How to Hack Feedback



More and more tech companies now foster transparent, flat hierarchies, as we learn to understand the value of hiring only employees who can be trusted with company goals and projects, and we give those team members greater responsibilities and freedom.

Organizing an effective means of feedback within that structure is a challenge, but it’s one that every company can reap huge rewards by conquering.

At our company, attempts at formalized peer review have floundered. Managerial review doesn’t always make traditional sense, and instead we rely on 1-on-1’s with team members and team leads. But because we’re a closed system, the sum of feedback given equals the sum of feedback received. In order to hack feedback and ensure it became part of our corporate structure, we had to make constant, constructive feedback part of daily life.

How to Give Feedback

There’s nothing worse than an insincere pat on the back. Everyone can tell when they’re being catered to, and we don’t like it. Make sure your feedback is real, and make sure it happens right away. Complimenting that presentation they gave at the beginning of the week is nice, but they might not remember what about it stood out (and you might not, either). Storing up all your little negative comments until a 1-on-1 makes it feel like you’ve been simmering slightly over each tiny one until you simply couldn’t take it anymore and exploded all at once. Say it when it comes up, and try to keep it simple, natural, and to the point.

Giving Positive Feedback

You don’t want your compliments to feel prescribed, but you are literally being told to give people compliments. So how do you balance that? Find something direct and real, and tell them not only what they did right, but how it helped you or the team. Saying “That presentation was dope” might be a good ego boost, but “Those graphics you made for that presentation really helped sell the client. I think it would have been a real fight without them,” lets them know exactly what they did right, how to replicate it, and what the impact was on you.

Don’t be afraid to compliment someone publically. Focus on things in their control, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to compliment the little things. Do it more! There is no such thing as too much positive feedback. Remember, the more positive feedback there is, the more indication that the team is doing well.

When You Can’t Take a Compliment

There’s a fine line between not having an ego, and not being able to take a compliment. When in doubt? Air on the side of not making the other person feel like an idiot. “Hey, I loved that turn of phrase you used in the client call, you really have a handle on this product.” “Oh, it was nothing, I didn’t do anything.” “You didn’t? Oh, okay, I must have imagined it all.”

Run your answer through your head and see if it could lead to the above interaction. If it could… dial it way back. The trick to accepting positive feedback is to be gracious, and in the simplest way possible, express your gratitude. Don’t make it weird, and don’t minimize it. A simple “Thanks” is genuinely all that’s expected of you.

Giving Negative Feedback

We all love to give positive feedback – it feels good to make someone feel good. Negative feedback, on the other hand? It can be easy to shy away from, especially when no one is anyone’s boss. It doesn’t automatically fall to any one person to be the one to bring the bad news, so how do you decide if it should be you?

The fact that you’re asking that question is a good thing. The first thing you need to ask is, literally, “Should I even?” Unlike positive feedback, negative feedback should only ever be delivered one time, by one person to the other. Even if a mistake affected a whole team, only one person from that team needs to bring the issue forward. If you decide you’re the person on whom that responsibility falls, check in with yourself before you go to have the conversation. Are you hungry? Tired, still angry about the consequences? Take a breath and wait; generally, a few hours or a day won’t make any difference. Then, check in with them. Are they in a frame of mind to hear what you have to say? Are they hungry? Did their partner just leave them and their dog died? We all have things going on in our lives, and being aware of those is important. And finally, do they already know they did something wrong? If so, what’s to be gained by telling them again?

However, with all of those cautions, it should be said: when in doubt, air on the side of saying something. We’re adults, and we need to treat each other like it.

Little Mistakes Deserve Little Feedback

Once you’ve decided to speak up, what do you say? For the little problems, keep it specific, and make it actionable. Ask them if they need help to fix it, and be prepared to be the one to follow through on giving that help. Focus on the future, and what can be changed for next time.

Don’t be afraid to give feedback on mistakes like this in public – we can all learn from each other’s mistakes. We typically see our own mistakes as being worse than those of others. If we develop a culture of publicly acknowledging each other’s mistakes (with an eye to improvement), it becomes easier to forgive ourselves for our own little mistakes.

Kid Gloves for Big Things

It’s harder to know how to react when a previously good coworker develops a pattern of bad behaviour, or makes a large and unexpected mistake. Conversations like these need to happen in private, and you need to make extra sure that you’ve checked in about mind frame and given them time to mentally prepare for the conversation.
Don’t tell them what’s wrong – ask them. But if there’s any hesitation on their part to admit fault, don’t hedge. Be clear, direct, and calm. Above all – let them explain. Remember, everyone makes mistakes – and you might have made one in assuming the problem is them. Be open to hearing a different take on the situation.

When You Can’t Take a Critique

Accepting negative feedback is even harder than accepting positive feedback. We usually have a lot of guilt when we make a mistake, and a common reaction to that is to get defensive. Take a deep breath. Explaining what happened and why is a good thing, but be careful not to get defensive. If there are extenuating circumstances put them forward, but be prepared to do what’s necessary: say thank you for the feedback, and promise to do better next time. That’s all that’s expected of you.

5 Key Takeaways

  1. We all need to give more feedback. If you haven’t given three pieces of feedback to three different people today, you’re behind schedule!
  2. Feedback can be positive.
  3. In fact, feedback should be mostly If you don’t have more good things to say than bad, your team must be in really rough shape!
  4. Feedback should be public when it’s positive, and when it’s actionable negative feedback.
  5. Make it constructive; talk about choices, not traits, and focus on the impact of those choices.




Image Credit: CC by PICNIC Network

About the author: Yasmine Nadery

Yasmine Nadery is a marketing communications professional at Axiom Zen.

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