Many of us are hesitant to give peer feedback. We worry that giving peer feedback will damage our relationships. We wonder if we have the right and if it’s our place to give peer feedback. And we are concerned about what the consequences of giving peer feedback will be.
Giving peer feedback isn’t so different from giving feedback to a friend or even a direct report. While you have an implicit ‘right’ to give a direct report feedback, doing so without building trust will ensure your feedback falls flat.
People respond to feedback in predictable ways. Most people get upset and defend themselves. This is normal and natural. Negative feedback conflicts with our desire to be thought well of, which all people (despite what they might say) want. People are more open and less defensive when they trust the source of the feedback and trust the sources’ motives. Follow these practices when giving peer feedback and your feedback will hopefully be well received.
Think about why you want to give feedback. Really think about this. Is your desire to help the person change a behavior, or are you just being judgmental? If your intention isn’t to help someone replicate or change a behavior, say nothing. It’s not feedback you’re planning to give, it’s only your opinion you want to disseminate. One of my friends recently told me she felt my son’s name was waspy. Her comment wasn’t feedback as there was nothing I could do with the information. She simply gave me her judgmental opinion, which annoyed me.
Also, consider why you want to give feedback. Do you simply want something done your way, or do you feel strongly that what the person is doing is having a negative impact on him/her or the organization? I worked with a business leader who red-lined every document his staff created. He didn’t only change language that was wrong, he edited documents so they were written more akin to his writing style. This made his staff feel that they couldn’t do anything right and it wouldn’t matter what they produced, he’d revise even the most ‘perfect’ work. So they stopped trying. Evaluate your true motive. Just because something wasn’t done your way, doesn’t mean it wasn’t done well.
Provided your motives are pure – you’re trying to make a difference for someone and his/her behavior is causing real challenges, it’s ok to speak up. Be sure you have the relationship to give peer feedback. Does the person know you have his/her back? If you speak up, will s/he trust it’s because you care about her or the organization, versus you just want to express your opinion and be right.
Provided you are giving feedback to alter a behavior and you have the relationship to give feedback, it’s important that you ask for permission. A peer relationship is a lateral one. You each have the same ‘power’ (at least by title) in the organization, thus you don’t intrinsically have the ‘right’ to give feedback. You earn the right to give feedback by asking for permission and being willing to hear, “No, thank you.”
Asking for permission to give feedback might sound something like, “I’ve noticed a few things that I think are making ________ project harder than it has to be. Would you be willing to talk with me about it?”
Or, “Our weekly team meetings are tough. It’s a challenging group. I have a couple of ideas that might make the meetings easier to run. Would you be interested in talking about them?”
Or, “I have something I want to share with you. I feel awkward bringing this up because we’re peers and I’m not sure it’s my place to do so. But I care about you and want you to be successful. Would it be ok if I shared? Feel free, of course, to say no.”
Lastly, don’t worry about giving peer feedback perfectly. You might follow our feedback formula to a tee. You might not. There is no one right way to give feedback. Speak from the heart. If you’re nervous to have a conversation, say so. If you’re not sure it’s your place to give a piece of feedback, say so. If you’re worried you won’t deliver the feedback well, say that. Saying how you really feel, being human and vulnerable builds trust, relationships, and credibility. People want to work with other real people, and real people have concerns. It’s ok to share them.
Giving peer feedback doesn’t have to be hard. Evaluate your motives. Ensure that what you plan to share is really feedback versus merely your opinion. Build trust, ask for permission, and speak from the heart. If you make a mess, you can always clean it up. Simply repeat the steps by saying something like, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I hope it’s ok I said something. I really want this project to go well for both you and the team. How could I have done that better for next time?”
When I led leadership development training for a large mutual fund company we offered a lot of training focused on helping people have hard conversations. Over time I realized that despite that I’d bought and offered the best training programs I could find, the training wasn’t helping. Managers didn’t give enough feedback, and when they did give feedback, employees were often left confused, wondering what they needed to do differently.
