Lessons from my week of triple feedback: how to give and receive it

Published on

I recently delivered a workshop specifically on giving and receiving feedback.

A day before delivering the seminar, I received feedback on my design and delivery from our organisation’s founder, Matt.

Later in the week, I also received some feedback on session delivery from my colleague and director, Richard.

Adding to this, I then received feedback from our client on my feedback session.

It was a week like no other. The triple dose of feedback was unintended – it was a stroke of serendipity.

How does feedback make us feel?

Part of my workshop was asking people in the room to imagine receiving an email from their manager inviting them to a catchup to discuss ‘some feedback.’ I asked everyone to rate how much they would be looking forward to the meeting, on a scale of 1-8 with 8 being ‘not at all’.

Immediately, everyone was on the same number, before I finished my question. It was 8. If feedback is something we all know is needed, what’s going on?

We talked about that deep, visceral fear of being at the receiving end of unjust criticism, of being undermined by someone who is not invested in our development.

Memories stick with us, particularly the bad ones. They lodge in our brain and surface fast if we face anything which brings us remotely into contact with an experience which caused us pain. Every part of our defences fires up.

I’ve had poor feedback in my working life - feedback which was meaningless, flippant and which left me feeling like I didn’t matter. I should add that it did not come from my current employer, but the memory sticks and there is no way I want to be there again.

On the flip side, my recent feedback mentioned above was developmental – it’s part of how we operate at byrne·dean. We observe each other and learn. One of our values as an organisation is caring about how we deliver excellence.

I needed to remind myself of this when I received feedback from my colleagues. You can’t deliver excellence if no-one tells you what you are doing well, what you could do better, or even lose a bit of. As put by Matthew Syed in his groundbreaking book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, “If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right.”

How is feedback done well?

The experience of delivering a session on feedback and receiving my own in quick succession was unique. As I found myself inviting an audience to approach feedback with an open mind, I knew there was no way I could do that with any authenticity unless I was willing to do so myself.

It has given me some thoughts which I hope will make it easier, whatever end of the feedback loop you are sitting.

If you are delivering feedback:

1. A relationship with the person you are delivering the feedback to matters. Matt and Richard, who gave me feedback, are invested in my development. I don’t say this lightly. I believe it. If you want to provide feedback but your recipient thinks you only pop up when something is not right, they won’t be open or hear you because they won’t believe you are invested in them.

2. Recognize what the person is doing well. It’s good to hear praise, it validates the efforts people make. Richard and Matt both recognized the stuff I do well, as well as the potential I have to get better at certain things. Praise grounds us, calms us, and puts us in a more receptive stance. Of course, it must be genuine. Authenticity matters.

3. Be honest when you give feedback. Some of the best feedback I have received in my life has come with blunt honesty. There’s an expression I have taken from my colleague Jessica. She invites her audiences to ‘tell me if I have spinach on my teeth.’ We all get a bit of spinach (and some of us lipstick) on our teeth. It can be massively distracting. We need to know.

4. Ask their perspective. Both Matt and Richard asked me how the experience they were observing was for me. It got me to think about it in a different way, and from talking it through, helped me understand what gets in my way.

5. Do it more often. The more often feedback is given, the more normal it becomes. We can all get better at this one.

6. Finally, be kind. Remember, there is a human being in front of you.

And if you are receiving the feedback:

1. Seek it out more often and be specific about what you are looking for. Align it with your goals. Matt asked me what specific feedback I was looking for on my delivery and I told him. It helped us both. It made the feedback more pertinent and relevant. It’s a good tip for those delivering and receiving.

2. Stay open. It sounds like a cliché and I don’t know how else to say it. Unless you genuinely believe that you are perfect (in which case you are most likely to be deluded), you need feedback. You have to be open to it. We all have our blind spots and sometimes it takes a colleague to spot them, in the same way we need side mirrors when we are driving.

3. Remember that good feedback is not personal. If someone points out something you are doing which could be done better, take the message for what it is – this is about something you did, not who you are. You have the option to change next time.

4. Choose your response with care. You will probably find yourself getting defensive. That’s normal, but rein yourself in. You can reflect, you can give some thought to what has been said. You don’t want to react instinctively and regret it later. If you feel the feedback is inaccurate, speak to the person delivering it. Do so calmly and choose your words.

5. Start putting it into practice. I’m trying this and it's helping. I do need more practice, some things don’t come naturally and they take time. But if we don’t practise, nothing can change.

The act of giving feedback well requires generosity of spirit, and the act of receiving it requires humility and grace.

If those of us giving and receiving feedback could see each other in this light, how might it change the experience?

More from

Amanda Okill

Avoidance and ignorance: Mid-life women and the menopause at work

Our expert explains why workplaces are failing this crucial demographic, and how people can speak up if they need to.

Supporting employees through the menopause

Our top tips for how workplaces can take action now and support their employees - to the benefit of not only their people, but their business and bottom line.

My recruitment road trip

The processes of hiring and driving have a lot in common. Here are some things everyone should think about when setting out on the recruitment road trip.

Menopause - the thing I chose to ignore

Menopause affects us all. Here are five tips for positive action towards inclusion and a better understanding of the issue.