Career Tools: Giving And Receiving Feedback

Tips for effectively crafting and learning from feedback

Part of the Career Tools Series
Learning to deliver and to respond to feedback is a vital skill for professional development. Photo illustration by Bigstock.
Learning to deliver and to respond to feedback is a vital skill for professional development. Photo illustration by Bigstock.

After attending a "Fundamentals of Feedback" workshop, Megh Freeland returned to her department with a proposal of her own.

She suggested that members of the five person staff meet with each other to practice delivering and receiving effective feedback. All agreed, and they'll start in July.

"I learned in the class that feedback can happen in every direction," said Freeland, senior program coordinator for the undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs in the economics department. "Everyone has their little quirks and talking about them is a way to build better working relationships."

Learning to describe specific behavior so an individual can learn and develop by repeating or avoiding that behavior is a vital skill for professional development, said Wendy Hamilton Hoeschler, who taught the "Fundamentals of Feedback" class as practice leader with Duke's Learning and Organization Development.

"We are hardwired to learn from successes and failures," Hamilton Hoeschler said. "If nobody ever points them out, we miss huge opportunities for growth."

John Joseph, assistant professor at the Fuqua School of Business who teaches about performance evaluations, said it is also important to learn how to respond to feedback. "Constructive criticism is often hard to listen to," he said. "But it is what we learn the most from."

Here are tips from both Joseph and  Hamilton Hoeschler for crafting and responding to effective feedback.

When Giving Feedback:

1.    Practice Precision. Feedback needs to be clear and unambiguous. The "Fundamentals of Feedback" teaches the "SBI" method: describe the situation, describe the behavior and explain the impact. "It is more effective to say, 'When you come into class with a smile and questions, I sense your eagerness to learn, and it makes teaching fun,' rather than just saying 'You have a great attitude,' " Hamilton Hoeschler said. "That specificity is very important."

2.    Consider credibility. Before giving feedback, take stock of your relationship to the recipient. "If the person receiving the feedback doesn't like you or trust you, they may discount what you say without really processing it," Joseph said. To increase credibility, Joseph suggests limiting feedback to behavior you have personally observed and including objective performance measures if they are available.

3.    Turn the tables. Don't just give feedback, ask for it as well. "It is easier for someone to receive feedback if they are also empowered to give it," Hamilton Hoeschler said.

4.    Balance but don't blend. Offering positive feedback while giving constructive criticism is important, but Joseph is cautious about sandwiching the two together.  "It is so important to make sure the constructive criticism is clearly heard by the recipient," he said. "It could get lost in the sandwich."

When Receiving Feedback

1.    Check the message. Take time to repeat the feedback in your own words to be sure you understand the message. If you can't summarize, probe for specifics and more clarification.

2.    Respond responsibly. The receiver of feedback has several choices: dismiss the feedback, accept the feedback and act on it or seek out additional information before taking action. "It is often hard to know how to respond to feedback at the time it is given," Hamilton Hoeschler said. "Sometimes, just saying, 'thank you for your honesty,' is sufficient."

3.    Seek out solutions. If someone offers constructive feedback, ask for suggestions on how to improve. That's the purpose of feedback.

4.    When doing well, welcome more feedback. If things are going fine at work, keep requesting feedback. "Individuals who are doing well should pay extra attention to feedback because they tend to think they don't need it," Joseph said. "But no one is perfect. There is always room for improvement."