While I’m young in the grand scheme of things, I’ve learned a lot about the feedback process. As a student supervisor at my university’s tutoring program, a large part of my day was reviewing progress reports and emailing other tutors constructive criticism. As a professional writing instructor, the only way my students can improve is through response to their work. As a graphic designer, an entire day might be devoted to tearing apart something I’ve worked on for hours or days. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to give, absorb, and observe feedback. While there’s a lifetime’s worth more to learn, I can confidently say that feedback is critical to any successful team effort.
Some people are naturally gifted with what we might call guidance gab. And then there are the people who appear to shoot bullets in the form of words. Can we all agree that feedback is important to most everything we do, at least on a professional scale? But how do we practice constructive criticism? I’ll list a few of my own observations, but I want to hear from others.
Setting goals. The feedback process starts when you or your team is working toward something. Make those goals clear on both the group and individual level. When it comes time to discuss what went well and what failed, you can refer back to your goals for context.
Professionalism. Being professional is a two-way street. As the receiver, good feedback is always good, but when someone doesn’t like your work, it easily becomes an emotional issue. How do you deal with it? No matter how much the criticism hurts, the most professional thing we can do is cope with that emotional sting and turn it into productivity.
As the giver, it’s easy to just comment on things without too much thought. Most leaders, though, want to encourage the team to not just sustain, but improve. If you’re conscious about it, you’ll see that the level of professionalism you use when communicating affects your team. Being consistently rude or curt kills morale; choosing your words carefully to identify problem areas and solutions encourages a strong team.
Timeliness. Working as a component of professionalism, timing your feedback is key. Sometimes feedback on the fly elicits gut reactions from the receiver, which can be counterproductive to creativity. While we all expect reports on our work at some point, knowing when it’s coming can free emotional and intellectual space to do what we do best. Progress reports, update meetings, and post-mortems help teams stay on top of their goals, so make them part of the creative process. Identify what kind of things will be evaluated at these points. As an individual, evaluate how important your comment is and when it’s appropriate to present it. Someone in the thick of a design might not be so responsive. Similarly, pointing out critical errors at the eleventh hour might be, to exaggerate, a risk to your life, limb, and the success of the deliverable.
Clarity. There are a lot of things that can obstruct the direct line of communication. Take for example politeness. Most of us understand that using your P’s and Q’s tends to be more persuasive than not, but sometimes politeness sometimes invites ambiguity. To contextualize with developmental psychology, we know that our children aren’t innately born with the understanding of indirect communication. So when you ask a three-year-old, “Do you know where the bathroom is?” it’s natural for them to interpret your question literally and merely say, “Yes.” What you’re probably asking is, “Can you tell me where the bathroom is?” but the cutie next to you doesn’t yet know that. While most adults are well practiced in understanding indirect questions, we all experience instances of miscommunication because someone was just trying to be polite. On the business level, this could mean, for example, the difference between meeting a deadline and not.
Openness to a solution. When we discover that something is going wrong, we have to be open to solutions. Sometimes the solution comes in the form of change. Sometimes we have to experiment. The bottom line is that we have to take feedback and do something. The caveat here is that too much change can be harmful, so make sure you let your plans take root before trying something else.
As leaders, we can practice some of these methods. As doers, we can encourage (i.e. communicate to) our leaders how we can work better with a more thoughtful feedback process.
Update June 5, 2012: Alan Henry posted on Lifehacker some great considerations when it comes to offering criticism. He presents some examples that help you better understand how to actually rephrase what we want to say into something more helpful. Read “How to Give Criticism without Sounds Like a Jerk.”