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Turn Feedback into a Gift – Learn How to Become a Better Giver and Receiver

Feedback is a gift we should embrace with open arms – you can always choose to use it or discard it.

By Gustavo Razzetti

November 15, 2022

Understanding the two roles involved in the feedback loop will help you improve relationships, communication, and collaboration

A feedback-rich environment improves business outcomes. However, despite encouraging people to give more feedback, most organizations fail to create a culture of learning and growth. According to research by Gallup, only 26% of employees say the feedback they receive improves their work. Nearly 60% of employees would like to receive it more frequently — on a daily or weekly basis.

If feedback is a gift, why don't we give (and receive) it more often?

Often feedback is perceived as negative, creating fear and anxiety in teams. When feedback is judgmental rather than reflective, people feel that their competence and identity are under attack. Even worse, many companies have weaponized feedback. Rather than a gift that provides development, it undermines people, causing more harm than good.

Turning feedback into a gift that keeps giving requires a cultural shift.

In this post, I'll share actionable tips for you to become better at giving and receiving feedback, shifting the approach from judgmental to compassionate.

How to Turn Feedback into a Regular Gift

"Honesty is a very expensive gift; just don't expect it from cheap people." – Warren Buffet

Providing effective feedback is a complex practice that requires skill, empathy, and practice. If done right, feedback can become a powerful gift for both people and the business, increasing engagement, collaboration, and the bottom line. The paradox is that, to become better at giving feedback, you must first become a better receiver.

As I wrote in previous articles, encouraging people to request feedback rather than give feedback is the most effective way to turn feedback into a gift.

Start by building a two-way street.

As Ben Wigert and Nate Dvorak wrote: "Feedback should be a busy two-way street. You can't improve traffic by only giving feedback -- people retreat from too much criticism, and the street comes to a halt. When you ask for feedback, you get traffic moving and make it easier for others to request feedback in return."

Unfortunately, organizations put too much emphasis on the 'giving' side. They spend time coaching managers on how to give better feedback. Managers usually don't ask for feedback – they're just givers.  And, the few times they act as receivers, they often suck at it.

Patagonia eliminated performance ratings and implemented a system of continuous feedback and quarterly check-ins. However, the most significant change was encouraging managers to be receivers, not just givers. Patagonia realized that wise leaders receive more feedback than they give. They focus on what they can improve rather than what others should do.

As CHRO Dean Carter explained, "When you ask for feedback, you create generosity in the system, and it explodes exponentially. It's much more powerful to ask than to just get it unsolicited."

Patagonia has created a culture of collective feedback by training managers to ask for feedback rather than provide it. By modeling being a good receiver, they're encouraging others to ask for the gift of feedback, too.

Encourage more feedback in the moment.

Acting in the moment (or pretty close to an event) is more effective, as your colleague will have the issue present. Also, when feedback comes too late in the game, the person might feel suspicious - "Why are you bringing this issue up now?"

Warby Parker co-CEO Neil Blumenthal said: "I joke that feedback is a gift; it's the opposite of revenge — it's best served hot."

Organizations that create a culture of regular, ongoing feedback experience higher employee engagement. Also, a study by the Predictive Index shows that the amount of feedback received is correlated with how highly people rate their managers.

How to turn feedback into a gift shift from punishment to a gift instead of being the source of truth understand that yours is just a well intentioned perspective

Stop trying to fix people.

Feedback becomes a gift when it promotes learning and growth rather than trying to fix the person, as I explain in my book Remote, Not Distant.

Performance reviews are not just expensive and time-consuming but also ineffective. Many organizations have ditched performance reviews in the past few years – even the consultants who created the monster. An internal study by Accenture uncovered that 75% of the review process focused on talking about the employee rather than talking to them.

The reason is that most managers believe they're the source of truth. They take their own expertise as a given, assuming their way is the right way. That's why managers tend to jump into 'fixing mode.' Not only do managers believe they know people's weaknesses better than they do themselves, but they also know how to 'fix' them.

Feedback is more than just telling people what to do. It can be expressed through advice, questions, or ideas. The best feedback encourages people to think rather than prescribe a solution.

Most importantly, your feedback is your perspective – not the truth. Express it in "I" terms ("I think it could help you experiment with…") instead of "You" statements ("You should stop doing X, Y, Z.").

The best feedback is compassionate, not judgmental.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman identified three types of empathy:

Cognitive Empathy - or perspective-taking – is the ability to understand how a person feels or what they might think.

Emotional Empathy is the ability to share another person's feelings – to emotionally connect with them.

Compassionate Empathy goes beyond simply understanding other people or sharing their feelings. It moves us into action.

Feedback is an act of compassionate empathy – to thrive both at giving and receiving it, walking in someone else's shoes is not enough. People need you to help them to resolve the problem.

How to Become a Better Feedback Giver

"Feedback often tells you more about the person who is giving it than about you." - Stephen Covey

Gift-giving reinforces the ties that are important to us – social connection contributes significantly to our happiness and well-being.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that spending money and time on others predicts greater happiness than spending it on ourselves. It's good for our emotional and physical health.

Dr. Michael Norton, a Harvard Business professor who led the study, explains, "Gift-giving is a sign we care about the people in our lives.”

Norton, an expert in how decision-making affects well-being believes that when done right, gift-giving cultivates a stronger between you and the receiver, showing you care and understand them. Becoming a better feedback giver will not only help the receiver but will also improve the relationship between the two of you.

