Management Consultant Mike Eldon

How to offer and receive feedback at workplace

In a recent coaching session, my client and I were discussing his initiative to improve the ways in which feedback was being given and received in his work environment.

As we shared how each of us approached doing so ourselves and how we encouraged others to offer and absorb suggestions, we emerged with a list of do’s and don’ts that he and I felt would be helpful to share with you here.

What makes us more or less receptive to feedback? It’s a mixture of, on the one hand, how it is offered and by whom, and on the other hand our openness to changing how we feel, how we think and how we behave. Are we into learning and growing by experimenting with new approaches?

Or are we so convinced of the rightness of our existing ways that there’s no need for listening to what others think? Maybe we feel so insecure about venturing beyond our comfort zones that we need to hold on to where we are, however good the idea that’s being offered?

However receptive we are to feedback, much of our reaction has to do with how it is offered. Too many do so in ways that make us feel we’ve been under-performing and that we are inadequate.

It comes across as criticism rather than as a way of improving a situation, thus making it harder for us to be anything other than defensive.

Such people also tend to focus exclusively on feedback regarding what isn’t going well, while taking the positive for granted – like the exception reporting in appraisal interviews or school reports. (Your child might have done well in all subjects except one, but that’s the only one that receives a comment – “Must do better in mathematics.”)

At the other end of the spectrum, we also have those who restrict themselves to only offering positive feedback, perhaps worried that suggestions for improvement may give offence and only lead to pushback. Having said that, it’s usually good to start with acknowledging successes, along with celebrating the supportive strengths that enabled them.

This puts the recipient in a more relaxed and confident state of mind, and with heightened self-esteem, they can then more easily handle tougher inputs coming their way.

During our conversation, we talked about the benefits of role-playing and rehearsing feedback-offering sessions to develop more effective techniques that can lead to the desired impact. Much has to do with emotional intelligence, with choosing the right words and tone, including appropriate body language and maybe a light touch here and there.

This is how high-trust relationships are built, ones that allow for what would otherwise be difficult conversations, where the one offering feedback has a reputation for doing so only to see the recipient be at their best. Then, however inconvenient the input, it will be evaluated more constructively.

Soon after that coaching session, a friend of mine was complaining to me that her suggestions as a board member to management were rarely greeted positively. Why were they resistant to what she felt were helpful ideas?

What could she do differently, as the default blocked mindset she perceived has led to her being more reluctant to make her suggestions? As we talked we felt it would be good for her to go beyond offering suggestions informal meetings but to float them one-on-one in less formal settings, like over lunch with the CEO.

In such a setting, even before getting into the specifics, it would help to explore why her suggestions were rarely pursued. So I encouraged her to exchange offers and requests with the CEO and his colleagues in order to bridge the gap between them. “If you would do more/less of this, it would be easier for us to react positively,” the CEO might propose.

And my friend could offer to continue sharing her suggestions provided she felt more motivated to do so by not feeling she was speaking to an intrinsically unreceptive audience.

The ability to offer feedback in ways that make a difference is a valuable skill, whether with subordinates or peers, never mind with superiors, and perhaps most importantly of all within families. And being open to feedback from others is also something to cultivate, within organisations and from other stakeholders. Oh yes, and from coaches too.