Everyone feels they have the right to give feedback today. For better or worse, the ease of posting to social media has emboldened unprecedented numbers of people to speak their minds, often without giving much thought to the consequences.
In the meantime, platforms that aggregate user reviews, like Yelp and Amazon, have influenced the consumer landscape so much that now it's standard for businesses to solicit feedback after every transaction. Lately, I’ve wanted to scream every time I open my inbox and see another of these requests. In the last two weeks, I've received 11. Eleven!
With so many factors influencing how and why we give opinions these days, it can be hard to sort out whether feedback is worthwhile or a waste of time. Luckily, things are a little simpler when we just look at feedback in the workplace.
Giving performance feedback can be fraught with challenges, but a good boss taught me many years ago that feedback is a gift. These four words helped me see that constructive criticism is crucial to improved performance. Since then, I have enjoyed receiving feedback. Still, I know not everyone feels that way, so when it's my turn to evaluate someone else's work, I think long and hard about how to respond.
I usually start by asking myself what I’m trying to achieve with this person. Then I craft the message to suit that goal, carefully considering everything from word choice to timing. Before delivering the feedback, I often sit with it for a while and then review to make sure it feels right. My goal is to be kind, honest, clear, direct, and specific in order to offer something constructive and elicit the intended behavior.
When feedback is not constructive or specific, there is no gain. During an interview for my book on #remarkablewomen, tech barrister Sue McLean shared her experience with getting vague feedback. Early in her career in London, Sue was told she wasn’t exhibiting enough gravitas. The person saying this, her superior at work, did not elaborate, and Sue walked away from the conversation unclear about how exactly she should improve. Today, she still wonders what “enough gravitas” means, but that hasn't hindered her performance. She is now a successful and respected leader who supervises teams and mentors junior attorneys. In those roles, she is always careful to be clear and specific, especially when giving feedback to women because she’s acutely aware that women tend to receive less quality feedback than men.
Women need to get constructive criticism that is just as useful as that given to men. The author of How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews, and What to Do About It, Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, found from her study that women got less constructively critical feedback than men did. When revising the evaluation system that you use in your organization, Cecchi-Dimeglio suggests incorporating three qualities: the system is achievement-oriented, fair and accurate, and developmental. Similarly, authors Shelley Carroll and Caroline Simard offer recommendations that fall into two categories: tie the feedback to business outcomes and focus on the specific skills that are essential to excel within your organization.
Need an easy way to get started generating feedback that is positive and constructive? Here’s a simple BRAG framework from my former boss, Steve King. It gets all parties to start the conversation by bragging about what went well. Then everyone discusses what they worry about based on performance, moves on to what they wonder the employee is capable of accomplishing, and then ends with what they bet on, like a stretch goal.
Take charge of getting quality feedback; no one is more invested than you are. With the mindset that feedback is a gift, start by setting goals that are linked to business outcomes and key skills. Then you can easily document feedback from stakeholders that is tied to those goals and share it with your boss on a regular basis. I used to do this in bi-weekly meetings with my bosses, and it helped immensely during the formal review process; if you're not gathering content continuously, neither you nor your boss can remember everything that happened throughout the year. And, as Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard state, “Without specific, documented business accomplishments, it is difficult for a manager to make the case for advancement.”
It's also a good idea to crowdsource feedback regularly. Whenever people tell me they are inspired after a talk I've given, I immediately ask, “Could you tell me why you were inspired so that I know what works and what doesn’t?” Insights about your performance are available everywhere if you're willing to ask.
Like it or not, we live in a scorecard culture, and we need to take care in how we participate in it. Even though I got bent out of shape when those eleven requests landed in my inbox, I still took the exercise seriously because I appreciate that businesses are trying to be accountable. So, whether we hide behind our social media personas or not, let us be polite, fair and equitable, especially if we expect our feedback to bring about some action or change.