I decided that what was missing was the conversation before the crucial conversation. It wasn’t that managers didn’t know what they wanted to say, but many managers felt they couldn’t say what they wanted to say. There wasn’t sufficient safety or permission for giving feedback, so managers said little or delivered messages that were so vague, employees were left wondering if there was a problem. This is when the idea for Candid Culture was born.
If you’re struggling with giving feedback, I doubt it’s the message that’s the challenge. The distinction between being able to tell the truth (as you see it) and saying nothing, is the quality of your relationship.
Think about the people – personal and professional – who can say anything to you. These are the people who can tell you that the person you’re dating is wrong for you, that a piece of clothing is not flattering, that you disappointed them, or that you dropped the ball. You may not enjoy getting the feedback, but you’re able to hear what they have to say and take it in because you know they care about you and have your best interests at heart. You trust their motives. When you trust people’s motives, they can say anything to you. When you don’t trust people’s motives, there is little they can say.
If you’re struggling to give feedback, evaluate your relationship by asking these three questions:
Does this person know that I have her back under any circumstances?
Does this person trust me?
Does this person know that I accept her just as she is?
If the answer to any of the questions above is no, it’s not giving feedback you’re struggling with, it’s the quality of your relationship. Work on building trust with this person and you’ll be able to say whatever you feel you need to say.
Here are five steps to building trusting relationships:
Get to know people better than you know them now. Get five free conversation-starting Candor Questions to have these conversations.
Tell people you want them to succeed and demonstrate that by being supportive of their efforts.
Don’t be judgy. No one likes to be told that she is wrong.
Set the expectation that you will give both positive and negative feedback when appropriate because you want the person to win. And if you remain silent, you are of no help to the other person.
When you deliver feedback, be extremely specific. Feedback that is specific will be received much better than vague feedback, which is typically judgmental.
When people know that you respect and want good things for them, you have a great deal of freedom to speak up. When people don’t trust your motives, giving feedback is almost impossible. The recipient will become defensive and dismiss whatever you say, rationalizing that you don’t like her and never have.
Worry less about giving feedback – for now. Instead, build trust. Get to know people better, then work on giving feedback.
If you’ve gotten courageous and given someone negative feedback or questioned a decision or action, you probably didn’t get a shiny, happy reply in return. The normal and natural reaction to negative feedback or data is to defend ourselves. It’s human. Defending yourself when receiving negative feedback is an act of self-preservation, not unlike hitting your brakes when the person driving in front of you unexpectedly slams on their brakes.
The problem with reacting defensively (normally) to negative feedback is that it’s scary and off-putting to others. As normal as a defensive reaction is to negative feedback, it makes others so uncomfortable that they’ll be hesitant to give you negative feedback again. And this lack of knowledge of what others really think is dangerous. Silence inhibits career growth and leads to bad business decisions. You want people to tell you the truth, as they see it. So you need to make it easy to speak freely.
If you want more of what others see as the truth, do the opposite of what people expect. Rather than defending or going silent, say “thank you.” “Thank you for telling me that. I’ll think about what you said and will likely come back to you to discuss further,” buys you time and puts the other person at ease.
Here are five ways to make it easier to say thank you for the feedback:
Only accept feedback when you’re ready to listen. You’re allowed to put people on ice and come back to them when you have time to talk. Bad days, when you have five minutes between meetings, or are about to leave for a vacation are not the times to accept negative information. Set up a time to talk, as soon as you have the bandwidth to listen.
Take breaks during hard conversations. You’re allowed to say, “I need a few minutes.” Go get coffee. Take a walk. Go outside. Regain your composure. Then continue the conversation.
Have feedback conversations when you’re rested and have eaten. Everything seems bigger and more difficult when we’re tired or hungry.
