When we feel cared for and valued at work, we are more likely to enjoy coming in every day. And when we feel supported in our career growth, we’re more likely to be engaged and do our best work. What more could you ask for from your team than showing up and doing their best every day? I believe that the most important practices for creating a supportive environment are consistent feedback, accountability, and recognition.
And that’s not just based on my personal experience. A 2010 study by Hans J. Thamhain (citation below) found that “The most significant drivers [of a supportive work environment] are derived from the work itself, including personal interest, pride, and satisfaction with the work, professional work challenge, accomplishments, and recognition. Other important influences include effective communications among team members and support units across organizational lines, good team spirit, mutual trust, and respect, low interpersonal conflict, plus opportunities for career development…”
Effective feedback achieves many of the tenets of a supportive environment that Thamhain pointed to above. It builds trust among team members and encourages everyone to be invested in each other’s career growth. And creating a culture of feedback opens lines of communication that prevent high stakes conflict by surfacing problems early and providing a framework for productive conversation.
Giving feedback is a skill that requires a lot more effort and practice than we realize. Valuable feedback should always aim at furthering a team member’s growth whether positive or constructive. If you feel like delivering feedback that is not centered on the other person’s growth, then that’s not feedback that should be delivered; it has no value. All feedback should be actionable, specific, and kind (the ASK model of feedback).
Actionable feedback tells the person what action to take. If you’re delivering positive feedback, your goal is to identify the action that you would like to see them continue doing. If you’re delivering constructive feedback then you should identify the action they should stop doing, and—this is important—identify the action you would like to see them start doing. Actionable feedback clarifies expectations and shows the other person that you genuinely care about their growth by giving them other strategies to try.
Specific feedback helps to further clarify expectations. By clearly identifying what behavior you want to see, you are providing your team member more information to help them be successful. For example, instead of saying, “We have a team expectation that everyone tests their code. You need to do a better job,” specific feedback might sound like “We have a team expectation of 80% unit test coverage and that each team member smoke tests their feature after it’s deployed. You need to make sure your pull requests meet those expectations and that you're testing them after deployment." And when giving positive feedback, the more specific your feedback, the better you are equipping your team member to celebrate their accomplishments and advocate for themself during performance reviews.
Kind feedback is respectful feedback meant to help someone grow. It is rooted in empathy and compassion. Kind feedback doesn’t necessarily need to be nice—I wrote a whole blog post about nice vs. kind feedback—but it does need to come from a place of empathy and shared goals.
Now that we know how to give valuable feedback, what about the other side of the feedback coin? We don’t talk often about what a challenge it is to receive feedback gracefully and how modeling receiving feedback can be a useful leadership tool.
Receiving feedback can be challenging. In a best-case scenario, you’re receiving positive feedback. Many of us are socialized to be uncomfortable with compliments. We tend to brush off the feedback: “It’s really no big deal.” Or transfer the credit: “Oh I just helped, Alex did most of it.” But it’s important not to do this. You should celebrate your hard work. And you should be grateful that someone is identifying your strengths. Thank them for sharing their feedback with you. And if you can push it further, let them know what you’ll do with that information. For example, “Thank you for your feedback! I really appreciate it. It’s so helpful to know that you like the extra communication about our process changes, I’ll make sure to continue that.”
If it’s not a best-case scenario and someone is sharing constructive feedback with you, it's even harder to receive the feedback gracefully. A lot of us feel defensive, scared of having our perceived weaknesses pointed out, and in some cases like an imposter. But feedback is a gift. Feedback is love. Genuine feedback is a sign of care and that the giver cares enough about you to want you to grow and improve.
When receiving constructive feedback, try to remain open and stay present. My defense mechanism is to start thinking of all the ways what the person is saying isn’t true or to come up with counterexamples. This isn’t productive, so try not to do this or whatever your defense mechanism might be. Really listen to the other person, be curious, and ask questions. Asking questions is a great way to identify what you can learn from the feedback if you disagree with it or if it was a rough delivery.
If you need it, ask for time to digest the feedback. Ask for a follow-up conversation when emotions calm down and it’s easier to talk about. Knowing what you need and asking for it is incredibly strong. Give yourself the space you need to be able to listen and engage productively. And lastly, be grateful that someone trusts you enough to have a hard conversation with you. Thank them for sharing their feedback with you.
Receiving feedback is crucially important. But feedback is a gift, and you don’t need to accept every gift unconditionally. It’s ok to be grateful someone cares enough to give you feedback but to recognize that it doesn’t align with your goals or values. You don’t need to incorporate all feedback into your life and your work.
Creating a culture of feedback
By sharing and welcoming feedback from everyone you work with, you can create a culture where feedback is valued. Modeling receiving feedback gracefully can help your team see that feedback is a tool for professional growth. When we give and receive feedback freely, it’s not scary, and we all benefit.
In my 1:1s with my team, I try to end every meeting by sharing a piece of feedback with them and asking if they have any for me. I take time to learn how each member of my team prefers to receive feedback: their preferred medium (written or verbal), privately or publicly, and the cadence in which they like to receive it (directly after the fact, weekly, etc. Then I make it a point to follow through and share feedback with them accordingly. For example, when a team member gives a lightning talk to our development team, I’ll try to take notes and share feedback with them after.
Effective feedback practices foster productive communication among your team and can create trusting, respectful relationships where everyone is aligned around seeing each other succeed. Feedback is the first pillar in creating a supportive environment where your team continues to grow and enjoy their work. We'll be diving into accountability and recognition in the next posts in this series.
Citation: Thamhain, H. J. (2010). Influences of environment and leadership on team performance in complex project environments. Paper presented at PMI® Research Conference: Defining the Future of Project Management, Washington, DC. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.