Unsolicited feedback backfires

Avoid giving feedback if people haven't granted you permission. Don't try to change people; it will only create more resistance. Help them find their path to improve who they are and how they behave.

Understand, don't assume

Avoid the urge to jump to conclusions. We often interpret what events mean, make assumptions, jump to conclusions, and take actions that seem "right" simply because they align with our beliefs. The Ladder of Inference, a model created by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris, reminds us how we tend to select certain aspects of reality based on our beliefs and experience. Usually, without realizing it, we get from a fact to a decision or action way too quickly.

Focus on the system

As human beings, we have a tendency to fix others. When someone shares their issues, we immediately jump into "fixing mode" - we start telling people what they should do or change without understanding their problem. Most importantly, we try to fix the person instead of the system – the factors that affect the outcome.

Always be specific

The clearer the message, the higher the chances that people will understand it. Ask, "What kind of help do you need?" before jumping into "solution mode." Some people just need you to listen, not provide ideas. Tie your feedback to concrete observed behaviors and provide specific steps or suggestions for your colleagues to explore.

Own your views

Feedback is an opinion, a perspective. You don't own the truth. Often we're missing pieces or lack information. Also, what works for you might not work for the other person.

Pick your battles

Avoid the need to download everything you have to say. Focus on one or two things. People cannot change too many behaviors at once. Also, tackling too many issues at once will make people feel flawed.

Be generous: Feedback isn't a one-and-done intervention. Be open to a follow-up discussion if people need more time. Search for ideas, articles, or examples that you could send as a follow-up to inspire the receiver. Feedback is an ongoing habit – keep the conversation going.

Feedback is a gift we should learn to play the roles of givers and receivers. Giver avoid unsolicited feedback understand don't assume and focus on the system receivers grant permission provide context define the help they need and are thankful

How to Become a Better Feedback Receiver

"When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice." — Charles Varlet de La Grange

During your career, you'll receive feedback on multiple occasions.

Sometimes people will ask for permission; other times, feedback will come unsolicited. Regardless of whether it initially looks good or bad, always embrace it. Honest, generous, and compassionate feedback is the most valuable gift you'll receive at work.

Ask for feedback

The best way to become a better receiver is to practice it often. Requesting feedback grants permission; it makes it okay for others to give you feedback.

Just listen

Don't react to the feedback you get. Remember that feedback triggers different things. Focus on understanding what the other person is trying to tell you before you jump to conclusions.

Clarify expectations

Let people know what kind of help you need. Do you need someone to help you understand the problem or challenge your thinking? Are you looking for a sounding board, support, ideas, or solutions?

Provide context:

To minimize misunderstandings, be as specific as possible. Focus on facts, not feelings. The more context you provide, the better people will understand your problem.

Accept the gift

Be appreciative and accept feedback with respect – even if you don't like it. Be open to receiving feedback that will challenge your thoughts or beliefs. Accepting a gift doesn't mean that you should use it. It's up to you to decide which advice to use or not.

Be thankful

Show appreciation. By saying, "thank you," you're letting the other person know that you appreciate them taking their time and keeping the door open for future conversations.

Watch Out for Feedback Triggers

Feedback triggers can block the conversation, whether you're a receiver or a giver. Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen, the authors of Thanks for The Feedback, identify three feedback triggers that we must consider.

Truth Triggers are set off by the feedback itself. We feel attacked or wronged if it's a little bit off, useless, or untrue. It makes receivers shut down.

Relationship Triggers are ignited by the person who is providing the feedback. The words are filtered by the relationship between the giver and receiver. Rather than using feedback for their own improvement, receivers use it to judge the giver. Consider if someone else could convey the message better than you. This doesn't mean avoiding tough conversations but being more mindful about what your relationship with the receiver could trigger.

Identity Triggers are all about us. What people observe or say about us becomes personal. We feel overwhelmed, ashamed, or under attack. We confuse the part (the feedback) with the whole (our identity). There's not much you can do about ¬– just be mindful and understanding.

Giving and receiving feedback is never easy because it connects with people's emotions, identity, and self-esteem. Always act with positive intent. Be patient if things don't go as planned.

Build a Culture that treats Feedback As a Gift

People resist feedback when it feels judgmental. Rather than focusing on the input, they get distracted by their own ego. To create a culture of feedback, practice becoming a better receiver.  

Sheila Heen said it best: "The fastest way to change the feedback culture in an organization is for the leaders to become better receivers."

Turn people into better receivers by encouraging them to ask for feedback. Start with yourself – model the behavior so others will follow suit.

Create a safe space where feedback is welcomed rather than feared.

Psychological safety and feedback go hand in hand. In low psychologically-safe cultures, givers tend to censor their thoughts and receivers take feedback as a personal attack.

Aim to assist, giving feedback with positive intent. Rather than getting things off your chest, ask yourself, "Is this really necessary? How will my feedback help my colleague grow?"

Accept or discard – but always be thankful.

Feedback is someone else's perspective, not the truth. At Pixar, employees are required to listen and consider all feedback they receive during a Braintrust session. They're not obliged to follow it.

Becoming a better feedback giver and receiver will help you improve relationships, communication, and collaboration.

Feedback is a gift – welcome it with open arms,

What help do you need?

What do you think?

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