Accept that “thank you” isn’t the same as telling the other person she is right or that you agree. “Thank you” is a mere acknowledgment that you heard. It buys you time and gives you a chance to gather your thoughts and respond when you’re not emotional.
Don’t have conversations when you’re upset, and we often don’t know when we’re upset. Your emotions will run the show. Give yourself time to get through your emotional response, and then talk.
People are more hesitant than you think to tell you when they disagree. Make it easy to speak up. Do the opposite of what others expect. Say “thank you” rather than reacting, and you’ll get more data than you do now.
Several years ago, I was doing frequent training and consulting with a client and was in their offices weekly. One of their employees confided in me that she could see the train wreck coming on her team but wasn’t planning to say anything. She was going to watch the predicted mayhem happen without saying a word.
Why wasn’t she planning to speak up about the breakdowns she could see were coming? Did she care not care about her job or company? Was she not invested? The problem wasn’t any of those things. She simply didn’t believe that anyone wanted to hear what she had to say, the negative consequences for speaking up felt high, and quite simply, it was easier to say nothing.
When we were little our parents told us, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” As young professionals, when we did speak up and someone didn’t like what we had to say, we got ‘in trouble’. And no one wants to hurt people’s feelings, damage relationships, or get labeled as the person who complains. The odds are stacked against speaking candidly.
The problem is, when employees don’t speak up about concerns avoidable breakdowns happen, innovation is stifled, and dissatisfaction festers. We must find a way to speak up, even when we’re afraid or uncomfortable.
Many years ago, a fellow trainer said to me, “The truth is one ingredient in the recipe, it’s not the whole meal.” I can’t take credit for this bit of wisdom, but it stuck with me. You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking, you can just say a little.
If you want to speak up at work but are hesitant, test the waters. Provide a little bit of information and see what happens. Was the person receptive? Did you face negative consequences? Were you treated unfairly? If the person handled your message well, give a little more information. See how that goes. Be judicious in how much input you provide. Remember, every time you give someone negative feedback, you may bruise their ego and every person and organization has its own pace for change.
Silence leads to stale ideas, employee turnover, and cultures where people don’t want to work. Speak up, just a little.
If a friend asked you to do something, you did it, and she didn’t say thank you, you’d probably think twice the next time she asked you for something. The people you work with are not different.
If you don’t say thank you to employees, they too will stop doing things you think are important. Human beings thrive on recognition and relationships. We need both to survive. And when we don’t feel connected or appreciated, we find appreciation elsewhere.
If you think saying “thank you” to the people you work with is unnecessary, consider this example. An overwhelmed employee feels strapped for time. She produces a 30-page report every month that takes hours of her time. No one has ever talked with her about how the report is used and why it’s important. So when she is overwhelmed and decides that something needs to go, she stops doing work that appears not to add value—the 30-page report. It turns out the report reflects her department’s results and is reviewed by the CEO, CIO, CFO, and COO. Oops.
There are managers who think that a paycheck is enough of a thank you to employees (old school) and that any other thank you to employees is unnecessary (this doesn’t work). Human beings want to make a difference. We don’t like doing tasks we perceive as not being impactful. So tell the people you work with that their work matters by saying thank you, and how you say thank you matters. Saying, “Thanks for doing such a great job on that project” doesn’t go nearly as far as saying, “Thank you for taking over the Briggs proposal. You shepherded the proposal from beginning to end and made sure no detail was overlooked. You made all of us look good and we would not have won the business without you.” Like all feedback, specific feedback is meaningful and drives future behavior. Vague feedback feels inauthentic and doesn’t tell the recipient what to replicate in the future.
Onto why it’s important to say “I’m sorry.” Some people think that saying you’re sorry puts you in a weak position and that you will lose employees’ respect. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Strong people admit when they’re wrong. Weak people can’t admit mistakes. Admitting fault ingratiates you to other people. Refusing to take responsibility alienates you.
