PM Articles > Kimberly Wiefling > Feedback ≠ Criticism -- Tips & Tools to Do It Right

Project Management Dialogues with ATTITUDE!
This Month's Featured Noggin' Floggin':

Feedback ≠ Criticism -- Tips & Tools to Do It Right

By Kimberly Wiefling

This summer I was invited to Vienna to do a workshop on effectively giving and receiving feedback. The participants came from all over Europe, as well as Japan. But all of these human beings had one thing in common: They didn't relish the thought of giving or receiving feedback. Why? Let me explain through a simple example. Imagine you're enjoying a relatively dysfunction-free day at work when you see your manager strolling toward you. After exchanging pleasantries, she says "Hey, drop by my office at noon. I've got some feedback for you." What's the first possibility that pops to mind? That you're going to receive a shout-out for your extraordinary facilitation of a difficult project negotiation? That she'll applaud the way you kept your team focused on last week's mission-critical deadline? ANY of the hundreds of things you did right on your project in the past week? Most people I've encountered would be expecting something negative because -- hey, seriously -- how often do we receive positive feedback at work?

Unfortunately, "feedback" has become a euphemism for criticism. That's a pity. Feedback is essential to growth, and positive feedback that's skillfully designed and delivered can be absolutely transformative. However, giving and receiving truly effective feedback requires far more sophisticated communication skills than many professionals possess, including myself. We simply don't learn to speak with such care -- at least I never did, but then I studied physics for seven years. (I should have studied psychology!)

One factor working against a "culture of feedback" is that human beings remember negative events more strongly than positive ones. This is called negativity bias. In fact, some studies have reported that employees need a 6:1 ratio of positive-to-negative comments in order to perform their best at work, and I've even heard that an 11:1 ratio is required for the positive and negative comments to feel equal.

Feedback in many workplaces is predominantly negative. In fact, one of my clients once bragged that they didn't need to waste their time patting themselves -- and each other -- on the back. I can assure you that this view was NOT shared by the (many) disheartened individuals hungry for some sign that their contributions were appreciated -- or at least noticed! Establishing a "culture of appreciation" has been an important part of our work together. After all, if we don't tell our teammates what they're doing right they might stop doing it!

The Absence of Feedback

Many workplaces fail to integrate feedback into routine practice, except for the dreaded annual performance review and -- gawd help us -- stacked ranking. (Thankfully this is finally starting to change as people find traditional performance review practices often actually decrease performance, even for highly ranked individuals.) I vividly recall an engineering friend telling me he had worked for six months without receiving any sign of what his new manager thought of his work performance. Finally, feeling that he was working in something akin to an anechoic chamber, he worked up the courage to approach his manager directly. He went to his manager's desk and found him busily checking email. "So," my friend said, "I've been working for you for six months now. How's it going?" His manager paused briefly, fingers poised above his keyboard, then said "Hmmm, good," and immediately returned to his email. Yup, a half of year of performance feedback was succinctly communicated in barely more than a grunt.

Tips & Tools to Do It Right

There is a better way. Like most of what I write about, it's common sense, but not common practice. Here are my guidelines, in priority order:

  1. Create psychological safety.
  2. Ensure feedback is focused on a goal the feedback recipient cares about.
  3. Before giving feedback, set a good example by asking for it and receiving it graciously.
  4. Use language skillfully to avoid judgmental words, focusing on effectiveness.
  5. Integrate both positive and corrective feedback routinely into the work environment.
  6. Use tools that will ensure feedback has a clear goal and will shape the language used.
  7. Master the art of transformational positive feedback.

Psychological Safety

We're much more likely to be open to feedback when we feel that we're in a safe environment where we trust the people involved. This is known as psychological safety, a "shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" (Kahn 1990, p. 708). Naturally this must be built on a foundation of trust among the various individuals. Trust can take a long time to build, but it can be destroyed in a moment, and can be difficult to repair, so it's worth it to spend time purposefully building and maintaining trust. Given Gallup Research's low global employee engagement scores, I'm quite certain most workplaces don't meet the psychological safety requirement. This might also explain why the lowest scoring behavior globally among the 30 Leadership Challenge behaviors (PDF) studied by Posner & Kouzes for three decades is, "Asks for feedback on how his/her actions affects people's performance." Why care about feedback when you don't feel engaged at work?!

Goal-Centric Feedback

Criticism, at least the unskillful type, occurs when one person tells another their opinion of what's wrong with something about that other person. Anyone who's got parents has surely experienced this. Recently my mom told me that my hair was too long. Now, I love my mother more than life itself . . . AND . . . how I choose to style my hair? I'm really not interested in her opinion of my hair. At all.

Feedback, on the other hand, is offering your opinion to the other person with the intention of supporting them in achieving a better outcome that matters to them. If my mom said something like, "Hey, I hear that you want to brand yourself as a badass global business consultant who helps people achieve what seems impossible but is merely difficult. I think a shorter hairstyle would be more aligned with that image. And why don't you add some electric blue streaks in it, too, to show that you've got a huge creative streak in you?" Now that would be feedback. (Are you reading this, Mom? Remember, I love you bunches!!) Focus on the other person's goals and position your comments entirely to help them achieve what they want. Anything else is just criticism.

