Science and kindness can radically change how we give feedback and, in turn, people’s mental health. Here is how.
Note: This was co-written with my wonderful friend, Kara Joseph, M.S. Kara has a Masters in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and is a passionate advocate for applying humanistic and scientific principles to the workplace.
Business leaders have the ability to do great good or cause great harm to those who work for and with them. They can create an environment that leads to happier humans, or one in which human suffering is increased. That’s because the impact work has on our mental health is well-researched and documented. We know that certain actions can and do create happier or more miserable employees, and that employee satisfaction affects the bottom line.
In the past, mental health topics in the workplace have been seen not only as a burden but also as the individual’s responsibility. Today, an awareness of the key role business leaders play in creating a kinder, safer world is emerging. This is all thanks to an explosion in psychological research and the drastic changes businesses have had to adapt to through the pandemic.
Understanding how to give effective feedback is incredibly important when considering employee satisfaction. Feedback is extremely personal and emotional because it pertains to our performance or behavior. It can be positive or negative, but the focus of this article is on giving negative feedback.
As everyone has experienced, negative feedback can make us start to doubt ourselves, our worth, and our abilities. But paradoxically, not enough people seem to consider how the feedback we give employees can impact their mental health. Listen to any employee conversation long enough and it becomes clear that unhappiness at work often involves their relationship with superiors.
It makes sense. Nothing has impacted my mental health like the feedback I get. Being appreciative and supported makes me feel good. Being misunderstood, ridiculed, and criticized makes me feel bad.
People always tell me I am too sensitive. They want me to stop caring, feeling, and paying attention to the complex impacts of decisions on other people. But I can’t help it. It’s my natural state.
So I’ve been developing a new way of giving feedback for the past three years. One that focuses on understanding the complex nature of humans. One that is based on kindness and science. One that is what I always wanted from my managers and what everyone I’ve spoken to has wished for.
I’ve fine-tuned it and gotten lots of positive responses, so now I’m ready to share it.
Why do we need a new way of giving feedback?
- The science is clear that you need to have deep skepticism of the feedback you provide.
- Most feedback is demotivating and hurts employee performance and providing too much feedback hurts employees even more.
- The majority of feedback is about things that are not important to the business.
- Too often leaders are quick to blame their employees for feedback not working when, in fact, it’s our misconceptions of how feedback works and how to give it that lead to failure.
What are the ways feedback can be warped and wrong?
One of the first things one learns during any CBT or mindfulness training is how little we should trust our thoughts and emotions to provide objective information. We are so prone to using cognitive biases, heuristics, and fallacies to make snap decisions without applying any critical thinking. Here are some I often encounter in the wild:
1. Selective abstraction: Drawing conclusions based on one element of a highly complex matter.
Example: You think a deal will go bad just because of a single email your employee sent that you didn’t like.
2. Arbitrary inference: Drawing conclusions when there is little to no evidence
Example: You think the way an employee conducts calls is wrong just because that’s not how you do them.
3. Magnification: Making a mountain out of a molehill.
Example: An employee makes a mistake and you think it’s the end of the world even though there is no evidence indicating this mistake mattered.
4. Emotional reasoning: Your emotional reaction proves something is true. So associate with your emotional response.
Example: You feel anxious about an employee taking over client work so you reason that it’s because the employee is not ready.
5. Fundamental Attribution Error: The tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.
Example: You chastise a “lazy employee” for being late to a meeting and then proceeded to make an excuse for being late yourself that same day.
We can avoid the pitfalls of giving feedback that is not helpful with a framework that is based on skepticism and enables conversations that are kind and humble.
Here is what I do:
Before having any feedback conversations:
- Make sure that your feedback focuses on performance and is job-relevant.
- Do not focus on aspects of personality or behavior unless there has been an observed negative impact.
- Make sure to ask the individual how they prefer to receive feedback, and take steps to deliver feedback using that method.
Then, when you’re ready to give feedback using the recipient’s desired method:
1 — Consider whether results would be meaningfully improved if you provide feedback. Be open to the notion that your feedback might make no difference, or could harm the individual. If you conclude that your feedback will not have an actionable impact, consider not giving it at all. If you decide it will be impactful and actionable, proceed.
2 — Use the recipient’s preferred method of receiving negative feedback. State the facts and your interpretation of the situation as a question based on the premise that the other person may not agree with your assessment and that your perception of the situation could be wrong.
Formula: “It seems to me that (state what you’ve noticed)? Does it seem that way to you?”
Example 1: “From the information I can see, it looks like not much progress has been made on that SEO audit. Am I looking in the wrong place or what do you need in order to move forward?”
In this case, you might learn that the employee was unclear about priorities or dates because those weren’t shared up front, and clear expectations weren’t set.
Example 2: “It seems to me that John (a potential customer) is put off by our casual way of talking to him. It seems he is uncomfortable and doesn’t appreciate us so high-energy and down-to-earth with him. That’s just an assumption. It could just be my own insecurity because this is a big opportunity for us. Does it seem that way to you or am I just being anxious?”
3 — Ask questions instead of making assumptions. The individual may have logical reasons for their approach, or there may be situational factors that you are unaware of. Show the individual that you see them as an intelligent, thoughtful human and are interested in understanding them.
Formula: “What’s going on that has led to X results?”
Example 1: “I’m worried about your happiness and I want to know what led to us not making the expected progress on the SEO audit. I’m sure there is a good reason this happened.”
Example 2: “What could be making John so short and annoyed with us? I trust you and I want to know your assessment of the situation.”
4 — After coming to a mutual understanding of the situation and its causes, set up clear parameters for what success looks like if necessary. This needs to be agreed upon by both parties and should be completely collaborative and actionable. While it can be done verbally, I like to create a shared document on Notion and follow a simple guide:
Why: Agree on why you’re doing this. Why are we here today? What are we trying to do differently?
What: State what you are going to do. How will it look and feel? What needs to happen?
How: How are we going to measure the success of this?
Why: We got here today because I was not clear about what the deadline is, did not check in with you on this task, and did not express the priority of this audit. Moving forward, it will be my responsibility to clearly outline what deadlines and priorities are expected. This should all be written and trackable.
What: We are going to track tasks like this on a Jira board. We will write the tasks together and, once prioritization and deadlines are decided, [employee] will add the agreed dates and timelines and manage to completion. We will review if we need to deprioritize other tasks. It will be my responsibility, as your manager, to check in on the status of this task during our 1 on 1 call every week.
How: We know this is successful when: 1) All tasks have deadlines and priorities, 2) I have visibility into task status by reviewing task comments, and can proactively provide support where needed, and 3) you have the resources you need to be successful.
Why: We both agree that John seems a bit uncomfortable on our calls. We believe this will impact the likelihood of the opportunity we’re working on being lost. So we want to optimize things for success.
What: We will change how we present ourselves in calls with John to see if that makes a difference. Maybe if we keep our emotions in check and mirror John’s body language and facial emotions he will drop his guard more. Maybe using more professional language, fewer placeholder words, and interrupting him less often will get him to be more open with us.
How: This is intuitive and very hard to measure. So we will operate on the principle that you are trying your best and, regardless of the outcome, trust that you have nothing but the best of intentions.