Giving Feedback on Work Products in Ways That BuilD
A CASE STUDY FROM MICHELLE’S RECENT FILES
February of this year was a busy time at Leading Elephants. We were kicking off several year-long series on Leading for Impact Inclusion and Belonging, and were deep in the throes of planning, focus groups and retreat design. Making my priorities for each week match with my calendar work blocks required advanced calculus, and every hour counted.
My valued colleague “Sandra” had asked me to pick up the first draft of a retreat design. I hadn’t planned for it that week, so I spent my Sunday working through framing, activities and pre-work to send it across to her. Without referencing the work I had painstakingly prepared, Sandra began our one-on-one Monday with a penetrating question about the overarching narrative for the day. Then she said “I was thinking of it this way,” and started scratching out her own design in a separate Google Doc.
My chest immediately tightened and I felt my breath constrict. My brain was racing. The story I told myself was that my colleague saw my work product as inferior and not worth discussing. I had wasted a precious weekend day, I told myself, drafting something that they didn’t value at a minimum and possibly didn’t even read. We stumbled through the call, realizing ultimately that we actually agreed on most points, but not until we worked our way through some awkward moments.
The next day, when reviewing a work product of my direct report “Kristie” I jumped right in with “I wonder if we might do X in this part, and Y in that section.” Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks, remembering how I had felt Monday morning. I put myself in Kristie’s shoes, and realized just how many times I had been the one kicking off a conversation with suggested changes, missing the opportunity to convey how strong the draft was and acknowledge the great work she had done.
FEEDBACK IS SITUATED IN A POWER DYNAMIC
As we watch this vignette unfold, we can see that power is an undercurrent in so many moments in our work. Power can come in multiple forms like the position one is in or the social identity markers one carries. In reacting to a work product, there is power in just being a feedback giver. The other person has given their all, and the feedback giver can either provide momentum and bring insight, or instead wield judgment on the work as “not enough.”
But, as power often feels invisible to the person wielding it, it’s easy to miss how it feels to be on the receiving end. (Sidebar: This is always important, but it’s magnified when the feedback giver also operates with positional authority and/or other societal privilege.) Michelle’s experience was a welcome reminder to be cognizant of her own power and doubly mindful of its impact.
As feedback givers, being thoughtful about our delivery makes all the difference in how these moments play out. These are the moments that build strong bonds and cultivate our staff. Let’s look at the mindsets and actions that bring the ✨ magic. ✨
A STARTING REMINDER: “I’M FOR YOU FEEDBACK” AND THE FOUR “CS”
Before diving into the pragmatics of giving feedback on work products, let’s zoom out on the guiding principles that help us in these moments.
We believe feedback is situated in a relationship, and that “The Four Cs” (Care, Candor, Curiosity and Cultural Humility) operate as a true north in dialogue that fosters a culture of belonging.
The psychological safety that’s necessary for learning exists when team members feel “I’m for You” (not just for the work product) in the stance their managers take. “I’m for You” feedback means I honor the work you have poured in, I am invested in your long-term growth and I want to find a reasonable balance between how perfect this needs to be and all that I know you are balancing.
“I’m for You” doesn’t, however, mean I just leave you alone to do your thing. Team members share that they treasure clear goals, expectations and constructive feedback just as much as they value appreciation.
FOUR KEYS TO FEEDBACK ON WORK PRODUCTS
Here’s how we are working to put that into practice when looking at work together:
1. Acknowledge The Work in the Product
Even after working on that Sunday, Michelle truly did want to hear how my colleague could improve what she wrote. She was just tired from pushing hard, and needed someone to say first “Wow! You put in a lot to move us forward. Thank you.”
Consider starting feedback conversations with things like:
“I can see deeply you have been thinking about X topic. This is amazing!”
“I love how you took this nascent concept and created a whole framework from it. I am so grateful!”
“You go girl! Look at what you have done!”
2. Give with the Headline
Whether we are a 3-year old presenting Dad with a finger painting or a 40-year old sharing our first white paper, a part of just wants to know “how did I do?” Getting the big picture context first before the details allows our brains to rest and engage in the discussion rather than searching for the direction the conversation is going.
Try phases like these:
“This report is really strong. I have a couple of things I’d love to chat about, but I think we will be in good shape to send this out tomorrow.”
“You created some very solid elements here. I think we have some further work to do on X (e.g. landing the close or articulating the framework) and would love to share some ideas to help.”
“I can see you really beginning to put some shape to the idea in this first draft. We are probably a couple of turns away from final, and I’m excited to dig in with you further on X Y and Z."
3. Voiceover Your Key Interests
Those of us with a detailed eye (and more than a few years experience) may notice 100 things we might have done differently. But an “I’m for You” stance sees this person’s growth and sense of agency as just as critical as this one work product. Help your team “see the forest for the trees” by choosing three-ish themes to give feedback on that matter the most. Share the rationale (why they matter) and be willing to explore with your team different ways to get there.
Here are some examples of feedback we’ve given recently:
“It’s important to me when we publish articles that leaders can see themselves in it. I’d like to see more empathy for the reader in this paragraph - recognizing that leadership is hard. What are the different ways we could do that?”
“During our leaders' session, I want managers to see that 1:1s are not just a nice to have, but a key place to clear barriers, course-correct and fuel momentum. I wonder how we could use examples or scenarios that illustrate that?”
“This annual retreat is a critical opportunity for our virtual team to build much deeper connections. Can we find deeper ways to connect personally before diving into strategic direction?"
4. Agree Together How to Deal with Nits and Nats
While we want to focus our conversation on the few key themes that matter the most, there are usually smaller things you notice too (eg. sentences that are clunky or suggestions to make things better that they could take or leave.) This is where some managers’ feedback becomes overbearing and soul-crushing, and other managers (in a desire to be hands-off or nice) don’t provide the discerning insights staff are actually craving to get better.
Here are some things to consider when deciding how to address the nits and nats:
How perfect does this need to be? - Many of us grew up in workplaces with a high standard of “excellence.” But applying that same standard to everything can lead to the exhaustion and burnout that is endemic to many workplaces. The most powerful way to get great work when it matters just may be to articulate when “getting a B” is good enough.
Where the person wants to grow or wants feedback - One of our team members is great at saying “I’m really uncertain about X and would love your ideas. On Y, I’ve done several turns so I am hoping you’ll just raise any red flags there.” We absolutely love knowing what she is looking for!
The person’s feedback preferences - Sometimes individuals are hungry to learn, and value every suggestion they can get. Other times, they are exhausted, with little left to give, and would be thrilled if the reviewer made little changes directly.
This is where the rubber hits the road on “I’m for You.” Making a conscious choice together on how much feedback you will give (and how) allows feedback to balance strong work products with a motivated and inspired team.
FEEDBACK ON WORK PRODUCTS CAN BE A CULTURE-BUILDER
Let’s face it. Feedback can be a key building block to thriving relationships and cultures. But it also can be the last straw for an exhausted team member who doesn’t feel truly seen and valued. Feedback seems simple on its face, but it is amazing how many experienced leaders (ourselves included!) go on auto-pilot and miss the mark.
When we slip into unconscious habits, we miss an easy opportunity to tune in to the other person, focus in on what’s most important for both the work and their growth and add juice to the virtuous cycle of motivation, belongingness, and performance.
We are cooking up an opportunity for our community to do a deep dive into feedback this year that equips leaders to build those virtuous cycles on diverse teams across lines of difference. If you’d like to learn more, click here to receive details when they are available.