Feedback is normally spoken about in a unidirectional way. Mostly, we want to learn how to give it to others - of course, we always find and share things for others to improve (just joking, we know there's a lot of positives being praised as well). Often, we even want to learn how to receive better what others share with us.
In contrast, much less is said and read about the fact that to make the most out of employee feedback, we don't just need to prepare ourselves to give and receive it: our counterpart also needs to be prepared and in full-sync. You may think of other examples in life where success relies on two parties being ready and synchronised, or it simply doesn't work. Table tennis, for instance (what example were you thinking of?)
Feedback or Feedforward?
In our high-paced startup, where a small team is continuously working shoulder to shoulder towards ambitious goals, we have found this realisation to be critical for our performance (and peace of mind). Hence, we decided two of us (of course!) should write an article together and spread one of our key learnings.
Since we acknowledged the importance of mutual readiness and alignment, our meta-conversations about feedback have become as important as the feedback we share. For example, under what conditions is the other person more receptive? Full-disclosure or sugar-coated? Infrequent but intense or perhaps often and in small doses? What objective does the other person have? Improving downsides or building confidence in upsides? Becoming a more productive professional or improving work-life balance?
These are all fundamental questions. With them, your valuable feedback will be received in the way you intended it to and help your colleague learn about themselves, derive action points and grow - and you will enjoy the same benefits. We often talk about how it shouldn't be feedback but feedforward - ultimately, it's supposed to help everyone improve, not look backwards and feel shame.
Even if someone is up for employee recognition, the feedback culture needs to stay intact. Reinforcing positive behavior and team engagement with specific suggestions helps them develop those skills even further and contributes to employee retention.
Through having these conversations, we have developed a more caring, effective and tailored way of sharing constructive feedback. For example, one of us always felt uncomfortable sharing negative observations (perhaps about skills that came across as underdeveloped in the other person). It might be a matter of education, values, context - we don't know, but we all have this kind of bias and personal preferences.
This method isn't limited to employee feedback or performance review time. Upward feedback is equally as important to keep that feedback loop healthy. Not only does this help leadership learn and grow in their roles, but it contributes to employee morale by allowing a direct report to get their voice heard constructively.
Long story short, since we talked about it, we agreed that the person who is sharing needs to double-check that they are doing so with the only intention of helping the other person grow, and the other person needs always to assume so first. People who are ready to get into difficult conversations for the benefit of their colleagues in a caring and considerate way should be proud, not concerned.
Suppose while applying this rule, something still doesn't feel right. In that case, the sharer needs to refrain from sharing until their feelings change: maybe it is simply too early after the fact, and things need to cool down, or it isn't something that needs improvement (but just a personal preference). Likewise, the receiver needs to flag it if they could not avoid feeling offended or uncomfortable: perhaps a rough delivery or a topic too personal to discuss in a professional context.
As a result, since we agreed on this solution, we have both felt better equipped to share negative feedback on a much more positive note while also enjoying a safer space to respond and openly discuss how it felt.