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Oliver Burkeman: how to do feedback

We can’t get better without feedback. But how to we give and receive it without things getting personal, asks our columnist

There are many pursuits enjoyed by only a small minority – trainspotting springs to mind – but few activities are so universally despised as the giving or receiving of feedback. Has there ever been an employee who looked forward to his or her annual performance review? Or a manager who looked forward to delivering it?

The main reason for the unpleasantness – as the negotiation experts Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone explain in their book Thanks for the Feedback – is that almost all of us have two very strong but clashing desires. On one hand, we genuinely want to know how we’re performing and what others think of us, as well as what we might change in order to improve. On the other hand, we desperately want to feel liked.

Yet it’s usually not possible for any single piece of feedback to fulfil one of those two needs without violating the other. A conflict-avoidant boss who tells you that you’re doing great, when really you aren’t, isn’t doing you any favours. But a boss addicted to “tough love” just makes office life a nightmare.

Accordingly most people, when called upon to deliver feedback, opt for a woolly compromise. We deliver mild criticism mixed with half-hearted praise, which neither helps people grow, nor makes them feel valued. And we tend to receive feedback in an equally useless fashion: internally dismissing the criticism on the grounds that we’re misunderstood, while dismissing praise on the grounds that it was only given to sugar the pill.

The solution, according to Heen and Stone (and I’d say this applies to feedback in relationships and friendships, as well as at work) is to be careful about separating different forms of it. If you want to praise someone, just praise them, then stop. Save the criticism, or the advice, for a different occasion. Few people truly believe they’re perfect, so criticism needn’t be inherently upsetting, but mixing it with praise risks giving offence: you’re not just telling me I need to improve, you’re implying I’m so needy and sensitive that the harsh truth must be softened with compliments. To deliver criticism in a friendly but unequivocal way, by contrast, is arguably a form of respect.

When we’re on the receiving end, meanwhile, we’d do well to remember that workplace feedback is not a judgment of our overall worth as humans. And to assess it soberly: perhaps your manager’s criticism, however uncomfortable, is spot on; or perhaps it’s a sign that it’s time to look for a different manager.

The fact is that, in some shadowy part of our subconscious we’d rather not acknowledge, many of us view our bosses the way we viewed our parents: craving their unconditional love, because they held our fate in their hands. Once you see this, it’s easier to let go of it and take feedback seriously but not personally. And to appreciate the words of Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki: “You are all perfect; and you could all use a little improvement.”  Beat that for a performance review.

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