Giving and receiving constructive feedback is a critical skill set to develop in any work environment, but especially in team collaborations. A strong indicator of a healthy and supportive collaboration is that there is a process of some kind in place that allows any team member to give constructive feedback to any other member, whether directly or indirectly. The greatest strength of team collaborations is that many minds with different perspectives and priorities are working on the same problem, but in order to truly take advantage of that, communication and especially exchanging of constructive feedback needs to be prioritized. This article discusses strategies and considerations to keep in mind when both giving and receiving constructive feedback.
Constructive feedback can be about different topics, but is most often about either how a team member communicates and interacts with other members of the team, or about how a team member is conducting their work, particularly if they are failing to meet timeline or production milestones. In most teams, the latter type of constructive feedback would most often be a conversation that only occurred between the team lead(s) or supervisor(s) and the team member. In that instance, receiving feedback is likely the only skill needed, although there may be scenarios where either actions or inactions on the part of the team lead(s) or supervisor(s) is actually the cause of the issue, in which case giving them that feedback may be a difficult but necessary part of the conversation.
When the constructive feedback is about how a team member communicates or interacts with others, it is often much less clear how that feedback can or should be conveyed. Additionally, the power dynamics at play, as discussed in part five, are very relevant to what strategies might be preferred both by the giver and receiver of constructive feedback.
The first decision to make when giving feedback is what method to use. The basic methods are: directly and one-on-one, directly and with a group for support, and indirectly through a third party. While giving direct feedback in a one-on-one conversation is often considered a best practice, there are many scenarios where this actually is not the best way to give feedback. Depending on the power dynamics involved or even just the size of the team, it may not be strategic or practical for feedback to be exchanged directly between two team members. In these instances, one option is to use third parties, most likely supervisors or team leads, who would receive feedback from one party and give it to the other. Direct feedback also does not have to be given in a one-on-one communication. If there is a large power differential involved where the feedback giver has significantly less power than the receiver, sometimes a group has both a better chance of constructively giving the feedback and the original giver will have a better chance of being protected from retaliation or censure. A group may also be helpful even if no negative consequences are likely, considering that most people have a difficult time offering critique to those with more power than them, and it may be a choice between asking others to help them give feedback or not give the feedback at all. On the other hand, if you as the feedback giver have more power than the receiver, then giving feedback in a group may be overwhelming and more likely to cause the person to shut down than in a one-on-one conversation.
If you have decided to give feedback directly, then there are a couple of strategies that you may consider using. First, if there is not already a process in place for you to give feedback to this team member and it would therefore be an unusual interaction, it is often a good idea to let someone know that you want to give them feedback, and ask them if they are comfortable receiving it at a specific time. This may feel awkward at first, but it can help to ensure that the person receiving the feedback will be more receptive if they’ve had time to mentally prepare themselves a bit. If they ask to postpone, you can reschedule, and if they continually say no, then it is likely an indication that direct feedback is not the best approach with this person and it’s time to consider an indirect method.
When you actually convey your feedback, you should of course describe the issue, but if possible spend more time on the change or outcome that you want to see than the problem. It’s often easier to talk about possible solutions or fixes than how someone screwed up, for both parties. There’s no need to gloss over the issue and its full impact, just don’t stop the conversation there. However, in some scenarios, you may not have any suggested changes or outcomes and just need to make the other person aware of an issue - in this instance, be sure to be transparent about the fact that you don’t have solutions and you’re aware that that makes it harder to receive, but that it was important enough to give the feedback anyway.
Receiving constructive feedback can sometimes be an extremely disempowering experience, since you as the receiver may feel like you don’t have any control over the conversation and you are being told about problems that you are causing or contributing to. The result of this will likely be feelings of defensiveness, and possibly shame and guilt depending on the content of the feedback. These are natural responses, but they can also be impediments to truly hearing what the other person is saying. If you need time to think about and process feedback and you have the option to ask for that time, do so.
One thing you can do in advance of receiving any feedback that will make that experience at least a bit easier is to make sure that you have shared your preferred communication methods (in person, email, etc.) for receiving feedback with your supervisor at least, and ideally with the whole team. Alternatively, if you’re given the opportunity to have some control over how you receive feedback in a particular instance (as opposed to having it thrust on you), then ask that it be delivered in the manner you prefer. This makes it more likely that you’ll fully hear what the other person is saying.
Once you have received feedback, in most instances there will be some change or desired outcome that the feedback giver is advocating for. Once you are implementing the feedback you’ve been given, it’s a good idea to ask for confirmation that you are in fact implementing it and that it is having the intended impact. This can hopefully turn into a conversation of mutual problem-solving (since implementing feedback is rarely a completely straightforward process) rather than just one person giving difficult feedback to another. Additionally, it reassures the feedback giver that you are taking their feedback seriously and are at least attempting to implement it. Power dynamics are just as important to consider as a feedback receiver as they are for a giver. If you have less power than the person giving the feedback and the feedback feels wrong or unfair, then if possible it may be a good idea to seek feedback from others on the team to see if it matches what you have been told. You don’t have to accept all feedback you receive as implicit truth, although there is usually some piece of new information that is useful to glean out of any feedback given. If you have more power than the giver, then please thank the person offering the feedback. They probably agonized quite a bit over giving you this feedback and it took courage to do as it likely felt like a risky choice for them. Even if it doesn’t feel good to receive the feedback in the moment, it will likely mean a lot to them if you acknowledge their effort.
Ultimately, the goal for giving feedback is to give another person the information they need to implement a change of some kind that will benefit you or the group as a whole, and the goal for receiving feedback is to fully understand the feedback you receive so that you can implement a needed change. This means that the process of giving and receiving feedback can greatly influence the desired outcome (a needed change occurring), and it is worth taking some time to consider how you can best approach both sides of this process. However, no matter which side of this interaction you are on, remember that you can only control your own actions and choices, not the other person's.