Whether you’re starting your first job or if you’ve been in the workforce for years, relationships matter. One of the most critical parts of building and maintaining a relationship is being able to communicate needs. Your work relationships are every bit as important as your personal ones, so being able to communicate your needs through effective feedback is a valuable skill.
When I saw this topic come up, I felt an immediate moment of both excitement and cringe. The excitement was because I knew that I had the perfect story to relate to the topic. The cringe was because I knew that, in order to tell the story, I’d have to relive it.
OK, deep breath. Here we go.
By the time I moved into startups, I had been in the working world for a while. I was a military veteran, had been through nursing school, had run my own business, and had managed an international team of writers for one of the world’s largest tech blogs. I was more than ready for what the startup world would throw at me.
Or so I thought.
Fast forward through my first quarter with the company and to my quarterly review. I sat down with the CEO and he slid a piece of paper across the desk that showed me how much I was costing the company versus how much I was making the company. There was a big disparity, leaning toward the cost side.
Talk about a gut punch. When you’re someone in a creative field, seeing your work reduced to numbers on a piece of paper feels a lot like having the wind knocked out of you. But the company was data-driven. As a venture-backed startup, it was highly results-oriented. If I couldn’t produce then I couldn’t stay.
I remember feeling demotivated. I felt like I had just gotten started, and that I needed more time to get my feet under me. There were so many moving pieces and, try as I might, some of it didn’t make sense.
I was mad, but I couldn’t figure out why. The CEO asked me if I had any questions or feedback, but as I sat there in stunned silence I couldn’t think of anything. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that something finally clicked. I had unmet needs in my position. During every all-hands meeting, our CEO would stand up front and tell us that he was there to help us if we needed anything, but I never took him up on the offer.
I needed to give feedback. I needed to work on rebuilding the relationship that he and I had. This wasn’t a matter of managing upwards, as so many articles like to say. (In fact, the entire idea of managing upwards is a flawed premise that we will talk about shortly.) It was a matter of me saying “these are my unmet needs that you can help me with.”
Fixing The Flaws of Feedback
The more that we study how humans work, the more that we realize how bad we are at working together. The unfortunate truth is that we have taken knee-jerk reactions to many of these findings. Because of these reactions, we have had a negative reaction to effective feedback.
For example, there was an idea for many years that feedback about weaknesses creates an environment that inhibits learning. The thought process was that people would focus so much on the negative that they wouldn’t be able to put effort elsewhere. But research has shown that people who get bad ratings tend to show more favorable improvement (PDF link) than those who only get feedback on strengths.
You have likely heard that you should “play to your strengths” in your job. This is another thought that we took too far by saying that managers should only focus on someone’s strengths when giving feedback. The assumption here is that people are already good at the stuff that matters most. After all, they were hired because they’re good at their job, right? While that might be the case, that makes the assumption that they can never improve.
In a 2020 research paper from the Center for Creative Leadership, Jean Brittain Leslie points out that we have over-invested in emotional areas. The problem with this over-investment is that it has left what Leslie calls “key gaps” in other critical areas:
- Inspiring commitment
- Leading employees
- Strategic planning
- Change management
- Employee development
By focusing so much effort on the things we’re already good at, we’ve left a chasm that we now have to bridge. And while this particular piece of research focuses on management, it is every bit as applicable to the employee who gives feedback. This work provides a solid foundation for giving feedback that is less emotional, and more focused on efficacy.
How to Give Effective Feedback
It can be intimidating, as an employee, to give your boss feedback. Thinking back to my first startup, it dawned on me that my experiences were from totally different fields. I didn’t know the right way to convey my message to my boss because I was focusing on the fact that I lacked experience.
But effective feedback doesn’t require that you have the same level of experience as the person that you’re talking to. In fact, in most areas it will probably focus on that gap of experience. That is not to say that you should come to your boss on your knees, but it’s valuable to point out their expertise when asking them to help you gain your own.
Here are five ways to give effective feedback that will not only help you to overcome challenges, but also help you solidify the relationships around you.
1. Ask for Guidance – You might need guidance because your boss has a weakness in their leadership skills. Or your need may come from being involved in projects that have an overwhelming amount of moving parts. Regardless of reason, asking for guidance is a great way of providing feedback to your boss. Here’s one way that I’ve found that works well:
“Can we get more regular check-ins? I want to make sure that we’re on the same path, and once I’m past the learning curve I will be in a better position to operate more independently.”
2. Offer Reactions – Humans aren’t very good at assessing other humans. Because of this, we often give feedback that is removed from the truth. One way to solve this problem is by offering reactions, because a reaction is your truth as you see it. It is, by the very nature, an opinion of what has happened.
“When you said _______, it made me proud to be part of this project.”
3. Ask Questions – Questions are one of the most powerful tools that you have as an employee. They can serve a multitude of purposes, but one of the best is that they allow you to guide the conversation while still keeping a natural flow. They also allow you to put the ball in your manager’s court, and to defer to their expertise. For example, if you’re concerned about a budget shortfall, “do you think that we have the resources we need to meet these goals” is a great way to open that conversation.
4. State the Problem – I learned a powerful lesson at my second startup. I noticed that every time the CEO spoke to the development team, she would start by saying “here’s the problem I’m trying to solve,” before anything else. She may offer solutions, she may ask questions, but she always made sure to provide context first. When you’re trying to give effective feedback, make sure your boss knows what problems you want to solve first.
5. Present, Past, Future – Effective feedback has to start with the present. “Here’s what’s going on right now, and here’s how it’s impacting me.” But once that’s handled, it’s then valuable to look at the past to see if there is a pattern that you can spot. If you do spot a pattern, your next move is to work together to see how you can prevent it from happening.
Giving effective feedback to your boss doesn’t have to be a nerve-wracking experience. In fact, it can be rewarding if done right. There is a lot of science behind how we operate as humans, why we’re good at some things and bad at others, and how to capitalize on that knowledge. By following the data, you can build better relationships, be more effective, and keep your office life running smooth.
Have some feedback stories of your own? We’d love to hear them, good or bad. Sound off in the comments.