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Feedback principles

We expect everyone at TTS to give and receive feedback directly, kindly, and professionally. And, people are generally most receptive to feedback if they know what kind of feedback to expect and what their role will be in receiving, processing, and acting on it.

The principles below are meant to be foundations, not limitations. Each person will still bring their unique style, language, and approach to interpersonal relationships. For this guide, we’re using “constructive” to describe feedback that is asking someone to change, improve, or stop doing something.

Know the kind of feedback you’re giving

Think about what you want to accomplish in the conversation. Do you want to celebrate a job well done? Are you concerned about how a project is going? Do you see room for improvement?

This reflection allows you to hone in on your key message, as well as see what might get in the way. Do you have positive things to say, and you need time to think through what specifically is going well? Is the feedback you want to deliver not just one message but multiple, unaddressed frustrations? Which is the most important to be addressed first?

Sandwiches are for eating, not for feedback

You may have been taught the “sandwich method” of using 2 bread “compliments” around a filling of constructive feedback.

However, this method tends to lead to insincere compliments, can feel manipulative, and makes people suspicious about positive feedback because they know hard feedback is coming.

In short, feedback is best when it’s not muddied with other messaging.

Do a “flip it to test it” bias check

Imagine that the person you are giving feedback to was a different gender, race, age, etc. If they had a different identity, how would you provide feedback? Would you be giving the feedback at all?

This is sometimes called the “flip it to test it” approach. It helps us examine our content, tone, severity, etc. for unconscious bias.

Consider the forum

Decide whether the feedback is best delivered asynchronously or face-to-face.

Quick, time-sensitive, or positive feedback can often be delivered well over email and Slack.

However, constructive or complex feedback is typically best done face-to-face. In our remote-first organization, this means over video chat (and sometimes with supporting documentation sent afterward via email).

If you are a supervisor, learn how your direct reports like to receive feedback. Check out the Getting to Know You 1:1 Questions for inspiration.

Ask permission

Giving people options about when and where they get feedback can make the conversation more productive and help set a collaborative tone.

For constructive feedback conversations, the receiver may: choose a quiet space instead of a coffee shop; schedule the feedback conversation with a 5-minute break beforehand to get a snack and water; block off time afterward to process their thoughts.

If you have standing meetings, asking permission might be as simple as checking in on the agenda: “Hey, I want to give you some constructive feedback about yesterday’s meeting. Do you want to use our regular time for that, or schedule a separate meeting?”

Note: for some people, the anticipation of receiving constructive feedback can be overwhelming and distract from the actual feedback. This is especially true if you haven’t been exchanging feedback before. You may want to:

  • Shorten the permission window, so the person doesn’t sit in anticipation for days. “I’d like to talk about the email you sent this morning. Do you have time this afternoon, or would tomorrow morning be better?”
  • Be explicit that you are working on your feedback skills. “I am trying to be more consistent about giving feedback - both positive and constructive - so you will see me checking in and setting up times to talk. I also want to receive more feedback from you, too.”

Once you’re in the meeting, share your intent to offer feedback and make sure the other person is still receptive: “Is this still an okay time to talk through how that retro went?”

Be specific

The feedback should refer to concrete behaviors, actions, or examples. This helps empower others to act on constructive feedback and to continue great work after positive feedback.

Situation - Behavior - Impact

Using the “Situation - Behavior - Impact” (SBI) framework can help structure your feedback conversations. You can read more about the SBI feedback framework.

Less like... More like...
“You’re so good at presenting.” “In today’s presentation, your use of screenshare and pacing really kept folks’ attention and illustrated your point perfectly.”
“Sometimes you lose the audience when you’re talking.” “In yesterday’s workshop, you used technical terms and referenced things that attendees weren’t familiar with. I noticed that some folks looked a little lost and started checking their phones.”

Acknowledge feelings, including defensiveness

Feedback often generates big feelings - and that’s okay! Most people find it difficult to receive constructive feedback, even if they agree with it.

Give the person space to process: allow for moments of silence. Ask the person’s perspective on your feedback, and if they have any questions or concerns.

It’s possible that during the conversation, a piece of constructive feedback will become less important than the conversation itself and what you learn about that person’s experiences. A stronger relationship between you two is a positive outcome!

If someone becomes defensive:

  • Acknowledge that it can be hard to receive constructive feedback.
  • Ask them their point of view. Is there something you don’t know, which affected the situation?
  • Ask if there are underlying concerns or frustrations. This can help you identify possible triggers that are inhibiting them from receiving feedback.
  • Leverage active listening techniques to make sure you understand what they are saying and to demonstrate that they are being heard.

If these steps don’t help, ask if they would like to pause the conversation and meet again in the coming days or the following week.

Addressing on-going defensiveness

When someone is consistently defensive, it can be tempting to avoid giving them constructive feedback. However, the defensiveness itself deserves a feedback conversation.

The Management Center has a detailed article on How to Give Feedback about Defensiveness.

Close - or pause - the conversation

If a feedback conversation has gone well, thank the person for their time and openness in receiving your feedback. Wrap-up the conversation by recapping commitments made and any expected follow-up.

If the conversation has not gone well, still thank the person for their time. Reiterate that you want to work with them, and you appreciate their time and collaboration. If you are having a follow-up conversation, reiterate the expected next step.

Reflect

Look for opportunities to provide all kinds of feedback; that is, establish a routine way of exchanging feedback until it becomes normal behavior. Refrain from sharing feedback only during mid-year and annual performance assessments. Notice if you tend to offer more of one kind than the others.

If you are a supervisor, you may want to track (on a high level) the types of conversations you are having:

  • Have you been giving feedback on an on-going basis?
  • Are there people you are hesitant to give feedback to? What is your plan to overcome it?
  • Is there someone who hasn’t heard positive feedback from you yet?
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