Praise tends to go down easy. 

Most of us will never tire of hearing what a “great job” we’ve done.

Critical feedback about something we’ve got wrong, on the other hand, can be harder to take.

Doing feedback right is about finding an appropriate balance between gushing praise and critical appraisal, between on occasion rewarding good work and on others having an honest conversation about how things can be improved.

Though praise is the easier to dish out, it should not be the only feedback we ever give – or receive. Establishing positive feedback loops in the workplace can be extremely rewarding, not just for productivity and morale but for our enjoyment of work and for our personal development.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at what proper feedback looks like, all the good it can do for you and your organization, and finally how feedback can be encouraged and done right in the workplace.

What is feedback?

Proper feedback is not just a comment here or there. It’s a conversation. One allowing both sides to input, listen and take something away.

Neither is it sporadic or irregular. Feedback done right should be regular, predictable and also reactive to need. The absence of feedback when critical dialogue is required can undo gains made in the past.

Feedback vs. criticism

The terms ‘feedback’ and ‘criticism’ should not be used interchangeably. Though formal criticism should resort to unreflective negativity, the word does suggest to many a focus on flaws.

While ‘criticism’ gives us a sense of one-sided appraisal, ‘feedback’ offers the vision of a collaborative, shared approach to assessing performance.

We should draw a distinction then between “being critical” and “giving feedback”. When the former occurs in the workplace it creates tension, saps morale and ultimately causes more problems than it solves.

On the other hand, feedback should resolve the tension, boost morale and solve more problems than it causes.

The positive feedback loop

This does not mean that feedback shouldn’t be critical. Thinking critically about your own performance, and that of others is key to establishing a ‘positive feedback loop’.

This is a concept which describes what happens when feedback is done right. 

Sharing critical reflections on performance openly – and in a respectful and healthy way – can encourage a regular and reliable dialogue about how things can be improved.

While feedback should never simply be the handing out of gold stars, it should equally never simply be the raising of a litany of issues.

Creating critical dialogue through positive feedback loops makes space for working through both the good and the not-so-good – together.

Why is feedback important?

Now we are clear about what feedback is (or should be), we can take a look at why feedback is important.

Without a healthy system of feedback and critical dialogue, minor problems are given the space to grow. Over time, these may be transformed into major issues, causing significant damage to your work life and your organization.

But feedback done right takes us in the opposite direction. A healthy system of open, critical dialogue can make us happier and help us work better.

What can feedback do for you?

1/ Boost teamwork

Feedback should be collaborative.

Done right, it should be shared in a conversation between equals, in the right place and at the right time. 

This respectful, healthy method for offering critical assessment and appraisal should flow through everything your team does, strengthening relationships, building trust and enhancing communication channels.

(Feedback should never flow only one way.)

2/ Provide motivation

Feedback has motivational power.

Taking ownership of our own performance is central to self-motivation, and good feedback will always ensure the receiver can take charge of the process of improvement.

(On the flip side, blunt criticism and a lack of engaged feedback can be demotivating by suggesting a lack of trust in the person being criticised, and the absence of belief in future improvement.)

3/ Improve performance

Critical feedback should always be going somewhere.

Praise and positive feedback should be used to encourage others to keep doing what they’re doing, and to show appreciation for their efforts.

Critical feedback and the raising of issues should only be used to help others work toward improved performance, and it is the responsibility of the person giving feedback to think about how their assessment can help.

4/ Spur innovation

By fostering better collaboration and a stronger sense of the collective, feedback unleashes creative and innovative potential.

Secure positive feedback loops within a team should allow greater freedom of thought, stronger confidence in each member’s abilities and increased motivation to find new solutions to old problems.

How to give (and receive) proper feedback

Feedback is best served confidentially.

It’s no good just calling out a colleague in front of others, or catching someone unawares to deliver important critical feedback on their work or behaviour.

Line managers need to take the lead here, but everyone can follow and benefit from these golden rules for encouraging proper feedback in the workplace:

  • Choose the right place. Arrange a meeting or chat in a private and discreet space. Somewhere which is comfortable for both parties, and not overly formal or intimidating for either participant. The location should encourage honesty and openness.
  • Choose the right time. Regularity is integral to creating positive feedback loops, and helps to generate the openness and comfort that is required for feedback to have positive results. Don’t give feedback only after a big problem or issue has arisen.
  • Keep things confidential. If both parties know what they say will be respected and treated confidentially they are more likely to be honest, both about feedback given and feedback received.
  • Be empathetic. Before giving critical feedback, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try your best to understand their point of view, and what circumstances might have shaped their performance or behavior. (This also applies when receiving feedback – try to see where your assessor is coming from before reacting).
  • Be positive. Even if you are dealing with a very problematic issue, frame feedback in a positive, improvement-oriented way, emphasising how things can be better. Dwelling on the problem and its consequences only makes things worse.
  • Be clear. Delivering feedback can be hard (especially when it is of the negative variety) – and it’s simply human nature to avoid it. This makes it especially important to be clear and specific about what you mean. Ensure that what you are saying is properly understood by all.
  • Use examples. Giving concrete examples and instances relating to the point you are trying to make can help clear things up. Take care to choose examples that are fair and representative.
  • Suggest solutions. Never just deliver judgement. Offering solutions, advice and suggestions goes a long way to ensuring feedback doesn’t become criticism.
  • Avoid negative language. Choose your words carefully. This alone will help to keep the conversation respectful. But avoiding words that imply criticism and judgement – such as “problem” and “issue”, or overuse of the word “not” – helps you make your point without alienating or offending the listener.

Make it happen

We hope this guide was enough to convince you of the power of proper feedback.

You can harness that power today. Managers should approach their team individually and establish regular feedback sessions, as well as offering ways either party can best reach out when necessary.

Feedback sessions can also be extremely healthy and beneficial for teams. Try setting up meetings where conversation can be open, honest and respectful with a view to improving performance and happiness in the workplace.

All the key points raised should be tracked and revisited over time, demonstrating the importance of such honest, open dialogue in the first place.