Leaders Go First

If you want to build an environment where you can give feedback, first create a practice of asking for it, and receiving it gracefully. Easier said than done. Over 90% of drivers rate themselves as "above average." Called illusory superiority, not only is this a mathematical impossibility, it demonstrates that self-evaluation sucks. And our egos are NOT our friends when it comes to welcoming even helpful feedback.

Most of my consulting projects include a phase where I gather inputs from a diverse cross-section of people in the organization. When I get comments related to the executives of that organization I offer to share them with the execs, anonymously of course. Without fail, when the comments are negative the first question execs ask is, "Who said that?" Naturally I never disclose the identity of the people who made these comments, but it's telling that this reaction is so universal. It's no wonder people hesitate to speak truth to power!

The Language of Feedback

Words matter, especially in a feedback conversation. Consider the impact of calling sushi "raw, dead fish," or a colonoscopy . . . well, never mind. Keep language focused on effectiveness and avoid judgmental words such as good/bad and right/wrong. Even less-charged words such as like/don't like and agree/disagree should be avoided. You might be tempted to gush, "What a great job! I love what you did!" but I assure you that this judgmental language will not serve you nearly so well when it's time to discuss the dark side. Here's language that keeps the conversation in the realm of effectiveness and steers clear of troublesome pitfalls:

  • What's working? . . . and we should continue to do it, or do more?
  • What's NOT working? . . . and we should change it?
  • What's missing? . . . and we should add it?

If there are things missing, or that we should change, ask:

  • What should we add, or start doing? . . . or what could we do MORE?
  • What should we stop doing? . . . or perhaps we should do LESS?

Finally, here's my favorite feedback language -- what I call the "magic wand" question that can open up possibilities no practical, realistic person would dare consider:

  • If anything were possible, if we were guaranteed success, what would we instantly create or change that would transform ourselves, our team, our project, our organization, for the better?

Let that one sink in for a while, at least long enough for the shock of your expansive "possibility thinking" to make it through the wall of cynicism that protects many employees from further disappointment.

Integrate Feedback into Work Practices

If you want to create a culture of feedback, you must incorporate feedback processes into your routine business processes. A great example for project managers is the post-project review. (Can we please stop calling them post mortems?!) Design feedback into daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual routines. For example:

  • Having a meeting? Schedule the last 5 minutes for feedback on the meeting.
  • Thinking about installing beverage and snack stations in your office? Post a flip chart near the existing ones asking people for their ideas and suggestions.
  • Scheduling a team offsite? Solicit ideas from the people on your team about the location, agenda, and menu as well as what must happen, and what must NOT happen.
  • Considering redesigning your project management lifecycle? Ask your stakeholders for their inputs before rolling out your fancy new process.

Use Tools to Increase Effectiveness

You could spend many hours, and a lot of money, teaching everyone how to give and receive feedback effectively. And, like federally mandated fire extinguisher training, you could hold a refresher course every couple of years. OR . . . you could provide tools that easily and effortlessly guide your teams in the art of feedback without all of that rigmarole. Based loosely on the recently popular nudge theory, this involves using tools that make it easy to give and receive feedback, and that naturally result in keeping feedback goal-centered and using the language of feedback. Here are a few tools that I've found particularly useful.

Feedback Notes -- These sticky notes explicitly incorporate non-judgmental language into the feedback process with the added benefit of making feedback anonymous -- especially important when trust has not yet been established.

Plus/Delta -- This is a quick and easy way to solicit feedback, even from large groups. It literally takes only a few minutes. And you can do it without the fancy sticky notes pictured above, even verbally if you've established sufficient trust to make that work. At the end of a meeting, task or project, ask, "What worked about this, and we should continue -- or even do more -- in future meetings?" This is the "Plus." (Do the positive first!) Then move to the "Delta" -- geek-speak for "change" -- by asking, "What might we change in the future to work better?" Every person need only say their inputs aloud, or write their thoughts on an individual sticky note so you can group them by theme and title afterward. Here's an example of some feedback from the end of the first day of our feedback workshop in Austria.

Column 18-08 kwiefling 1

Image Ref: Kimberly Wiefling, Wiefling Consulting, Inc., Silicon Valley Alliances

Feedback Starfish -- Want more detailed feedback? Or perhaps you simply like echinoderms? In this technique you make a "feedback starfish" on a flip chart like the one shown below. It's vital that you place your goal at the center of this starfish (many examples I've seen don't include this) and explain your goal clearly to the people who will be giving feedback. For example, if looking for feedback for to help you become a better leader you might ask, "If you were absolutely committed to helping me become the kind of leader I admire (describe in detail), what advice would you give me? What ideas do you have for me?" Ask each person to share their advice on sticky notes after you leave the room -- one idea per sticky note. I've convinced several executives to participate in this leadership feedback experiment, and it's always enlightening.

