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Why feedback matters and how to be great at giving it

Voco Team
Sandwich board on a street showing arrows pointing in different directions labelled with the words awesome and less awesome

The words ‘can I give you some feedback’ have the potential to strike fear into the hearts of even the most self-aware amongst us. But, if you can work through the discomfort, then good quality, frequent feedback will be the development gift that keeps on giving.

The best feedback is often the hardest to hear because it reveals something about ourselves that we didn’t already know. When this feedback is delivered well, the positive intent in the message is palpable; we feel motivated to make beneficial changes that will improve the overall quality of our work and our professional relationships.

So why is good feedback so hard to find, why doesn’t giving feedback feel more natural and how can we make the whole process just a bit more normal?

Conflict vs. positive intent

There is a common misconception that feedback only needs to be delivered when there is something difficult or challenging to address. This is because the concept of feedback triggers our associative memory; recalling the chastisement and discipline of adults in our childhood and adolescence. Put simply, receiving feedback has the potential to make us feel belittled and giving feedback can feel patronising. In these circumstances, to give feedback is to create potential conflict, and many of us are conflict avoidant. It’s easy to see why so many people struggle to prioritise feedback and organisations continue to grapple with the difficult task of building feedback into their company culture.

The antidote to this negative association is two-fold: accepting that feedback can and should be positive and approaching all feedback (even the tough stuff) with positive intent. The latter will lay the foundations for feedback to feel more natural, helpful and genuinely welcomed. But what does positive intent actually mean and how do we know if we have it?

To have positive intent is to be empathetic to the needs of the person we want to give feedback to. Will the observations we share genuinely help them personally or professionally? Are we drawing their attention to something they aren’t already aware of? Is the behaviour or action something they can reasonably change or keep doing? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then our positive intent will be evident in the feedback we give, even if the content of the message may be hard for the other person to hear.

When it comes to giving positive feedback, we’d be forgiven for expecting it to be an intuitive and easy process. In reality, it can be extremely difficult to deliver words of encouragement and praise to fellow adults; it tends to evoke the ‘pat on the head’ style of approval we still associate with childhood. It can be easier to say nothing than to appear overly effusive in a professional setting but, a lack of positive feedback creates uncertainty, lowers levels of confidence and at worst, erodes the trust in our working relationships.

Increasing the frequency and quality of all types of feedback can help to ease those feelings of discomfort and begin to normalise multi-directional feedback that will soon become part of the routine of our working lives.

Increasing frequency and quality

So what does good quality feedback look like? Well that depends on the context and the people involved. We all have our feedback preferences; some of us like a direct shot across the bows, others like a gentler approach. Some of us like to receive feedback about how we approach situations and our impact on others, some of us prefer more ‘factual’ task based feedback. Finding out more about our own and each other’s personalities and preferences will help us to appropriately frame feedback and better predict the response we might provoke; making the prospect of delivering it, a bit less scary.

In general though, it’s specifics that matter. What exactly have we observed, when did we observe it, what impact did it have and how do we know this to be the case? This approach applies just as much to positive feedback as to the challenging kind. Being specific doesn’t mean that we should strive for objectivity, that would be impossible. Any feedback we deliver should be personal; our own subjective view. This shows that we are taking ownership of our own responses and allows the recipient to hear the feedback without feeling attacked or immediately responsible. The best feedback offers the recipient the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions, rather than being forced to.

Research suggests that frequency of feedback matters. On average we should all be receiving around five pieces of positive feedback to every single piece of challenging feedback. This isn’t an exact science but what matters is that when we receive positive reinforcement most of the time, the inevitable bit of difficult feedback will be more impactful and easier to accept. In an environment where more negativity is dolled out than positivity, people feel threatened and lack the psychological safety to act on the feedback they receive.

If feedback needs to be frequent, it seems inevitable that everyone should be involved (and unreasonable that all feedback should be delivered ‘top down’). In fact, feedback between peers can be far more effective and empowering than feedback from managers alone. A leader will always set the departmental tone but they do not always have the everyday influence we assume they do, especially in hybrid working environments where leadership visibility is no longer a given.

Peer feedback is powerful because we all want and need to fit in and feel part of the team. Like it or not, we all seek the approval of our peers and, left unchecked, indirect feedback will pervade, whether we like it or not. Formalising the feedback process creates a more inclusive and supportive team culture; avoiding and ignoring its potential can lead to divisions and lack of team cohesion.

Making feedback feel normal

Ultimately if feedback is just ‘what we do around here’ then it becomes much easier for everyone. If we come to expect feedback from others - not just our managers at annual appraisal time - and both offer and ask for feedback more often, we will create a culture of feedback within our teams and organisations.

Taking the first step can be hard and will involve a level of discomfort, but the benefits to our personal and team development will be immense. Our confidence in ourselves and each other will grow and the trust and respect we have for each other will be multiplied.

Creating a structure within which feedback can be delivered safely between peers is a crucial starting point. Allowing people to flex their feedback muscles and grow the confidence to ask for, accept and deliver meaningful feedback, is essential. Constructive, positively intended feedback doesn’t 'just happen’, it takes practice, skill and support.

At Voco we work hard to make sure that all our peer pairs have both the skills and the safe space to give and receive feedback. We know that harnessing the power of peers is the cornerstone of a true feedback culture and we’re on a mission to make it happen.

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