Providing Effective Feedback in the Workplace

By Joe Issid

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly providing feedback to those around us. Be it in the way we use our hands in conversation to how we look at someone, we are innately providing some sort of feedback – whether positive, neutral or negative – to anyone with whom we come into contact. Of course, not all feedback is unintentional; we regularly provide deliberate feedback as means of communicating ideas or preferences to others. And this practice is something that occurs in every workplace around the world. However, many people are left feeling anxious about providing feedback to their colleagues for fear that it may be perceived negatively. Moreover, many employees may feel quite apprehensive about sending feedback upwards (i.e. offering feedback to their boss). On the surface, it may seem natural to want to avoid critiquing your colleagues (and, of course, your boss) but this is not the way feedback should be viewed. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Chantal Westgate, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, who has more than 15 years of experience teaching students and consulting with numerous large corporations about how to provide effective feedback.

Removing the stigma

“Historically, feedback may have been negatively received because it was associated with some form of consequence,” says Westgate. Often, these consequences come in the form of employee performance reviews and are greeted with some level of discomfort. But it does not have to be this way. “For feedback to be perceived differently, one has to convey that it is the only way we can improve.” And, according to Westgate, how we approach feedback is also a very big determining factor to how it will be received. If you provide feedback in the spirit of helping someone, it will generally be well-received.

Ongoing conversations

“Feedback is not a one-way conversation…it better to have a dialogue than a monologue.” Westgate mentions that having a two-way conversation is much less threatening and will make participants feel much more comfortable. To avoid threatening situations, feedback should be part of an ongoing series of short conversations, which can be as brief as 20-30 seconds. By providing frequent feedback, we avoid a situation where it can build over time and evolve into something bigger. In such cases, pent up feedback can become threatening over time and can actually devolve into legitimate performance issues. Westgate likes to recommend that these ‘learning conversations ’occur within 24 hours of an event occurring. If you wait any longer than 24 hours, it can become a larger issue and the recipient of the feedback may become resentful that you waited so long.

Sharing information

As mentioned, many of us do not feel entirely comfortable sending feedback upwards in a traditional work environment. However, Westgate insists this discomfort does not need to exist. Providing feedback to your manager is nothing more than simply sharing information; after all, enabling your manager to succeed increases your own chances of succeeding. “If you feel like providing feedback upwards may be delicate, try and change your mindset. Look at it as simply sharing information. Remove the stigma of having to manage up and tell yourself that it is part of my job to keep my boss informed.”

Verbal feedback

“When you are giving feedback, start from the position that this is your own perception – this may not reflect reality.” In doing so, Westgate suggests using “I” statements to reflect that this is your own opinion, which will come across as much less threatening. For example, “I read your Excel report and I am not sure I understand your calculations”. These will be more welcoming than an accusatory “you” statement, such as “Your Excel calculations are wrong”. She also recommends using contrasting statements to eliminate any negativity from the outset, e.g. “This is not a big issue but I wanted to talk about row 199 of your Excel report”. This makes the person feel comfortable and safe before introducing the information you would like to share.

Non-verbal feedback

Westgate recommends that feedback is provided in a neutral environment. For example, if a manager wants to provide feedback to a team member, she suggests that it is performed at the employee’s desk (rather than in the manager’s office). As feedback should always be positive, there should not be a concern about privacy.  When performing the dialogue, she suggests sitting side by side rather than across a desk from one another as that suggests some level of authority. As 80-90% of the conversation is non-verbal, your actions should reflect your intentions. To wit, unfold your arms, lean a little forward and maintain eye contact – this very clearly suggests that you have an open disposition.

Feedback is a collaborative dialogue and is not about unloading your view on someone else’s performance. The intention of providing feedback should always to provide help. Feedback is not about giving advice; it is purely about sharing of information and helping someone perform better.