Feedback. It’s one of those corporate buzzwords that you often hear or read about in LinkedIn articles or in books about how to be a great boss. And it’s true – giving feedback is a critical piece of how to be a successful manager. What these articles and books tend to leave out is the importance of delivering feedback to peers.  I think most of us feel a sense of dread or discomfort when thinking about giving our peers feedback. We worry we’ll hurt that person’s feelings, it’ll be awkward, and/or it could potentially ruin an otherwise positive working relationship. We can also sometimes feel like it’s not our place to provide feedback and that the responsibility falls on the manager. While this is part of a manager’s job, it doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to share something with a peer that needs to be commended or corrected. My two goals for this post are:

1.  To make a case that you should be giving your peers feedback (especially if you care about them and your team’s success– more on that later).

2.  To provide some tips and tools for delivering and receiving feedback effectively.

Why You Should Give Your Peers Feedback

A favorite boss of mine uses the “spinach in your teeth” analogy to describe the experience of feedback. What she means by this is that when someone has spinach stuck in their teeth, it’s a little awkward having to pull them aside and tell them, but at least they know and can deal with it. As the person who has spinach in your teeth, you feel embarrassed, but more than anything you’re thankful they told you. You might also feel a little frustrated that no one else told you.

I love this analogy for a couple of reasons. I think it accurately captures the feelings on both sides of having to deliver and receive feedback, while also reminding us that we give constructive feedback because we care about the person and would be doing them a disservice by not saying anything. Kim Scott does a fantastic job of creating a framework for this concept in her book, Radical Candor (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

two women chatting at a table.

Scott described the framework of radical candor as “the ability to challenge directly and show you care personally at the same time.” She further argues you need enough of both things to be truly effective and establish a trusting and productive working relationship. I think most of us have the caring piece accomplished, but we fall flat when it comes to not only providing challenges but also seeing that challenging is caring. This is what Scott describes as “ruinous empathy”, in which we avoid sharing candid feedback to spare someone’s feelings. Just like the spinach analogy, by not sharing feedback with someone, you’re doing them a disservice by limiting their effectiveness (and potentially your own). You’re also creating distrust with your peer that will impact your working relationship and the team’s dynamic.

How to Give Your Peers Feedback

Hopefully, by now I’ve at least made you stop and consider giving your peers feedback, but admittedly it can be a tremendous effort to do so – especially if you never have before. My goal here is to provide some general tips as well as a couple of tools for both delivering and asking for feedback.

General Tips

  1. Focus on the specific behavior or action, not the individual. This is the most important tip I have for you – by focusing on the behavior, you don’t make it personal. It’s more about a behavior they are exhibiting, rather than a core personality trait.
  2. Use positive feedback more than negative feedback. While I’ve focused more on constructive feedback, positive feedback is still extremely important for establishing a positive and trusting working relationship. You don’t want your coworkers to feel like you only have constructive things to say – make sure to acknowledge the meaningful positives.
  3. Make feedback timely. There’s no use in waiting a few days or weeks to share your feedback after you notice a behavior that needs to be modified. If you share it in a timely manner, the instance will be fresh in both of your heads.
  4. Think about how you want your peer to feel after the conversation. Again, you want to show your peer that you want them to succeed, which is why you’re sharing the feedback.
  5. Make feedback a two-way conversation. Feedback always requires a conversation. No one appreciates a “drive-by” feedback delivery, in which you share something constructive as you pass by their desk. If you want it to be meaningful, take the time to engage in a conversation and understand their perspective.
  6. Be clear and specific. I think a lot of us that fall into the “ruinous empathy” tend to tiptoe around the crux of what we’re trying to convey, hoping that the other person picks up the point we’re trying to make. If you’re hoping to make a positive impact on this person, don’t leave any room for interpretation.
  7. Consider personality style differences when delivering feedback. Some people want to skip the small talk, and have you hurry up and get to the point. Others would be deeply offended by that approach. Take into consideration the individual you’re speaking to and what they need from you to feel like you care and support them.
two women sitting at a table.

Helpful Tools for Delivering Peer Feedback

There are several different approaches for delivering feedback, but the following tool is the one I’ve found to be the most effective. Developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, the SBI, or Situation, Behavior, Impact model is as follows:

Situation: Describe the situation in which the behavior that needs to be modified occurred. Be as specific as possible, including the time, place, and context. This will help the recipient understand and remember the situation.

Behavior: Describe the behavior from the situation that needs to be modified. This is the most important step. The key is to describe observable actions – something that was said or done or can be observed and avoid interpretations of the event. For example, saying someone “had a bad attitude” is not observable. The person having a bad attitude is your interpretation of the event, so which observable behaviors led you to believe they had a bad attitude? Were their arms crossed? Did they roll their eyes? Focusing on the behavior will also make your peerless defensive, as an observable behavior is something that is objective.

Impact: Describe the impact their behavior had on you and others. What is the impact of this person showing up late to team meetings? Does it make you feel like they don’t care about the success of the team? Does it make others feel like they don’t need to prioritize the meetings? Describing the impact helps the person understand why their behavior(s) need to be corrected.

This framework takes practice, especially focusing on observable behavior. It may feel stiff and uncomfortable as you decide to use it, but once you become more comfortable, it will become more of a two-way conversation in which you can still describe the situation, behavior, and impact, but it will feel much more organic.

Helpful Tools For Receiving Peer Feedback

Feedback may not be a part of your team’s culture. I think the easiest way to start building a feedback culture is to start asking for it. Hopefully, if your team wants to succeed, they’ll start asking for it as well and there will be an expectation that candid feedback will be given. This tool is a quick and easy way to start the movement. This is the Stop, Start, Continue framework, and it goes exactly like it sounds:

  • Which behaviors should I stop?
  • Which behaviors should I start?
  • Which behaviors should I continue?

It clearly outlines which behaviors your peers think should be altered, what those behaviors should be changed to, and which behaviors are effective and that you should continue.

When it comes to feedback, I understand the challenges involved with both delivering and asking for feedback from your peers. This will be a slow process to become comfortable with and it may be uncomfortable for your peers as well, but it will ultimately improve everyone’s effectiveness. It also has the potential to impact your team’s culture and even the organization’s so that everyone can challenge directly while also caring personally.

Riley Toher is the HR Generalist at Affirma.

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