It’s very frustrating to work hard and never be told “thank you.” Likewise, it’s upsetting when people don’t apologize for dropping the ball and making mistakes. It’s so easy to say “thank you” and “I’m sorry,” and it costs nothing. The more you demonstrate appreciation for the people you work with and take responsibility for your mistakes, the harder people will work on your behalf.
Giving feedback upwards is hard. Giving feedback downward is hard. Giving feedback to peers can be the hardest of all. We work closely with our peers. They’re often our friends. And still, we need to be able to speak freely when our coworkers violate our expectations.
The key to being able to give peers feedback (to give anyone feedback) is to agree that doing so is not only acceptable but expected. Before agreeing to give and receive feedback, peers need to set clear expectations of how they’ll work together and treat each other.
Telling people how you want to work with them is always easier than asking someone to change their behavior. But it often just doesn’t occur to us to tell our peers what we want and need from them. We’re busy. They’re busy. And don’t they already know what courteous workplace behavior looks like? Return all emails within a day or two, tell people if you’re running behind on a project and will miss a deadline, and call into meetings on time from a quiet workspace. Aren’t all of these behaviors fairly obvious? Do I really need to tell people these are my expectations? Uh….yes, you do.
If you don’t want employees dumping these challenges on their managers, help employees talk to each other.
Here are seven steps to help people who work together set expectations and hold each other accountable:
Schedule a meeting during which people working together can discuss what they need from each other to be satisfied and productive. Then facilitate a discussion during which the group creates 5 – 7 behavior guidelines each person agrees to follow.
Put the list of agreed-upon behaviors in a shared folder. Leave the guidelines there indefinitely.
Give each person in the group permission to talk to individuals who violate the guidelines. This is very, very important. For the most part, employees won’t tell a peer s/he is missing deadlines, gossiping, or is distracted during meetings. People will suffer in silence and avoid the offender rather than speak up about the behaviors that frustrate them.
Ask the group to grant each other permission to speak up when guidelines are violated. Giving each other permission to speak up will make future conversations possible – difficult but possible. Without permission and these agreed-upon behaviors in place, people will suffer in silence or talk about each other, not to each other.
Ask everyone in the workgroup to take feedback graciously, responding with “thank you for telling me,” rather than with defensiveness.
Two weeks after making the list of guidelines, get the group together on a call to review the list, and make any necessary changes to it. Discuss behaviors that were omitted, aren’t realistic, and are realistic but aren’t being followed.
Then follow up by facilitating a monthly conversation during which group members give honest feedback about which guidelines are being followed and which are not, and problem solve as a group. These conversations aren’t a chance to embarrass or call people out in front of a large group. If one person is violating a guideline, that conversation should happen individually. Group conversations keep the lines of communication open – which is essential to making working with others work.
You will need a strong facilitator for the group discussions. The facilitator must tease out people’s thoughts while making sure no one gets blasted in front of the group. Don’t let concerns, that you know exist, be brushed under the rug. Group members must openly and regularly discuss what is and isn’t working about their work environment, or frustrations will build, and unhappiness and dissension will ensue.
It’s not too late to put these practices in place, even with a group that has been working together for a long time. Just schedule the conversation and explain why you’re having it. People will be relieved and grateful.
Want to know why people get defensive when you give feedback and why they often don’t change their behavior? Because what you’re giving them isn’t actually feedback.
“You’re awesome to work with” isn’t feedback. Neither is “You did a great job.” “Your work isn’t thorough” isn’t either. Neither is, “You were inappropriate.”
Most of what we consider feedback isn’t feedback at all. It’s vague, unhelpful language that leaves people wondering what they need to do more, better, or differently.
There are only two reasons to give feedback – to encourage someone to either change or replicate a behavior. Unfortunately, most of the ‘information’ we give is too vague to help people do either.
