The ability to give feedback is essential in every organisation and situation, in both our professional and personal lives.

In the workplace, feedback is a fundamental part of employee performance, and indeed, the research backs this up. A recent survey from Gallup found that 80% of employees who reported receiving meaningful feedback in the past week were fully engaged at work.

The key word here is ‘meaningful’ – so, how can leaders harness the power of feedback with their workforces and talk it out without falling out?

The power of feedback

Leaders who collaboratively set goals with their team members and use regular feedback to check in on how people are doing in meeting them are better able to not only boost engagement with individual employees, but on a larger scale, build a wider positive organisational culture.

The ability to give and receive meaningful feedback goes beyond employee engagement – it lays the foundation for creating a social movement within an organisation. Building an environment where attitudes, behaviour and culture are openly addressed and discussed through feedback is key to promoting inclusion and tackling discrimination. Silence about a situation can often be taken as approval, so the behaviour you walk past is not only the behaviour you accept, but also the behaviour you may unwittingly be promoting.

It starts with appreciation

The most effective feedback should always start with genuine appreciation. Creating a culture that promotes behavioural change through feedback means pinpointing what people are doing right and the positive effects it has. In this way, not only can leaders build engagement, but they can begin creating a loop of positive reinforcement around desirable actions and behaviours.

Beginning with appreciation in this way isn’t just a way to soften the blow of negative criticism, it’s a fundamental part of engaging people through feedback, building confidence and letting them know when they’re doing the right thing, each of which is crucial to sustainable and long-lasting cultural change.

Developing this culture of appreciation through a foundation of praise makes it far easier to give and receive critical feedback when it becomes necessary, and indeed, research shows that the most successful teams consistently receive 5 times as much appreciative feedback as critical feedback.

While appreciative feedback is fundamental, it’s important to note that what’s often referred to as the “sandwich” technique – that is, “sandwiching” negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback – is flawed. People will either see the praise as disingenuous, or simply get swept away on a wave of positive feedback and fail to notice the criticism.

Feedback fundamentals

Once you’ve committed to wider cultural change through appreciation and feedback, it’s time to structure those feedback discussions in a way that promotes positive behavioural change without alienating people.

It’s important to set a tone of non-judgement at the start of any feedback session. Starting the discussion with an accusation is counter-productive, putting the other person on the defensive and making it far less likely that they will take any constructive criticism on board. Instead, lower the temperature by describing the situation or behaviour in question, stating the facts in an impartial way that focuses on the actions, not the person.

From here, you can begin opening the discussion to allow the person room to “own the impact” of that behaviour. Let them know how the behaviour made you or others feels, or the impact it had on the project or customer. Very often, far from being malicious in our intentions, we simply do not realise how we might be impacting others, and including this in feedback discussions allows time for a level of reflection and self-awareness that isn’t always possible during a busy working day.

Feedback discussions must be a dialogue, and structuring the session around listening to the other person’s point of view doesn’t just ensure they are heard and engage with the process, it also allows you to understand whether your perspective is aligned with theirs, or how it differs. In turn, this promotes increased empathy and self-awareness on both sides. It’s easy to assume that our way of looking at things is natural and right, but engaging in active listening is actually key to developing increased awareness around “attitude complexity”, that is, seeing both sides of the coin.

Finally, the most successful feedback sessions are focused on resolution. As such, the discussion should always be driving towards what could be different and what we could do differently. This ensures that feedback is always focused on practicality and on working towards improvement and change.

Final thoughts

The most successful relationships, in and out of work, are those in which we are able to quickly and easily resolve our issues, allowing us to focus on our wider goals and the stuff that really matters to us.

Building the right approach to feedback, based on appreciation, empathy and self-awareness, lets us have those important conversations without the fallout, and build kinder company cultures in the process.

Tim Keogh
Tim Keogh
Co-founder at A Kind Life

Tim has worked with healthcare organisations across the UK, including London Ambulance Service, Kings College Hospital and Liverpool University Hospitals, helping them to transform their culture and create kinder, safer environments for both staff and patients. Tim's mission is to create cultures where people, communities and organisations can flourish. Throughout his career, he has helped tens of thousands of people reinvent their relationships at work, empowering them to transform their teams and liberate their leadership style. Tim is a best-selling author of "Kinder Conversations: Talk it Out Without Falling Out", which ranked number one across 20 Amazon categories.