When I was thinking about how to approach a piece on the subject of feedback, I went back to my training in relationship therapy.
I learned a process designed to help couples talk productively about why they felt hurt, acknowledge the assumptions they were inevitably making about the situation, and then resolve to help one another towards repair and sustainable improvement.
The basis of the model is trust.
Through listening with respect and offering honest insight, it's possible to create a path towards positive change, however bleak the situation may have originally appeared.
If I were looking for a definition of what good feedback looks like, I'd happily settle on that.
It's worth noting that the trust built between couples is established over time, through a dedication to understanding one another as individuals, in just the same way that we build trust with our colleagues at work.
But the synergy with healthy communication in our personal relationships doesn't end there.
One of the reasons that feedback at work fails to have the intended impact — according to a Harvard Business Review study — is that we often feel awkward giving it, in the way that we might worry about being straight with our partners for fear of the consequences and associated discomfort.
When you think about how important it is both in building strong relationships and keeping them growing, it’s terrifying.
So why might this be?
We can go back to that model used in relationship therapy to help us understand.
In order to feel trust for the person giving us feedback, we need to feel listened to and understood. We need to be certain that they have a genuine desire to help us towards something that feels like a positive outcome, for us.
In order to feel trust for the person giving us feedback, we need to be certain that they have a genuine desire to help us towards something that feels like a positive outcome, for us.
It's impossible to create any of this with someone who hardly ever tells us how we're doing and, the less frequently it happens, the harder and less worthwhile it becomes.
I can remember a time when the classic "feedback sandwich" was considered a sophisticated way of getting information across.
But placing a piece of negative feedback in between two lightly toasted slices of positive feedback is hopeless, and might even do more damage than good.
We instinctively get to know the pattern. We learn that when a good piece of feedback comes from our boss that it's going to be followed by a criticism, so we stop listening to what's good and start preparing ourselves for the bad news.
It is not dissimilar to the "fight, flight, freeze" response we go into when we're in a state of heightened anxiety or panic which impairs our ability to absorb the information being given and renders the whole thing pointless at best and destructive at worst.
In a sense, it's a shame we get into such a fog about feedback because the "positive" versus "negative" conundrum is a bit of a red herring. Feedback is not supposed to be "good" or "bad", it's just supposed to be helpful. For the person hearing it.
Feedback is not supposed to be "good" or "bad", it's just supposed to be helpful. For the person hearing it.
Worst of all though is not giving any feedback at all.
A piece of research by Workhuman found that 61% of people reported that they hadn't received any feedback in the past six months — even though employees consistently rate its importance higher than salary.
So what if there is no feedback? What happens to employees who never hear anything from one month to the next? Does it really matter that much?
Essentially, just as we did in childhood, in the absence of any clear information, we'll put something in the space that is left.
We might assume we're doing OK, but we may also assume that we're not which will undermine our confidence, create anxiety, and possibly cause us to make a self-fulfilling prophecy out of our initial self-doubt.
Alternatively, we may assume that we don't really matter either way at which point we'll probably become disengaged and start wondering if we might be more valued somewhere else.
A question I often ask my clients is:
"How did you learn that you're valuable?"
A question I often ask my clients is: "How did you learn that you're valuable?"
It's designed to get them thinking about what messaging they received as children about their worth and whether they only felt valuable when they achieved something, assuming the love of others to be conditional.
Sometimes, a client will think for a minute while they're looking out of the window and then look back at me before saying,
"I'm not sure that I did."
That's what an absence of feedback does, and sometimes it's what later leads people into therapy which, in itself, is really a constant feedback loop.
Good therapy springs from a trusting and non-judgmental relationship that helps people, through the prism of reflection from a different perspective, find the progress they desire within themselves, which sounds a lot like good feedback in the workplace.
But like healthy personal relationships and worthwhile therapy there are no shortcuts.
If you really want to use feedback to make your organisation stronger you need to build a culture of trust in which people are listened to, praised for their endeavour, and feel supported towards objectives both personal and professional.
If you can do that then you might find that even in situations which once appeared broken beyond repair, quite miraculous turnarounds are possible.
Spill's 5 tips for putting all that into practice
📣 Give a short talk to your team on the problem of the 'feedback vacuum'.
Explain that an absence of feedback encourages human brains to imagine the worst, and can actually lead to lower self-worth.
🥰. Create a separate mechanic for giving each other unconditional praise.
At Spill, we use our Wall of Praise feature to send a teammate some positive reinforcement each week. About them as a person, not what they've done recently.
👯 Use team exercises to build trust and psychological safety.
The more comfortable your team feels with each other, the easier it is to give and receive feedback. See the team exercises we use in this blog post here.
🎁 Reinforce the idea that feedback is a gift.
Tell your team that you want them to be better at their jobs, happier and more fulfilled. Feedback is the way to help them get there.
💩 Ditch the shit sandwich.
People begin to spot the pattern pretty quickly. Instead, just give whichever piece of feedback is most helpful to that person at that time.