When you coach or give feedback, you serve as someone’s GPS. Like the GPS on your phone, you need to be so specific the person knows precisely what to change or replicate. If you were driving and your GPS said, “Good job” or “I think you’re off track,” you’d throw the GPS out the window and get a map.
If you give someone what you consider feedback and he says, “I don’t know what you mean, can I have an example?” you’ll know you weren’t helpful.
Here are six tips for giving helpful feedback:
Giving feedback tip one: Write down what you plan to say, then strip out half the words. Shorter feedback with fewer words is better.
Giving feedback tip two: Practice what you plan to say out loud. Have you noticed that what you ‘practice’ in your head is typically not what comes out of your mouth?
Giving feedback tip three: Before having the ‘real’ conversations, give the feedback to an independent, third-party and ask her to tell you what she heard. Ensure who you talk with will maintain confidentiality. Your organization doesn’t need more gossip.
Giving feedback tip four: Tell someone else about the conversation you need to have, and ask him what he would say. Anyone not emotionally involved in the situation will do a better job than you will. Again, ensure confidentiality.
Giving feedback tip five: Ask the feedback recipient what he heard you say. Asking, “Does that make sense?” is an ineffective question. “Do you have any questions?” isn’t any better.
Giving feedback tip six: Give one to three examples of what the person did or didn’t do, during the conversation. If you don’t have an example, you’re not ready to provide feedback, and anything you say will evoke defensiveness rather than behavior change.
Giving feedback doesn’t have to be so hard. Be so specific that your feedback could be used as driving directions. The purpose of feedback is to be helpful.
When you feel you’ve been wronged, it’s natural to lay into the offending person, give negative feedback, and tell him exactly what you think. The problem with doing this is that as soon as a person feels accused, he becomes defensive. And when people are put on the defensive and feel threatened, they stop listening. And you’ve potentially damaged your workplace relationship.
When someone does somethingfor the first time that violates your expectations, use the lowest level of intervention necessary. Allow the person to save face, and ask for what you want, without giving an abundance of negative feedback and pointing out all the things he’s done wrong.
Likewise, when you cut your finger while cooking, you put a Band-Aid on your finger. You don’t cut off the finger. This is true with business communication too.
When you’re facilitating a meeting, you can ask the two people who are side talking to stop, or you can go third grade on them and ask, “Is there something you want to share with the rest of us?” Both methods will stop the behavior. But one embarrasses the side talkers a lot, the other only a little.
Likewise, when one of your coworkers takes credit for your work, you can give feedback and say, “I noticed you told Mike that you worked on that project, when we both know that you didn’t. Why did you do that?” Or you can skip the accusation and ask a question instead, saying, “I noticed you told Mike you worked on that project. Can I ask why you did that?” From there you can have a discussion, give feedback if you need to, and negotiate.
When your boss doesn’t make time to meet with you, rather than saying, “You don’t make time for me. That makes it hard for me to do my job and makes me feel unimportant.” Instead consider saying, “I know how busy you are. Your input is really important in helping me move forward with projects. How can we find 30 minutes a week to connect so I can get your input and stay on track?”
In each of the situations above, you’d be justified in calling the person out and giving negative feedback. And it might feel good in the moment. But being right doesn’t get you closer to what you want, and it can damage your workplace relationships.
Practice good business communication –say as little as you have to, to get what you want. If this method doesn’t work, then escalate, communicate more directly, and give feedback. The point is to get what you want, not to make the other person look bad. The better the ‘offender’ feels after the conversation, the more likely you are to get what you want in the future.
Last week I had lunch with a client. When I returned from lunch I saw a friend who told me I had something stuck in my teeth. I was embarrassed and wondered why my client hadn’t told me.
It’s quite possible he hadn’t noticed. In fact, knowing this guy and how much work I’ve done with his firm on being candid, it’s probable he hadn’t noticed. But we all know people who notice and say nothing. We could walk around all day with toilet paper on our shoe, lipstick on our teeth, or our fly down, and the people around us won’t tell us.
