How to Give Feedback to Your Colleagues

Posted: February 9, 2016

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

Learning a New Language

Growing up in the South, I was taught to hold several rules of social propriety to be self-evident:

  • That all adults should be called “sir” or “m’am,” regardless of their age or position.
  • That men should hold the door for women, not out of patronage but out of respect.
  • That no guest should ever go hungry, and no offer of “seconds” should ever be refused.
  • That you never sit on the front church pew (although I did know one deacon who violated this one regularly in his zeal to, as he put it, “drink it straight from the spigot”).

And finally, a rule so ingrained you can probably hear your mother saying it – that “if you can’t say anything nice, you don’t say anything at all.”

Like most social rules, the “nothing but nice” maxim is good on the surface. We should strive for kindness and empathy and avoid the base temptation to wield words as weapons. Still, human nature being what it is, there are times when we just can’t help but say something negative, right? For those inevitable moments, we Southerners invented another delicious cultural quip, a useful way of honoring the letter of the law while circumventing its spirit: just say “bless his heart,” and anything else you say is fair game.

Outright hypocrisy aside, a more subtle but equally unfortunate consequence of the “nothing but nice” rule, especially in the workplace, is that it’s robbed us of a language for offering helpful, constructive criticism. We’ve convinced ourselves there’s practically no way to say (or hear) something “negative” from a standpoint of genuine kindness or regard for one another. In a culture of “nothing but nice” people, even positive feedback starts to sound like shallow platitudes, while negative feedback sounds like a personal affront.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum there are workplaces that have rejected the “nothing but nice” rule entirely, ruthless cultures in which even surface-level “niceness” is sacrificed at the altar of dog-eat-dog competition. It’s a world of winners and losers, they seem to believe, so there’s more incentive for winners to beat others up than to build them up.

A Formula for Feedback

When I joined the VisionPoint team, I found a different sort of culture entirely, a culture of rapid growth in which employees respect one another enough to help each other grow. Put simply, we’ve decided to be a team at VisionPoint that talks to each other instead of about each other, a team that challenges and encourages each other to constantly get better.

And that means giving and responding well to regular, intentional feedback.

As a “nothing but nice” southern boy like me, that was tough at first. For starters, I had to shake my misconception that I, myself, needed to be perfect before pointing out others’ imperfections. Then I had to learn an appropriate language for offering feedback, a way of avoiding exaggeration and sweeping generalizations, using words that clarify complex situations while giving people specific, actionable insights. That’s taken quite a bit of practice.

VisionPoint's Feedback Formula

To help, we have a feedback formula at VisionPoint, a simple but useful tool for offering (and recognizing) feedback as a gift. For us, legitimate feedback always involves three parts:

  • Reference a specific date and time – “Yesterday, during our Account Services meeting…” Referencing a very specific date and time prevents sweeping generalizations (i.e. you “always”) and focuses the listener on a particular situation. Being timely is also important. Feedback on something that happened 3 weeks ago is a lot less useful than feedback on a situation from 3 hours ago.
  • Reference the person’s behavior, accurately and specifically – “…you said X.” Don’t psychoanalyze why you think a person said X. Don’t interpret or rephrase what they said in your own words. Simply reference exactly what they said or did, no more and no less.
  • Explain how the behavior made you feel –  “When you said X, it made me feel Y.”  The thing about your feelings is, they’re indisputably yours. If you’re giving me feedback, I might disagree with how my behavior was perceived, but I cannot disagree with how my behavior (misperceived or otherwise) might have made you feel. Therefore, expressing your feelings (instead of why you think they did it, what you think the consequences should be or how it may have affected others beyond yourself) keeps the conversation on unambiguous ground. It also invites the person to realize and address how their behavior has affected you personally, fostering deeper empathy.  

Having given a person such clear feedback, it’s then up to them to reflect on whether that behavior stemmed from an attitude or a habit that should be addressed or changed.

A Culture of Trust

Beyond just the feedback formula, we have also institutionalized opportunities for us to give one another substantive feedback. It’s woven into the fabric of our approach to continuous professional development.

For example, every year, each employee is given a 360-degree performance review involving direct, thorough feedback from every member of the company. During that review, we work with our managers to set professional goals that build on our identified strengths to address development needs. Then each month, we meet individually with our managers to discuss our progress against those goals, all of which were informed by substantive feedback from our colleagues.

Best of all, we foster this ongoing conversation in a friendly, team-first environment. From our stated company values (Vision Points) to our day-to-day behavior, we’ve simply refused to accept the premise that kindness and direct honesty are somehow mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Why VisionPoint

Beyond the practical benefit of actually helping us improve, our culture of continuous feedback has given me something much more powerful: trust. And that’s my answer when people ask, “Why VisionPoint?”

Because I trust my boss. I trust my team. I trust that I know exactly where I stand, and that if people notice ways I can improve, they’ll share them. Maybe we’re breaking some cultural “rules,” and that’s ok. That sense of trust, and the peace of mind it gives me, is worth the risk.