colleague feels personally attacked then they may be inclined to completely disengage - either from work or from working with you. I imagine that’s not the intended result. Instead focus on their behaviour and/or their actions and the impact that has. Remember you can critique something someone does without critiquing who they are as a person.

Be timely – Feedback has a shelf life. This means you should try to provide feedback as soon as it’s practical. It’s not recommended that you save things up so long that you either have a big list or the person doesn’t even remember what you’re referring to. With regard to timing, there’s another tip to keep in mind: Feedforward is encouraging a certain result before it happens. Keep in mind though that there's a difference between Feedforward and praise. Praise can be encouraging, but it doesn’t promote a specific result. 

4-step model 

  1. Ask permission
  2. State the problematic behaviour/action 
  3. State the impact
  4. Suggest the solution (question or request)

Feedback example: 

Marty may I give you some feedback? (ask permission)

I know that you are a busy man, but when you write very brief messages on Slack (behaviour/action)

It often means I don’t get the context that I need, and I have to ask follow up questions (impact)

Could you please try to include more context in your messages? (question/request)

Feedforward example:

Drew, we’re about to go into this big client meeting, can I give you some advice? (ask permission)

When you answer questions from the client, you tend to ramble and repeat yourself, and get too technical (behaviour)

It’s confusing for the client and drags out the meeting (impact)

Could you please try and keep your answers brief and
non-technical? (request) 

How to receive feedback

Okay so that’s how to give feedback. Now for how to receive feedback. The purpose of receiving feedback is to help you grow. Again, the methods and approach vary but the purpose does not. When you are receiving feedback, it should help you to grow.

Keep three things in mind: 

  1. Pain is growth. Be open to it – Feedback can cause negative emotions people would rather avoid. Don’t avoid them. Lean into them.
  2. Embrace uncertainty – When doing something ask yourself ‘Is it possible I did something wrong? If I did, what does that mean?’ And then seek out feedback to determine how you are going wrong. If you assume you are wrong to start with, it’s much easier to constructively take on the feedback people are giving you. And you can use this information to improve for next time.
  3. Acknowledge your weaknesses – It takes courage and self-reflection to look at your character, frankly and without fear. You should observe your behaviour, your actions and their impact. Sometimes you may have to acknowledge that you do some well and some things not so well. Doing so can cause icky emotions. Treat these bad feelings as a call to action. Use feedback to act upon, and improve, your weaknesses. The result will be your growth as a person.

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