Remember the Gift of Feedback During the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 11, 2020

We often say that feedback is a gift because it creates opportunity for knowledge and positive change. In some ways, giving and receiving feedback is our only hope of facilitating growth, because we cannot shift our behaviors if we do not know how they have affected others.

Feedback systems are essential to how we function physically. Our bodies depend on them in order to survive. Our nervous system gives us sensory feedback so we do not burn ourselves on a hot stove; our inner ears calibrate our balance so we can walk properly; our eyes give us visual information about the world.

In our workplaces, feedback is just as essential. We do not always know how our actions are perceived by others, and whether we have had the impact we intended. Feedback from others is an opportunity to learn and to improve, or to recognize that what we are doing is effective. Feedback can also provide important information about any gaps that exist between the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us.

Unfortunately, many of us have negative associations with feedback. We associate feedback with criticism, a judgmental comment, or that difficult conversation with a manager, where we felt misunderstood or confronted with our failures. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we may feel that like we need to “give each other slack” and that giving feedback seems inappropriate, perhaps even harsh, at a time when many people are under stress and struggling.

However, feedback is a powerful gift, and we should not refrain from giving it if our intention is to help the other person or help our organization. In fact, we may want to seek more opportunities to give feedback in this time, to foster courage, support, learning and kindness in our organizations.

Here are three ways to give the gift of feedback:

Appreciative Feedback

Giving appreciative feedback to our colleagues can be an important way to support individuals and sustain engagement. It is most helpful to be as specific as possible, even though it is tempting in our busy lives to simply say “great job” or “thank you so much.” Taking the time to make positive feedback detailed can send the recipient a stronger message of our appreciation, our recognition of their contributions and helps them understand what they can be doing more of.

We like this easy framework:

  • State your intention
  • Describe the specific behavior
  • Describe the impact that it had

An example: “I want to make sure you know how much I appreciate you. Thank you for staying up late in order to figure out how to address the client’s problems. They were delighted with the answer the next day and appreciated how responsive we were. They felt like we cared about helping them succeed.”

Developmental Feedback

Developmental feedback, feedback that we may typically call “negative,” can also be valuable. Some of us may be even more inclined to avoid giving this kind of feedback because we do not want to be critical or seemingly demanding during a difficult time.

There may be situations where withholding feedback is the wiser and more compassionate choice. If a behavior or action is unusual out of character for the person, this may be a time to let it go. We have all had to make major changes during this pandemic, and some misunderstandings and confusion are part of the adjustment process.

In the other situations, we may be withholding useful information, even a gift, and ultimately doing a disservice to a colleague if we do not bring up developmental feedback. What if something has happened multiple times? What if we are avoiding giving work to somebody because we think they are unreliable? What if we find ourselves frustrated every time we interact with somebody? What if we notice that somebody’s behavior is affecting another person’s morale? These are situations where it is actually more compassionate to talk to the person and provide them the feedback, than to harbor resentment and frustration and have this affect our working relationship or someone’s long-term success.

Timing is important, so we encourage you to find a good time to have the conversation with somebody and ask for permission. Here is a simple guide for giving constructive feedback, though as you see in the example, you may not follow the steps in the exact order.

  • State your caring intention for having the conversation (e.g., “I want us to have a good working relationship” or “I want you to work successfully with other people”)
  • Express empathy for the other person’s situation (e.g., “ I know this customer can be demanding and unreasonable” or “I know this is a complex issue you are dealing with”)
  • Describe the specific behavior that you want to give feedback on; use descriptive, rather than evaluative language
  • Describe the impact it has on you, on others, or on the work
  • Make a request about what you hope will different in the future
  • Be sure to leave time for a discussion with the other person; avoid a “hit and run” type of experience

An example:

Your Intention “I know you care about the success of your office and staff.”
The specific behavior you noticed or heard about “When I sat in on your staff meeting, I noticed that when you asked for input, your staff members rarely spoke up. And, when someone finally did speak up, you were quick to point out why their suggestion would not work.”
The consequences—for you, your team, clients, the organization, etc. “I am concerned that though you are asking for input, your response to it is giving a mixed message and people are concluding that you do not really want their ideas. As a result, you risk not getting the best thinking of the people who are closest to the work we do.”
A pinch of empathy “Now, I know that you have already tried several things and may have good reasons why this person’s suggestion would not work—so that in the moment there is the pull to explain why it would not work.“
Stop talking and make it a dialogue “Can you see why I am bringing this to your attention?”

“What are you thinking now?”

“What are your reactions?”

Your request, suggestion, or expectation (or if positive, your thanks) “My suggestion is that you ask for input and just hear it and continue asking for more rather than evaluating each idea—doing your best to stay open to influence.“

“Can you think of a way you might handle this that would encourage more input?”

After Action Review – NOT a “Postmortem”

Given how busy we are, we typically move onto the next big assignment after we finish something. When we do that, we forget to reflect on and learn from our past experiences.

After action reviews are structured meetings to debrief a major project or initiative, where people can give overall feedback in a constructive manner. It helps a group celebrate their successes, capture what they have learned, identify improvements going forward, and strengthen relationships going forward. This is even more importantly as we adjust to remote work or to working in person with social distancing.

The success of an after-action review can depend on who gets to be part of the meeting. Consider carefully who needs to be included—people who have been affected and people who have the ability to make changes are important to involve in the conversation.

Here are some common questions that can be used:

  • What happened? (using descriptive language)
    What did we do well with respect to this project?
  • What did not go so well?
  • What can we do differently with our other important projects to minimize the chance that this same situation would occur with them?
  • What next steps do we need to take? (Including determining if anybody else needs to be informed of this conversation)

Examples:

  • A senior team conducts an after-action review of their recent virtual all-staff town hall experience, to discuss what they noticed about staff, what went well about the meeting, and what to do differently next time.
  • The purchasing, safety and operations department conduct the after-action review of their experience purchasing, distributing, and creating processes for using personal protective equipment on the manufacturing floor. They celebrate and recognize how quickly the team was able to act and implement the changes, acknowledge a few unanticipated challenges and confusion, and identified additional concerns and important next steps.

By Linshuang Lu and Kathleen McInerney Kane with content adapted from Praxis Consulting Group’s leadership development modules.