NOTE: Give everyone the same color and size of sticky notes and same type and color of pen so you're not tempted to try to figure out who said what!

Column 18-08 kwiefling 2

Image Ref: Kimberly Wiefling, Wiefling Consulting, Inc., Silicon Valley Alliances

Transformational Positive Feedback

I recently read a terrific book called Extraordinary Influence. WOW! In it I discovered an incredible feedback tool with the power to transform individuals into the best possible version of themselves. Positive comments aren't normally considered transformational, but that's because of the trivial way they are often offered. We say things like "Good job!", "Well done," and "Thanks!" but fail to flesh out our recognition with details that have the power to shape future positive behaviors. This book helped me understand that we can plant the seeds of tomorrow's extraordinary contributions using today's skillfully designed and sincerely delivered appreciation. What transforms a hollow "thank you" into a transformative experience? Of course, we need to make our comments specific, selective, and timely. But that's just "Attitude of Gratitude 101." If you want to get your Ph.D. in appreciation you need to include the What, How, Why, and Who in your positive feedback. Here's a simple tool that I developed to make that easy. Just open your heart (Yikes! So touchy feely!!) and think deeply about these four questions:

  • WHAT did this person do that you appreciate?
  • HOW did they do it? What approach did they follow that contributed positively?
  • WHY did they take this approach? What positively motivated them?
  • WHO are they, at their core, that makes this kind of approach come naturally to them?

Here's an example. I'm sure you can do better:

Column 18-08 kwiefling 3

Image Ref: Kimberly Wiefling, Wiefling Consulting, Inc., Silicon Valley Alliances

Hone Your Feedback Mojo!

At the recommendation of a friend who is the Chief People Officer for one of my clients, I recently read a book called Radical Candor. What's so radical about being open and honest with each other in the workplace?! It's been my practice for my entire career. (OK, maybe I overdid it. One of my managers told me I tend to call a spade a frickin' shovel. Point well taken.) Effective feedback isn't rocket science! There's plenty of guidance on how to do it well, and there's just no excuse for doing it badly.

When you give feedback, focus on positive comments about what's working. What's rewarded is repeated. Make a habit of asking for feedback from people you trust and respect. Make sure both giving and receiving feedback are always done in the service of a goal that the receiver cares about. And if you do find yourself the target of some clumsily delivered or hurtful feedback, remember that the interpretation of that feedback -- and the decision about whether to act on it -- is within your control. Over the years, I've kept this response handy for when people say, "Kimberly, you're hyperactive!" I look them straight in the eyes and -- with a big smile on my face -- reply, "Thank you for noticing! I do bring a great deal of energy and passion to my work. In fact, it was you who inspired this in me!" Stunned silence is the usual response. Sometimes what people think of us is none of our business.

If you were determined to make this article more valuable and effective for readers, what specifically would you change? Looking forward to your feedback!

- Kimberly

Kimberly Wiefling, founder of Wiefling Consulting, and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, is the author of Scrappy Project Management, (published in English and Japanese), and the executive editor of the "Scrappy Guides." series. Kimberly helps managers become leaders and groups of people become true teams that can achieve what seems impossible -- and would be for any individual acting alone. "Impossible" just means we haven't figured out how to do it yet!

©Copyright 2001-2018 Wiefling Consulting. All Rights Reserved.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

when a boos says"see me in my office at noon" why can't the boss tell what the meeting is for?

A couple of observations

1 Bear in mind that this article was written by an American for a (predominantly) American audience. What works for WASP American men may not work so well for women and for non-Americans (particularly people of Non English-Speaking Background).

I would _cringe_ if my boss tried any of the "Transformational Positive Feedback" described above. So would all my co-workers. Show some Cultural Sensitivity !

2 Be conscious that the difference between constructive feedback and bullying is set by the mind of the RECIPIENT, not by the person providing the feedback.

Sometimes, as a manager, if you have nothing positive to say to a person you are better off biting your tongue and saying nothing, if that person cannot take any negative feedback. That's unfortunate because negative feedback is the sort from which a person can learn. Positive feedback is useful - to show a person is being noticed and appreciated (so they don't go searching the job ads) but it is unlikely to change / improve their behaviour.

Notwithstanding the above, let me say that I found this a thought-provoking and challenging article. I enjoyed it. Thank you, Kimberley

Thank you for writing so positively about this topic.

The comments to this entry are closed.

©Copyright 2000-2017 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy

Stay Connected
Get our latest content delivered to your inbox, every other week. New case studies, articles, templates, online courses, and more. Check out our Newsletter Archive for past issues. Sign Up Now

Got a Question?
Drop us an email or call us toll free:
7am-5pm Pacific
Monday - Friday
We'd love to talk to you.

Learn more about ProjectConnections and who writes our content. Want to learn more? Compare our membership levels.