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How to give and receive feedback

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life

by Psychologies

The project

Feedback could be the most agonising aspect of the modern workplace. Let’s face it: there’s probably no way to make it fun to be told that you’re underperforming. Or, for that matter, to say that to someone else, if it’s your job to deliver the feedback. But there are a few tricks to make it less painful.

The aim

Feedback is a minefield because our brains aren’t made to take criticism well – and the so-called ‘negativity bias’ ensures we’ll dwell on any fault-finding long after compliments have faded from memory. We also engage in what feedback experts Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone call ‘wrong-spotting’ – zeroing in on the one part of the feedback we consider factually wrong, then fixating on it. It’s a toxic mess, which means feedback rarely gets to perform its originally intended function: helping us to improve.

The theory

The crucial thing to grasp, say Heen and Stone, is that there are three kinds of feedback: praise for accomplishments, advice on how to improve, then, finally, rating performance. If you’re delivering feedback, it’s vital to keep these separate. (Abandon the famous ‘sandwich technique’ of praise, then criticism, then praise.)

Meanwhile, if you’re receiving feedback, set aside ‘wrong-spotting’ in favour of ‘difference-spotting’. Ask yourself: if your boss claims you’re not performing well, what explains the difference of opinion? It may be that your boss is a bully, and you need to find a new job. But it’s just as likely to be a breakdown in communication. Or – however much it stings to admit it – the truth.

Try it out

  • Actively ask for feedback. It’s a strange truth that criticism is much easier to take if you requested it. Before your boss delivers a negative judgment, ask her to identify your biggest weakness.
  • Switch perspectives. If negative feedback lands in your lap, try to imagine you discovered it yourself, says mental health expert Alex Lickerman. You’ll shift your focus from the perceived insult (‘How dare he call me disorganised!’) to the underlying question (‘Am I disorganised?’).
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the person. Remember you’re not judging someone’s character – just their performance in a specific area. For example, you can criticise an employee’s inefficiency at handling email without implying he or she is an inefficient person at the core.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock