Feedback – a social phenomenon and a essential tool in good leadership

The team at Feedwork are experts in advising on and communicating about healthy work cultures
We are the Feedwork team, and since 2016, we have helped create healthy feedback cultures in Danish and international organizations. From left: Danni, Morten, Jonas and Mikkel.

If you were to read only one single page about feedback on the internet, let it be this one. We will tell you just what feedback is. Feedback is a complex social phenomenon that you can spend years and years immersing yourself in. We decided to do so because it’s what we’re good at, but it doesn’t have to be like that for everyone. That’s why we’ve built a solid foundation for anyone wanting to use feedback as a tool to support the development of people, relationships or processes.

What is feedback?

We work with feedback between people, so we’re not talking about electronic feedback here. More specifically, we focus on feedback in the workplace, even though feedback in private homes is also a very interesting topic.

Let’s start with a definition of feedback just to make it clear:

Feedback is the exchange of perspectives and information, which can contribute to changes and improvements in behavior. Feedback is used to actively share observations or experienced from one person on another persons behavior.

When we give feedback, it’s about activating the observations we’ve made about our colleagues or employees. Maybe we’ve noticed something about the way they go through a certain process, their attitude in regard to changes or their way of presenting something to the team. It’s all about combining our observations with our previous experiences and a genuine desire to help each other. To lessen confusion and ambiguity when we talk about feedback between colleagues, we divide feedback into three general types: appreciation, coaching and evaluation.

The different types of feedback address different basic human needs, which is why we need to build a vocabulary that enables us talk about it more openly.

Appreciation

When you want to thank your colleague or tell them that their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

  • When you thank your co-worker for helping you with your project last week
  • When your boss tells you that she specifically enjoyed page 6 and 7 of your report

Coaching

When you want to help your colleague improve, either by correcting them or encouraging them to maintain a specific behavior.

  • When you tell your co-worker what you think they can do differently to be more specific in their presentations
  • When you tell your co-worker how you think they can use their great sense of structure in other areas of their work

Evaluation

When you evaluate your colleague’s behavior on a scale and relate their behavior to your expectations.

  • When you are told that your co-worker thought you did a better job than usual on a recent task
  • When you tell your employees that the current project is not at a satisfactory level yet

 

The risk of misunderstandings is huge if we aren’t using a common vocabulary when expressing our need for feedback. There are big differences between the hidden needs that guide the different types of feedback we desire.

  • Appreciation feeds our need for connection and significance
  • Coaching feeds our need for growth
  • Evaluation feeds our need for certainty

Feedback is many things. Talk to your colleagues about your personal needs and how to fulfill them through feedback.

You can benefit from thinking about good feedback as these three types
Feedback is so many different things. Talk to your nearest colleagues about what needs you want the feedback in your team to cover.

Acknowledging feedback makes us feel like we’re making a difference, and that our efforts mean something to others. Developing feedback helps us be better versions of ourselves than we were yesterday. Evaluating feedback gives us certainty and clarity about our current situation and makes us less insecure.

The reason why we divide feedback into these three types has something to do with our universal psychological needs. Every individual is different, and the degree to which we need the three different types of feedback will vary. If a colleague asks for your feedback, it might be a good idea to try to uncover which need they want you to meet.

Likewise, ask yourself: Which type of feedback am I mostly interested in? This might give you an idea about how to ask for feedback from your colleagues but may also make you aware of the type of feedback you usually give others.

What is good feedback?

Good feedback fosters learning, development, strengthening of relationships and improved performances all at once. Good feedback can be many things, as it is a complex social phenomenon. Here are 8 characteristics of good feedback:

Good feedback is a dialogue

A typical outdated idea of feedback is that it consists of an active giver and a passive recipient. A master and an apprentice. A teacher and a student. However, this is far from the most effective and motivational way to use feedback. In order to create as much learning and motivation as possible in our feedback process, we strive to have two active participants. This makes it easier to create a feeling of autonomy and involvement, while making it easier for the giver to know what the recipient is hearing and taking away from the feedback. The dialogue is initiated by the giver asking the recipient to contribute with their points of view, opinions and thoughts during the feedback conversation.

Good feedback is specific and descriptive

To ensure that the feedback can actually be used and in order to make it easier to understand and put into practice, the feedback should be based on specific situations, behaviors or experiences. A common mistake is to base your feedback on a bunch of experiences which have given you an overall idea about something. When this feedback is given to the recipient, it can become very general and come across as more of a gut feeling, rather than a specific observation. This makes it harder for the recipient to relate to and thus, to learn from. We should aim for more frequent feedback based on everyday experiences.

All good feedback is solution-oriented  

It’s in the word, feedback to focus on things in the past, and usually this is a good place to come from. This is shown in the model below. However, we can’t stop there, simply focusing on the mistakes and flaws of the past. Instead, in order to create a sense of agency, motivation and drive, we need to offer the recipient a perspective that reaches into the future. We can’t dwell on the past, but we need to look forward. Our job is to consider what the solution looks like in the future. This can be achieved through dialogue and specific advice in our feedback.

Good feedback can also be informal

A healthy feedback culture is not only built on annual performance reviews, product reviews or 1-on-1 conversations with the manager. It also consists of informal and spontaneous feedback in the form of water-cooler or coffee machine feedback. These types of feedback conversations between colleagues carry a lot of the feedback culture. These can easily be supported by more formal structures. Same thing goes for feedback between the manager and their employees. There is a lot to be gained from making this feedback less formal and move away from the annual meeting in the boss’ office, and towards making it a more integrated part of everyday work life.

Good feedback is frequent

“It’s better to improve by 1% each week than by 10% each quarter.” We say this frequently. Big changes need to be made in baby steps. Through small, frequent adjustments, the outcome will become apparent in no time, and the confrontations of each individual conversation will be miniscule. The more frequently we give and receive feedback, the more integrated the feedback will be in our routines and daily work. Thereby, feedback becomes more natural and there will be a continual improvement of our feedback routine as well as our actual work.

Good feedback is fair

We often talk about whether feedback should be corrective or acknowledging, but this might not be as important as we thought. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council from 2002 shows that it is more important to focus on whether the recipient considers the feedback to be fair. This goes for corrective as well as acknowledging feedback – the recipient has to be able to relate to what is being said and recognize the feedback as being reasonable. If you give someone what they consider to be unfair feedback, it will be detrimental for their motivation to enter the feedback dialogue.

Good feedback is consensual

Consent is an important part of learning, and thus an important part of feedback, since learning is one of the main goals of feedback. This means that the recipient has to consent to receive feedback before we get started. Consent can be given in many ways, either through a scheduled meeting, participation in well-known processes or may over time become a natural part of your relation. Informal and spontaneous feedback requires a bit more consideration by actually asking whether you can give someone feedback. The more feedback conversations we have at the request of the recipient, the better – for the culture as well as the learning potential.

Good feedback encourages more feedback

Creating a healthy feedback culture is also about using feedback in a sustainable way. A way that can last into the future. Each feedback conversation should leave the recipient wanting more feedback in the future. If this doesn’t happen, our feedback routines will create a downward spiral and eventually cease to exist. We don’t want this to happen. That’s why we need to create feedback conversations that encourage more feedback. Conversations that encourage taking the feedback in and learning from it. Conversations that encourage passing feedback on to another colleague at the next given opportunity.

For further inspiration on good feedback and feedback quality read this: How to give high quality feedback?

A good feedback model?

Feedback model OIF is a structural framework
OIF feedback model with the three steps 1) Observation 2) Impact 3) Future

In order to give well-structured feedback, it may be helpful to structure your feedback using a model to ensure you get the most important points across. Good structure increases the chances of fostering learning and recognition in the recipient. When using a feedback model, you must be particularly conscious of adding personality and authenticity to your feedback as well. In this way you ensure that the recipient can “feel” you and your sincerity in the feedback, which is why it’s important to let go of the structure if necessary. We recommend the OIF-model consisting of the following steps:

1. Observation

As previously mentioned, good feedback must be descriptive. This means that your feedback has to be based on specific experiences or observations to ensure that the feedback is unambiguous and related to behaviors that the recipient can change. This step consists of describing your observations and experiences as neutrally as possible.

“I noticed that you started the meeting by presenting the agenda consisting of those 8 points ...”

“I’ve noticed that you haven’t been as active in our team meetings the past few months ...”

“I took note of the fact that you mentioned project ABC as our most important project at the moment …”

By starting like this, the recipient knows exactly which situation the feedback is related to, and you have a common starting point for the rest of the conversation. A rule of thumb is that you must be specific and descriptive when describing your experience. If not, your feedback will seem superficial, generalized and unspecific and will be very hard to learn from.

One way to help yourself do this, is to use the video test when preparing your feedback. Would you be able to see this behavior if you watched a video of the meeting? A video only shows movements, lets you hear the spoken words, tone of said words, and use of body language. What you can’t see is emotions, intentions, considerations, social effects or exclusion. Therefore, these should not be mentioned in step #1.

2. Impact

The important thing here is how the experience affected you. Did it motivate you? Were you entertained? Did you lose track? Did you feel overlooked or lose trust? Did you feel supported?
Another important part of this step is the weighting. Is this about a minor detail, a personal preference, a simple input or rather a fundamental thing, a direct order or criticism that must be given immediately? It’s very important to distinguish these things and convey this to the recipient, because if we don’t, it becomes up to the recipient to interpret the importance of the issue, which doesn’t always give the best results.
The feedback is subjective and is an expression of how you are affected by the behaviors of your colleagues. This, step #2, is also where you bring in your personality and your preferences. These conditions are what allow your recipient to understand why you want to give them the advice that’s coming up in the next step.

“... maybe it’s just me, but I think this is a violation of our agreement on having more simple and focused meetings ...”

“... and I miss your input, because I think your experience in the field and the perspectives you’ve contributed with earlier have really helped push this process forward ...”

“... and it gave me the impression that I, my team, and our project DEF is less prioritized by the organization even though we generate the biggest revenue ...”

3. Future

As mentioned earlier, we want our feedback to be solution oriented and offer a direction to the recipient. This is ensured by step #3, and there are two main ways to do this. Either with advice or questions.

Advice or questions?

When we describe how we are affected, we have to offer the recipient a solution for the future, which can be done either by offering them a piece of advice or by starting a dialogue. Your choice here depends on the specific situation.

Are you very experienced in this area? Does the feedback concern a huge mistake that must be fixed ASAP? Is time running out? Did your colleague ask for advice? Then specific advice might be the best way to do this.

Is your colleague very experienced in this area? Are there many different solutions to the issue? Do you have plenty of time to figure out what to do? Is your colleague very chatty? Does your colleague wish to be involved? Then a dialogue is probably your best option. The way to do this could be by asking: “How do you think we should continue from here?” or “What do you think about what I’ve just said?”

To find the perfect balance between advice and questions takes a lot of time and effort. We’ve written a guide about questions and answers in feedback that you can use as a guideline.
A key feature of the OIF-model is that it works with corrective as well as encouraging feedback. This model does three things for you, if you remember to use it: 1) You and the recipient get a common starting point and recognition of the situation. This increases the chances of acceptance from the recipient. 2) Your feedback contains information about your perspectives that they can build on and learn from. 3) The feedback becomes solution oriented and gives the recipient a direction to move in. This ensures that the recipient won’t be left confused after the conversation but has a specific idea about what to do going forward.

Example

  1. “I noticed that you started the meeting by presenting the agenda consisting of those 8 points.”

  2. “The large number of points to get through felt like a violation of our agreement on having shorter and more focused meetings. I lost focus very early on.”

  3. “Maybe you could split meetings like these into two in the future, and then invite the most important people for each specific meeting. What do you think about that?”

By using a feedback model as support you will obtain better structure and more clear messages but if you rely too heavily on it, it might back fire by making your feedback seem unauthentic or impersonal.

What is positive and negative feedback?

We often use the words positive feedback and negative feedback about strength-based, maintaining feedback and corrective feedback respectively. However, we don’t think these are the best words to use because they can create confusion. We might connect the term “positive feedback” with a nice experience where we are complimented and praised, and the term “negative feedback” with a bad experience where we are criticized. We think this is oversimplified and confusing. We would rather use a few more words to paint a clear picture and use a more nuanced language about our feedback.

Encouraging and corrective feedback

Here, we label feedback based on the underlying intention: whether we want to see more or less of the observed behavior. Maintaining feedback wants to strengthen, cultivate or acknowlegde a specific behavior. “I like it when you use your sense of humor in your presentations, please keep it up!” or “I really appreciate your curious nature and the questions you ask in processes like these, thank you.”
Corrective feedback wants to change, shift or correct a specific behavior. “I’d make the font a bit bigger on your slides when presenting to an audience this big,” or “If I were you, I’d try to use fewer but more specific words to get your point across more clearly.”

High- and low-quality feedback

This grid can be used to expand the vocabulary on feedback instead of the words positive and negative
Feedback vocabulary needs to be expanded. We see that these words help people to better describe the their experiences and observations with feedback.

We can also use the word quality to talk about feedback. We think this is more accurate than talking about positive or negative feedback.

The amount of learning and motivation that comes with a feedback experience is very dependent on the way the feedback is delivered to us. That’s why it makes sense to talk about the quality of feedback.

Low quality feedback can be a lot of things, but typical characteristics might be:

  • Contains no specific information
  • Lacks focus on solutions
  • Lacks specific descriptions or observations
  • Is delivered in a rude or inappropriate manner
  • The opposite of what we described under the subheading “What is good feedback?”

 

High quality feedback is created when the giver makes an effort and keeps the development of the recipient in mind. If you consider each principle for good feedback and try to structure your feedback using the EEF-model, you’re on your way to delivering high quality feedback.
For most teams it can be beneficial to make a local judgment about what high- and low-quality feedback looks like. This exercise can help create clarity about the types of feedback experiences you are striving for.

Which skills are important in feedback?

As we already mentioned several times, feedback is a complex social phenomenon, which also means that the set of skills needed is relatively wide. Let’s have a look at some of the key skills to giving good feedback.

Listening and curiosity
Good feedback is a dialogue, and this requires that we take part in a mutual investigation, creation and construction of the outcome of this particular feedback conversation. A defining condition for this, is that both parties are good listeners and are curious throughout the feedback process.

The ability to ask good questions
Good questions prompt good answers and can be the start of very interesting conversations. Some social constructivists argue that our language creates our reality. This also goes for feedback. A good question can initiate the exchange of feedback. A good question can bring in new perspectives to a conversation that got stuck. A good question can create new realizations.

Empathy
The ability to understand and recognize the feelings of others is essential when navigating relationships and interactions with other people, including in a feedback context.

Taking others’ perspective
If you can see the issue from several perspectives, you can bring in new insights. The ability to leave your own point of view behind to explore others’ is incredibly beneficial when we’re exploring different solutions and sharing experiences. This goes for both givers and receivers of feedback, as the ability to understand the perspective of the person giving us feedback allows us to understand the feedback better.

Emotional regulation
The ability to control, moderate or hold back our emotions can be very beneficial in feedback, because yes, you might risk becoming genuinely happy, disappointed or sad during a feedback conversation. To avoid these feelings taking over, emotion regulation strategies are important.

Good feedback tools
There’s a long list of various feedback tools and different approaches that can be used in different feedback settings. If both parties feel competent in the use of these tools in their everyday work life, they will be more confident and gain more from feedback conversations.

Aligned expectations
Is this a skill? Well, maybe not really. But in any case, it’s important to align your expectations in every feedback relationship. Feedback can be successful in many ways, as long as there is consent and consensus about how to use feedback in this particular setting.

Which role does feedback play in leadership?

Feedback helps you to know how you impact other people.
Feedback can help you - both as a leader and human - to know how your behavior are interpreted by the humans around you. Other people’s feedback will help you to build stronger and more meaningful relationships with them.

This is a big question with an almost infinite number of possible answers. Time and again, we see how the concepts of feedback and leadership are intertwined. One on hand, feedback skills are important for the good leader whose employees, customers and stakeholders are constantly expecting feedback. On the other hand, leadership and the leader as an individual play a big part in the organizations’ ability to build a rewarding and healthy feedback culture. Most organizations have leaders act as both role models and communicational nodes who connect and disperse information in a wide network within the organization. A leader’s use of feedback in their daily work has a big impact on the culture that is formed around them.

Feedback can help you – as a leader and as a human being – to understand how your behavior is interpreted by others around you. Feedback from others help you build strong and meaningful relationships with them.

A feedback culture is also shaped by the leader’s behavior in other aspects, particularly those concerning psychological security, trust, goal orientation, acknowledgement and curiosity. All of these components influence the conditions required for a healthy and productive feedback culture to flourish.

Feedback at its best is given and received in all directions within the organization, across vertical as well as horizontal borders (assuming we’re dealing with a typical organization). This means that the leader should ask for and receive as much feedback as they are giving their employees. The leader in a healthy feedback culture is not an all-knowing oracle who has all the answers.

If you’re the leader of an organization, you might now be thinking “But where do I begin?” It might be a good idea to encourage and motivate your employees to ask for feedback. Healthy cultures are built on a foundation of demand. Your first move might be to ask your employees for feedback to show them that you support and encourage this behavior and that you are an active part of the creation of this culture. Next step might be to encourage your employees to seek out feedback from their partners on their projects.

The concepts of leadership and feedback are so intertwined that we always involve and engage the leaders when we work with feedback in organizations.

What is the point of feedback?

Feedback is not a goal to achieve in itself. Rather, it is the means to achieve other goals. These goals may vary depending on your organization. However, it is important to be aware of the goal, as this will dictate how you make the most of feedback in your organization. For instance, there is a difference between how feedback is used to increase innovation and to increase well-being among employees.

These goals can be many different things and one organization may have several goals. Here are a few examples:

  • Creating a better learning environment
  • Lowering the rate of faulty products
  • Optimizing specific processes
  • Strengthening well-being among employees
  • Creating a more attractive workplace
  • Improving job performance
  • Increasing employee-driven innovation

An important point about goals and feedback is to use the goal in your internal communication regarding feedback. This makes it transparent for the employees and minimizes the urge for the otherwise inevitable “But what’s the point of all this feedback?”

Interested in the financial impacts of a healthy feedback culture? This article might be just for you: How a healthy feedback culture shows up on your bottom line

That was quite some feedback, now what else?

We could have raised a number of other points about feedback in this article. If you’re left with any questions we haven’t answered here, please have a look around our blog, our podcasts, our resource archive or in the webinar catalogue.
Otherwise, you are always welcome to give us a call and have a chat about any feedback questions you might still have. We can’t wait to hear from you!

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