January 08, 2020

Your working relationships can handle tough feedback.

Work is relational; it’s about the people we work with as much as the duties we perform. For most people, enjoying work (and thriving in it) are impossible without building positive working relationships. But when the interpersonal nature of work gets tied up with our human need for acceptance, though, things get messy. We start to hold back feedback that’s crucial to collaboration but potentially damaging on a social level.

Your working relationships don’t have to crumble under the weight of tough feedback. It all starts with building trust and finding common ground.

Care about your colleagues

We take constructive performance feedback from our bosses as par for the course, but we don’t always see it coming from other directions. For feedback to succeed, it’s important that people trust your intentions and believe you want to help them, not just yourself. Relationship-building should always be on your mind as an ongoing process—show your coworkers that you’re investing in them.

When the time comes to give feedback, get yourself in the right mindset by putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand the why behind their behavior. Maybe you’ll see that they’re overwhelmed or maybe you’ll find out they’re going through a lot personally. Being empathetic and caring about them as people will help you craft feedback that is supportive and aimed at helping them, instead of just pushing them away with criticism. 

Be thoughtful about the content and timing.

Providing feedback well means being intentional with what you say and when you say it. It probably comes as no surprise that blurting out your frustrations in the heat of a tense moment isn’t going to get results. A little planning goes a long way.

The words you choose matter…

When you deliver feedback, think about the impact it’ll make. We all want to do our best, but no one really enjoys hearing about the areas they could improve on. It stings a little—sometimes a lot—and can feel personal. 

It’s important that your feedback is focused on the work and not the person. A great way to stick to a non-personal approach is to follow this six-step process:

  1. Set the scene. Set the context of what you’re giving feedback about and your expectations for the conversation.
  2. Just the facts. Describe your observations as objectively as possible, focusing on observable behaviors rather than subjective viewpoints.
  3. So what? Share why this feedback matters, and the impact of the actions you’re giving feedback about, as you see it.
  4. Ask and listen. Seek the other person’s perspective on the situation, and be open to their answer.
  5. What next? Agree on an appropriate next step, even if it’s just taking time to process the conversation.

… And so does the context

When it comes to your manager, you may already have recurring 1:1 meetings where you can bring up any issues you’re experiencing. For giving feedback to colleagues, though, this typically isn’t the case. Giving constructive feedback to someone requires the proper setting and timing. You should have as much privacy as possible and, if possible, it should be face-to-face (or by video calls if you’re a distributed team). 

And be thoughtful about the timing. Are they about to spend their day on time-sensitive work that’s been full of obstacles and isn’t related to your feedback? Probably not the right moment. While there’s no perfect moment to have these conversations, be mindful of their schedule. Not just because it’s kinder to them (though that’s important!) but because they’ll be more receptive to your feedback if they can receive it in a relatively relaxed state. 

Accept critical feedback gracefully

All work relationships are two-way streets, and feedback is no exception. Yes, receiving feedback is an opportunity to improve your performance, but it’s also a chance to model accepting constructive criticism. If you struggle to respond positively to feedback, here are some tips: 

  • Respond, not react. You’re not required to have an in-depth discussion about feedback the moment you hear it. If you feel caught off guard by it, or know you’re not in the right place to respond appropriately, you can simply ask to have some time to process it and propose meeting a little later to talk through the issue. This gives you time to prepare for a productive discussion that isn’t clouded by strong emotions. 
  • Thank them. Giving feedback isn’t always easy, and they took the time to share their concerns with you. Thanking them, even if you don’t agree with everything they said, shows your openness to receiving feedback and that you value their opinion.  
  • Find common ground. Maybe you don’t agree with their feedback, but there’s likely some common ground you can both agree on. Start from there and figure out what the underlying problems are so your conversation helps you both align moving forward. 
  • Bring solutions, not excuses. Whether or not there are extenuating circumstances that caused the issue in the first place, the most important thing is how you handle things moving forward. Taking a solutions-oriented approach shows positivity and willingness to move forward.

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