The gift that keeps on giving

Like many people, I’ve been thinking about gifts lately. While I love most of the traditions of this holiday period (food, generosity, kindness, gathering with family and friends, and more), in general, gifts aren’t usually a big draw for me.

However, when I think back over the years, there have been some standouts that make me smile to this day, and they all share a common thread.

They were thoughtful; I could tell the person spent time thinking about me when choosing the gift, rather than simply buying something trendy or giving me something for the sake of, well… giving me something. They were useful; they’re objects or ideas (in the case of books) that I continue to enjoy, ponder or draw from today.

It got me thinking about the workplace and that buzz-worthy expression, “Feedback is a gift.

Is it true? I believe it is, with some caveats.

Today, I see feedback as a way to progress and develop, both personally and professionally. I appreciate when others take the time to tell me straight what they think of my performance or approach to a situation, so I have the chance to hone my skills. But I didn’t always see it this way. Just as some gifts miss the mark, so too does some feedback.

How can feedback be a “gift”?

I grew up in an era where “constructive criticism” was all the rage, and let me tell you, there’s nothing “constructive” about “criticism.”

In those early days of my career, before starting my company, a review of my performance usually meant I was going to be given a laundry list of all the things I needed to change or fix or improve. Naturally, I came to see feedback as negative and started to dread the whole process of a review. My stomach would be in knots as the day approached and I steeled myself for the worst. Not much of a gift!

Like those standout presents that I recall from over the years, I think great feedback needs to have certain qualities to truly give someone the gift of personal growth and development, steer them in the right direction, help them discover their true calling in life and more.

I recently read The Feedback Fallacy by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall—selected this fall by HBR as one of their 12 most influential articles from the past 100 years! The authors argue that feedback doesn’t help people thrive because it’s subjective and tends to focus on what someone is doing wrong. They recommend that leaders focus instead on what someone is doing well and offer their honest input to help them do even better.

In my view, feedback can help people thrive, but only when you frame it with success in mind. As the authors suggest, always ask yourself: “How can we help each person thrive and excel?” When you think of it this way, good feedback is actually good coaching and, just like my standout gifts, I think it should always be thoughtful (the person should see that you care about them) and useful (it should help them move forward in their career).

Key elements of great feedback

Here are some of the things I aim for when delivering feedback:

  • Deliver it with feeling: Is there such a thing as objective feedback? We all have different personalities, come from different backgrounds, and have varying skillsets and levels of experience, and all of this has an impact on the feedback we deliver. Add to the mix that there are usually multiple ways to do a task, deliver a presentation, close a sale, etc. So, try as you might, it’s not always possible to deliver truly objective feedback, but as Marcus Buckingham recommends, I agree that you can always tell someone how their work or actions made you feel. For example, “When you did x, I felt y” or “I feel unheard when you don’t respond to what I’ve said.” Since it’s personal, it will come across as more believable, more heartfelt and more valuable.
  • Correct mistakes early: The exception to the point about objectivity above is when offering feedback on a task that must be done in a precise way. This kind of feedback is always objective. If you notice someone doing the task wrong, don’t wait to correct them. Offer your instruction immediately in a direct, honest manner without shaming the person. You want the person to be empowered to do their job well, rather than feel they don’t measure up.
  • Know your audience. One of the mistakes I made earlier in my career was giving feedback to a team member I didn’t know very well. I thought I “had to do a review” and ended up giving too much input to someone I simply didn’t have enough context about. Today, I realize that for feedback to land as a gift, the giver needs understanding and context. They should be able to support the individual in developing the skill or quality they are seeking to enhance. In other words, when you’re a great ally and a great coach it can make all the difference to the outcome of feedback being appreciated.
  • Clarity is kindness: Brené Brown has written about the saying, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” While it can sometimes come across as harsh, very clear, direct feedback about how to do something properly is critical to helping someone learn and improve. And the same goes when assigning work. Rather than having them guess what you want, tell them. Paint a clear picture of what the final deliverable is, when it needs to be done and what success looks like, so they avoid spending time on something you don’t want, only to be given the feedback that they didn’t measure up to expectations. When you’re clear, it’s a springboard for growth.
  • Niceness is not always kindness: And speaking of kindness, it’s sometimes conflated with “niceness.” I’ve seen instances where leaders avoid delivering feedback that someone doesn’t want to hear—maybe they’re in the wrong role or seat—because they don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings. But is it nice to keep someone in the dark, only to surprise them later with possibly bad news? If you focus on the desired outcome—you want to help the person excel and grow—there may be times when you need to deliver a message they’re not expecting. As Rob Asghar writes in Forbes, maybe we should think of it as “feed-forward”—you’re delivering an “open, honest, continuous and transparent appraisal” so they can always move forward. That’s being kind.
  • Focus on strengths: As my early “constructive criticism” days showed me, it’s hard to learn and grow when you’re always expecting the worst. I agree with Marcus Buckingham’s thesis that if you want people to excel, the best way to do so is by focusing on their strengths and highlighting what they’re doing well, so they can continue to develop and grow in those areas. When you see a great outcome, tell the person they did a great job and most importantly, tell them why you thought it was so good. What about it impressed you? As Buckingham writes, “learning happens when we see how we might do something better by adding some new nuance or expansion to our own understanding.” It doesn’t happen when we’re criticized.
  • The right seat. Our HR leader will often remind me that when team members are in the right seat–working in a role that draws exclusively on their true strengths–it allows them to shine. Sometimes, we try over and over to have someone “change” or develop skills they simply don’t have… and this can cause stress and frustration. Instead, think of the person’s strengths, and then offer them a role where they light up the stage. When this happens, the feedback you have to offer will be easy peezie!

Good feedback goes both ways

I’m still learning about how to give and receive feedback, and ask myself questions like: What is good feedback? What’s the right amount and the right timing? What is welcome feedback?

And after all these years, I must admit, as a leader, I still sometimes fumble in this area. Perhaps I give input when it’s a bad time for the other person, or I use a directive approach instead of active coaching and listening.

One thing I have learned over the years though: good feedback goes both ways! When I ask for it, I receive the gift of open communication and learn how I can be a stronger coach, teacher, advisor and ally.

I think this two-way approach is the best way to create an environment of trust, so your team members welcome feedback and look at it as a growth opportunity. This thought is echoed by Carole Robin, director of the Arbuckle Leadership Fellows Program at Stanford GSB, who writes that if you do it right, “the other person also feels cared for, valued and closer to you. So, there are secondary and more important gifts that come from giving someone feedback well.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Kathryn Tremblay

Kathryn Tremblay

Kathryn co-founded Altis Recruitment with a dream to connect people with meaningful work. She talks about HR trends, hiring best practices, and how to bring humanity to leadership.

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