The Art Of Giving Feedback

Editor’s note: Allison Hopkins is the vice president of people at Hampton Creek, where she assists in the growth of its business, people and culture.

At Hampton Creek we ask, “What would it look like if we started over?” This drives our business philosophy. The one area we have focused on is giving and receiving feedback. Feedback can be real and easy.

Let’s start with the formal aspect of feedback at most organizations: the dreaded performance-review process. The current state of affairs in most companies is an annual focal or anniversary date review tied to feedback, salary increases and promotions. It can be seen as an event versus a focus on feedback done regularly and consistently. And, as many of us have experienced, this feedback is less than ideal, constructive or helpful.

Forms are filled out and the parties discuss the good, the bad and the ugly. Leaders and managers who have little-to-no training perform an event and check a few boxes and give some nebulous constructive feedback.

Over the last few years some have attempted more creativity, adding 360 reviews, quarterly feedback sessions, goal setting, anonymous feedback and external third-party feedback-gathering. But in the end, most of these processes do not drive learning or development.

Where feedback gets sticky and uncomfortable is when the giver and the receiver don’t respect or trust each other.

The best feedback can be done easily and build trust. For example, think about that time you were sitting at lunch with someone you didn’t know – you excuse yourself and go to the restroom where you look in the mirror and see that big piece of spinach covering your front tooth and you think, “why didn’t my lunch partner tell me this?” That leads to a smidgeon of distrust now with this lunch date. You think, if they had only mentioned this, it would have saved me some embarrassment in front of others.

This is how performance feedback can work — be constructive and in real-time — which can enhance trust and growth. I like to refer to this type of feedback as 365-feedback. Practice every day, at least once a day, and it will become easy.

Feedback can be difficult to give, especially when it deals with behavior or a character flaw. And as humans we tend to avoid it. But, feedback, similar to exercise, gets better and easier when the muscle is stretched on a regular basis. You will notice a strength and organizational dynamic that comes with real-time, direct feedback. Think of giving feedback as a gift.

In most organizations conflict-avoidance runs rampant at all levels. We are all a little afraid of rejection and hearing feedback can come with a dose of reality that is tough to hear. As well, some feedback can be hurtful, biased and delivered poorly with the words that are chosen. It’s good to keep this in mind when delivering and communicating feedback.

But the irony is that more often than not when feedback is given with thought and truth, it is valuable. Think about the times you have given or received truthful constructive feedback and how that helped you learn.

Having led people teams (or something like that) for the last 25 years, I’ve had hundreds of folks who come to me to complain about others. Many times my first question is, “what did so-and-so say when you talked with them about this?” Most times, the response is “I haven’t talked with them.” My next question then is, “how can I help you with that feedback?” Driving people to talk to each other about the good, bad and ugly is critical to business success.

Another scenario is when someone comes to me to claim something about someone else; I probe and prod on the truth and the facts, and try to get the emotion removed. In some cases, I gather all parties in a room to hash it out. I find many of these conversations are filled with mistruths, memes and biases. There are always more than two sides to any claim, and it can be liberating to get the parties in the room to work through it in real-time and walk in each other’s shoes.

Over the years there have been many moments when someone gets talked about who isn’t present. I then ask if the person knows about this and if the conversation would be the same if that person were in the room. The goal is to drive the organization to a foundation of trust — giving people the belief that we are working hard as an organization to be truthful whether you are in the room or not.

One-on-one is usually the best way to give feedback, but in a public setting it can also be incredibly demonstrative. Knowing the receiver of the feedback and the audience is critical to your decision to deliver the message one-to-one or publicly.

Where feedback gets sticky and uncomfortable is when the giver and the receiver don’t respect or trust each other. When the bubble over their heads in a feedback session is, “what is their ulterior motive, am I going to get fired, is this politically charged?”

That is the ugly side of real-time feedback and starting over in this circumstance is one area that needs work. I find an objective third party to be helpful in that situation to call bullshit between the two and get them to be really honest with each other. An arbitrator of sorts is sometimes a good way to go.

I remember many times being a bit nervous but stepped up to give honest, direct feedback and address the “elephant in the room,” and when I did it always got the conversation going in a much healthier way. The freedom to open up and discuss, brainstorm and resolve an issue can be liberating and actually fun. How refreshing to know where you or a situation stands. Forms and process don’t get you there. People giving feedback in real-time do.

In most organizations conflict-avoidance runs rampant at all levels.

I was with a group of young children recently and observed their feedback and it was real time and refreshing between them. I heard things such as,  “your breath smells funny, don’t bite me, you are pretty, lets share this book, I will help you.” No bullying, not fake, just pure innocent real-time feedback. How do we lose this as adults? What if we started over as working adults and went back to that more innocent approach?

So when delivering feedback: don’t sugar coat it; humor can help; be factual; try to question yourself on memes or others emotions; check yourself on any bias you might be carrying; feedback when emotional can work, but counting to 10 always seems to be a good thing; wait for the emotion to subside.

Imagine the world with real-time truthful feedback system at all levels. It could change the way we all work and succeed as a business and a team. Try it, you might be surprised.