How to Give (and Receive) Critical Feedback

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How do you react when someone offers you a piece of critical feedback?

A recent FT article suggested that we tend to cycle through three mental stages when criticised. 

These can be broadly described as:

  • Defence (how dare you criticise me!)
  • Agreement (you’re right, I’m terrible)
  • Acceptance (OK, let’s make it better)

Feedback is an unavoidable part of life; no more so than when we’re in the office.  Regular performance reviews mean we all have to get used to other people’s comments and opinions about our work.

But is critical feedback such a bad thing?

In a report for the Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman argue that “…(a little negative feedback) is an essential part of the mix”.  This is due to its “ability to grab someone’s attention”, as well as “guard(ing) against complacency and groupthink”.

Zenger and Folkman’s research also showed that, of the 50,000 leaders they studied, “those who’ve received the most negative comments were the ones who, in absolute terms, improved the most”.

Although this is helpful information, it doesn’t mean we’re all free to share as much criticism as we like, without thinking about the consequences. 

Sharpening your feedback skills

The CIPD recommend that, whether positive or critical, feedback should be offered as part of a two-way discussion.  Care should also be taken to ensure feedback is based on “evidence and actual examples”, rather than subjective opinion.

Never assume that feedback will be taken exactly as it was intended.  In the FT article referenced above, Esther Bintliff points out that “we underestimate how bruising it is to hear that we are not meeting expectations, even when the issues are minor.”

This feeling is intensified when performance review meetings are the only contact an employee has with their manager.  As the CIPD report states, feedback will be more effective “when managers have a healthy relationship with their staff in general.”

Cultivating this, along with promoting an awareness of the three mental stages involved in receiving criticism, could go a very long way towards improving conversations at work, and in turn, performance.

Please contact our experienced team at Viridian HR if you would like some assistance regarding feedback delivery and/or performance reviews.

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