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Work can be a minefield when it comes to interactions with your boss, your peers and your team members. One of the thorniest issues is how to give and get feedback at work most effectively. For Power Up, our expert – executive coach Malvika Singh – shares her tips about how to give feedback at work, and how to get it. She’s sharing practical advice on how to build our feedback muscles.

our relationships at work are often challenging

As an executive coach, I am often on the receiving end of my clients sharing their frustrations about colleagues. The litany tends to go like this: the person is a jerk, they are inconsiderate, they are sloppy, they are… (you can fill in the rest).

This invariably leads to frustrations and a feeling of being a victim and being “done to.”

The following are my reflections on how to get back in the driver’s seat by having more effective interactions.

you can improve the effectiveness of your interactions at work

Any interaction is a dance of two or more individuals. We do not exist or operate in a vacuum, but always in relation to another. And how people experience us can wildly differ from person to person. For example, when I give an executive coaching workshop to a team of people, one person may think I am brilliant while another person may have a very different view. But all along I did exactly the same thing.

The first question I reflect on in cases like this is: what was my contribution to the situation? Having self awareness, having an awareness about the person in front of me and having the skills to get my point across are key to effective relationships – and productivity and success – at work.

Giving and receiving feedback at work are core professional skills to develop

Giving and receiving feedback effectively are key skills that can allow you to have far more impact – and add far more value – at work.

Its relatively easy to give or receive feedback on content. It’s much harder when it is about the person.

In fact, it can be so difficult that sometimes people think they’ve done it when they actually haven’t – at least not effectively. There are times when I ask a client if they gave feedback after an event or meeting, they will respond yes. But when I probe deeper, I find that this is actually not the case.

We will all do a lot to deflect and avoid difficult conversations – including convincing ourselves that we’ve shared a negative message, when the recipient of the feedback has no idea what we were trying to communicate.

Giving and receiving feedback can be hard, especially when it’s negative. It requires courage and care to give feedback.

Why is it so difficult to give and receive feedback? Why are we so often willing to settle for a suboptimal status quo? This happens in situations from the minor to the quite significant. From when we refrain from asking a taxi driver to stop talking on his phone while driving, to being reluctant to tell our boss that we don’t feel appreciated, and quietly begin a new job search instead.

There is perceived personal risk when I ask for or give feedback – there can be serious consequences, especially when the person you’re addressing is a peer or a key player on your team. It’s understandable to worry that the person may not like you afterward, that they may hold back resources. They might go radio silent. Or even retaliate.

How can you best navigate this delicate situation? Here’s a framework that I’ve found helpful – as have my clients – when planning how best to give and receive feedback at work (especially negative feedback).

how to give and get feedback at work most effectively

Three Steps for Giving Feedback Effectively

1. Observation – facts

Effective feedback starts with specificity, and data-based observations, rather than personal opinion. That sets a level playing field, and makes what you say far more actionable.

Instead of saying “great meeting!” which of course is always great to hear, focus on specifically what was great? The donuts?

More useful would be: “I loved how you facilitated the meeting, 3 things stood out for me: Every person had a say. It was well structured, there were minimal PowerPoint presentations, and you ensured that there was a lot of time for discussion and debate. I liked how you addressed the tough issues heads on.”

2. Impact on you

Once you have established a fact-based argument, you can move on to explain specifically how you experienced the behavior demonstrated. It’s not an accusation – it’s a disclosure of your feelings. No one can argue with you about your feelings – they are what they are.

Instead of you saying “you just don’t listen,” explain the impact of the person’s actions on you.

You might say: “During our last meeting you interrupted me 6 times (observations); the impact of that was that I did not feel listened to (impact on me).

3. Suggestion for next time

Finally, end your feedback with a specific, actionable suggestion for how the person could do better next time.

Rather than saying “you just don’t appreciate me,” which is likely to cause a defensive reaction on the part of the person you’re talking with, offer a suggestion.