If you read my blog weekly, you already know that people have been trained not to tell you the truth.
But I think there is more preventing people from telling us the truth. Complete this sentence: “If you have nothing nice to say, _________________________________. Who told you that? Your mother!!!
I do think there’s something to this. We’re raised to believe that it’s not nice to say something to another person that isn’t positive. And in the past, when we did speak up, it’s likely the other person got defensive. So it’s no wonder that we don’t readily give people bad news.
Here are five tips for getting feedback from the people around you:
Establish a core team of people who will always tell you the truth. These can be friends, coworkers, clients, vendors, your boss, etc.
Give people permission, to be honest with you. “Let’s make a deal. I always want you to tell me the truth. If I have something stuck in my teeth, or I’m inappropriately dressed for a meeting, or I’m doing something that damages my reputation, I want you to tell me.”
Make it easy to tell you the truth. “I promise no matter what you tell me and how hard it is to hear, I will say thank you. I won’t get defensive. And if I do, I’ll apologize and try to do better next time.”
Offer to do the same for them. “And if you want me to do the same thing for you, I’m happy to do it.”
Periodically check in with people and ask for feedback. “A few months ago I asked you to tell me anything I said, did, or wore that got in the way of my success. Is there anything you’ve seen that you want to tell me?”
Every time you ask for feedback and take it graciously, you train the person to give you more feedback. On the contrary, every time you get defensive, you make it hard for people to give you feedback, making it likely they won’t do it again.
If you don’t want to walk around looking silly all day, create a safe environment where co-workers can tell the truth.
A few weeks ago, a college student introduced me before I spoke at a conference. I heard him practicing out loud shortly before he was to read my introduction on stage. As he practiced, I heard him struggle with the word candor. Initially, he pronounced it as can-door vs. can-dor. He’d never seen the word and didn’t know what it meant.
The word candor is not being used on a regular basis. Younger people may not know what it means. And, in my experience, people who are familiar with the word often misinterpret candor to mean bad news. Most people expect bad news to come after the question, “Can I be candid with you?”
The definition of candor is, to be honest, truthful and forthright. We at Candid Culture define candor differently. The Candid Culture definition of candor: Telling people what you need before challenges occur. Anticipating everything that can take a project or relationship off track and talking about potential pitfalls before they happen.
Think about the projects and processes in your office – hiring someone new, sourcing a vendor, training people on new software. The potential breakdowns are predictable. You know the pitfalls that can happen when starting anything new because you’ve experienced them.
What if candor sounded like, “We want this project to be smooth. There are a couple of things that will make our work together go well and a few things that may delay the project and have it cost more than we budgeted. Let’s talk about what needs to happen for things to go smoothly, ways to prevent missed deadlines, and how we’re going to handle breakdowns when they happen.”
Some call a conversation like this setting expectations, others call it planning. In my world, these conversations are called candor –talking about what you need when projects begin, rather than letting the anticipatable train wreck happen.
Candor isn’t bad news. It’s telling people how to win with you vs. making them guess.
Examples of candor at work and at home:
“Here a few of my pet peeves… It would be great if you could avoid them.”
“What will frustrate you?”
“I turn off my cell phone alerts at night, so feel free to text or call me anytime. I’ll respond to all messages in the morning.”
“I respond to text messages mostly quickly, then voicemail, then emails. If you don’t get a reply to an email within two or three days, don’t take it personally. Chances are I haven’t read the message. Feel free to follow up with a text or voicemail.”
“I work best by appointment. Drop by’s are hard because they interrupt my flow. Email or text me if you need something, and I’ll tell you when I can swing by. Does that work for you?”
For the most part, we treat people as we want to be treated. Other people aren’t us. They don’t do things as we do and don’t know what we want. Don’t make people guess how to work with you, what you need, and what you expect. Be candid and tell them! Then ask what the people you work and live with expect from you.