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Taking the fear out of feedback

31 October 2019


Why is feedback scary?

Giving and receiving feedback is scary. For the majority of us, “feedback” is synonymous with “criticism”. Because of this, the word has negative connotations and fills us with foreboding. We’re hard-wired to avoid uncomfortable situations and, at worst, our brains tell us there couldn’t be anything more uncomfortable than telling a colleague something negative, or hearing criticism about yourself. At best, we fear the awkwardness of an honest conversation with the people we work with.

If that’s how you view feedback don’t worry, you’re not alone. But you also don’t need to be scared or put off by it. Feedback, when done right, can be hugely positive, beneficial and, most importantly, not intimidating. 

How to do feedback the right way

When Kirstie Hawton became Head of People at Octopus, she realised feedback is integral to a friendly, collaborative work environment. “My job was now to keep 800 people happy, and I quickly became an in-house agony aunt. When people raised issues, I always asked the same question: ‘Have you tried giving that person feedback?’ The answer was always no – which told me we didn’t have the right culture of sharing. Getting this right, for me, was key to making Octopus a better place to work.” 

We’ve become far more comfortable giving and receiving feedback at Octopus. It’s changed our interactions for the better and made us happier overall. We know how scary it can be though, so here are some of the things that have really helped us find it less daunting.

Make your intentions positive 

The most important thing to remember about feedback is that it should always come from a good place, i.e. wanting to help another person. This could mean anything from wanting to support their career to wanting to show them an alternative way to approach a problem. If everyone in the conversation is aware of the good intentions behind the feedback, both giving and receiving it suddenly becomes much less daunting. 

Keep to a structure

Following a structure when giving feedback can help reduce anxiety around the best way to deliver your thoughts. Plus, you can ask for any feedback you receive to follow a specific form, alleviating any worry about being caught off guard with unhelpful comments.

There are a few different models you can choose from to structure your feedback: 

1. PAID model

To follow the PAID model you need to make sure each piece of feedback given has the following elements:

P – Positive intent 

Why are you giving this feedback? Make sure it’s for the right reasons, to help the other person, rather than to get something off your chest.

A – Action

What have you observed about the person? Make sure it’s specific; instead of “you’re always late,” say, “you were late to the last three meetings I hosted.”

I – Impact 

What effect did their action have on either you or the business? In the case of our late person, you could say, “when you’re late, it makes me feel like you don’t care about what I have to say.” 

D – Desired outcome

What could the person do next time to improve? Offer your suggestions without being too forceful – these are just your ideas. 

Don’t forget, PAID can be used to give positive feedback too – it makes it all the more impactful and sincere to give additional details like the impact someone’s positive actions have on you. 

2. Stop, start, continue

Stop, start, continue does what it says on the tin: you tell someone what they should stop doing, what they should start doing and what they should continue doing. This system is great because it’s balanced and not personal, meaning there’s less opportunity for the conversation to turn awkward.

3. Did well, could improve, how I could help you

Tell someone something they do well, something they could do to improve, and something you could do better yourself to support them. You can either use this looking back at a project/specific piece of work or use it to give ongoing feedback.

The words you use are important here. By suggesting an “improvement” you’re not criticising or saying they did something wrong, you’re simply offering something additional they could do to make things even better, taking the discomfort out of the interaction. Including the final point transforms the conversation from a potentially awkward ‘confrontation’ to an open, honest chat, with both parties discussing things they could do to improve. 

Make it face to face

As tempting as it may be to rattle off a quick email, feedback really should be done face to face. “When something’s written down, it’s easy for it to be misinterpreted, which can create tension,” explains Kirstie. Plus, you have the added fear of having to wait for the other person’s response. It’s much better to have a casual chat. It doesn’t have to be a big deal though – no big, scary meetings here. Just pop time in your colleagues’ diary and have a chat over a hot drink.  

Kirstie’s quick tips for dealing with feedback fear

In case you’re still feeling a little nervous, Kirstie has some quick-fire tips to help calm feedback-related nerves:

  1. Be specific
    Feedback should never be general or personal. Focus on specific problems and solutions.

  2. Timing is everything
    Don’t respond to an issue in the heat of the moment – or six months later, when everyone’s forgotten about it.

  3. Be yourself
    When something doesn’t feel right, call it how you see it. It’s good to trust your instincts.

  4. Think of it like a conversation
    The main objective of feedback is to understand one another. Treat it the way you would treat any other professional conversation.

  5. Focus on the good as much as the bad
    It’s easy to be too critical of yourself. Make sure you pay attention to all the positive feedback, too.

At Octopus, we’ve found that sharing feedback has a really great effect on our working environment and our relationships with our colleagues. We know it can be a scary concept but have discovered that it doesn’t have to be that way, so we hope our tips will help you feel better about both giving and receiving feedback.