Try saying: “ I noticed in our last 4 interactions you pointed out 6-7 areas of improvement and not a single area where I did well (observation). It made me feel like a disappointment to you (impact on me). I appreciate knowing the areas where you think I need to develop and grow, AND I would also love to hear where I am doing well (suggestion)”

While some team members may be disappointed with the way in which they are given feedback, many people also feel the frustration of not getting any feedback at all.

If you are not getting feedback at work, then you need to solicit it. And when it comes, be sure to receive it in a way that is productive and effective in building your professional skills and your working relationships.

Three steps for receiving feedback effectively

1. Listen

When negative feedback comes your way, it can be hard to hear. Literally. Do your best to actively listen for the key message that’s being shared. Make a couple of notes if you have to.

2. Ask only clarifying questions

Avoid giving explanations of why you did what you did. It can give the impression of being defensive and not open to the feedback you just received.

3. Thank the person

Feedback really is a gift you are receiving. If your goal is to succeed in your workplace, you have to have information about what’s working. And what’s not. Having an actual mentor (as opposed to a kindly friend) means being able to hear the real truth from the person about your situation. Remember, it took care and courage for the person to give you the feedback. Acknowledging that will make it far more likely that you’ll continue to get valuable feedback in the future.

other ways to maximize the impact of your feedback conversations

1. Timing really matters when it comes to feedback

Timing is essential for effective feedback.

Here are some guidelines for giving and receiving feedback which I hope will give you greater confidence in building this muscle:

Give feedback real time and don’t let too much time go by. At McKinsey & Company, the phrase “curbside feedback” is used to remind consultants to give and solicit feedback on a client meeting while waiting outside on the curb to head back to the office. Don’t wait. Like bread, feedback has a shelf life, and it’s much better when it’s fresh.

Give feedback often and solicit feedback often. Don’t save it all up for a year-end review.

2. pay attention to ratio of positive to negative comments

Ideally, the ratio of positive comments to negative comments is 3:1. By this I am not implying that you give three pieces of positive feedback and then one negative, but overall in the interactions over time the ratio of positive to negative in the “bank” is 3:1. This is a key element of high performing teams.

By the way, this same ratio of positive to negative feedback can work at home, too – but to be effective in personal relationships and with family members at home, the ratio needs to be 5:1 positive-to-negative for relationships to thrive.

3. choose the right words, in the right order

Here are 5 things to keep in mind when you’re conducting a feedback conversation.

Avoid words like always and never, because they tend to feel aggressive to the listener. For example, “You always ignore me,” and “you never listen” might feel good to say, but they won’t get you want from the other person.

Avoid third party feedback. Saying things like “others are saying that you are unstructured” is a cowardly way to share developmental feedback. If you’ve seen something, then you need to say it.

Don’t try to “rescue” the person. When giving feedback, saying things like “it is just small thing, I do it as well,” while well-intentioned, can give the impression that you are trying to rescue the other person.

Avoid the “hamburger” approach. That’s the habit of giving one positive comment, then one negative one, and then another positive. I find this too predictable, and prefer to get straight to the key feedback messages, whether they’re good or bad.

Be concise and to the point. Being lengthy and beating about the bush diminishes feedback and also can give the impression that the person delivering feedback is feeling bad giving it.

commit to building your feedback muscles

Remember, what you do with the feedback you receive is ultimately your choice and decision. The important thing is that you know exactly where you stand.

Most organizations have weak feedback muscles – in both giving and receiving. The best way to build muscle is to practice, practice, practice – every day and often!

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Malvika Singh is the founding partner of IMPACT, an international consulting and leadership development firm. She works with Boards, CEOs and top leadership teams. Her client list includes American Express, eBay, McKinsey & Company, Novartis, Siemens, Swiss Re, and WPP.

Malvika is a member of Harvard Kennedy School Women’s Leadership Board (WLB), and a board member of Advance, a cross company women’s leadership initiative she co-founded. She holds an undergraduate degree from The University of Pennsylvania, and an M.B.A. in Finance and International Business from New York University. She currently resides in Zurich.