In the modern Cinderella movie with Lily James, Cinderella’s mom tells her daughter to “have courage and be kind.” That simple guidance provides the key to effective workplace feedback that leads to stronger relationships and real performance improvement.
Feedbackin’ ain’t easy
It’s hard to give good workplace feedback, even to direct reports. People often sit on one end of the spectrum or the other: They either avoid honest feedback or give harsh, accusatory feedback.
But good feedback helps both parties understand and improve. It’s not a mic drop moment, but rather it initiates an open-ended exploration that assumes good intentions and unknown factors.
The simple way to give good workplace feedback is to follow the advice Cinderella’s mom gave throughout her life and on her deathbed: “Have courage and be kind.”
(I have two young daughters and watch plenty of princess movies. So my reference points are pretty well scoped.)
Courage to go where it’s uncomfortable without attacking
First, we need courage to go into the conflict zone. Initiating feedback requires the will to breach the discomfort and persist for the good of our colleagues, our selves and our work.
A lot of people give harsh feedback because they’re already afraid of the response when they go into the conflict zone. They preemptively attack to protect themselves from what they assume will be a negative response. That’s not courage, but defensiveness.
Courage requires the bravery to go into the conflict zone with caring and a commitment to improvement, but without guns blazing. Courage is doing the right thing despite the fear.
Kindness to assume good intentions and aim for improvement
And that leads us to kindness. Good feedback starts a conversation. It doesn’t blame, but explores the situation to uncover what has happened. If someone has done something that doesn’t seem to meet expectations, either they need support for learning and improving or had different assumptions than you about the expectations. Either way, a kind and open demeanor opens the door to reflection and improvement.
When we go into feedback conversations with a fundamentally caring disposition we open the door for honesty and vulnerability, for discovery and unearthing assumptions and hidden factors. And we carry a sense of service and support into the interaction.
How does this look in practice? 4 simple steps
Step #1: Put forth an observation
I’ve found it helpful to start feedback conversations with an objective and specific observation, which I own as being my own perspective.
E.g. “I noticed you have missed the last two team meetings and seemed a bit distracted in the one you did come to. Is everything okay?”
Step #2: An invitation
By following the observation with an invitation we create wide open space for our colleague to discuss where she was coming from and explain her perspective. We also open the door to her owning her performance.
When we ask questions like “are you okay?” or “what were you aiming for when you did this?” or “how did you come to this conclusion?” we provide ourselves the opportunity to go below the surface and see the iceberg of information and assumptions from which a colleague’s observable actions stem.
Step #3: Ask “why?” and other follow-up questions
After we pose starting questions to open our exploration, the deeper assumptions come out when we ask good “why” questions.
Sometimes it takes a number of questions to uncover deep, fundamental assumptions that had shaped a colleague’s action. But we can’t progress much without getting there. We need to unearth foundational assumptions in order to get to lasting improvement. Going through this process also helps you and your colleague understand each other and can build a stronger, trusting relationship.
Step #4: Ask how we can test core assumptions
Once we’ve unearthed core assumptions we’ve hit gold. The next productive step is to work together to test those core assumptions. This is where we ask our colleague what led to her assumptions and how she thinks we can test them.
Sometimes the answer is to circle back with other colleagues and project stakeholders to ask them about things they’ve done or said to find out if assumptions are accurate. Other times the answer may be to review project chartering documents to understand differing interpretations. Maybe the answer is actually that our colleague needs to improve a skill.
No matter what, identifying and testing core assumptions is critical to setting the work, as well as our colleagues, up for success.
The alternative: Feedback that builds walls
Feedback that isn’t rooted in kindness and discovery tends to put people on the defensive. It can make it harder for them to hear the feedback and also may focus only on observable actions, without digging up the underlying assumptions and causes.
Harsh feedback can either break down a colleague’s confidence or lead them to build a protective wall against feedback, against situations that trigger it, or against the people who give it.
Feedback for improvement: Have the courage to be honest and kind
The approach I’ve described often unearths assumptions, observations, facts, relationships or situations that we didn’t already know about or understand. Sometimes there are very personal factors we come to learn about. Other times we just learn about a colleague’s thought processes. Either way, we end up understanding each other better, having a stronger relationship, and moving forward with greater alignment.
Feedback isn’t about being a total boss by telling someone they screwed up, but about committing to making the work, your relationships, and each other’s performance better through dialogue. So let’s be more like Cinderella’s mom.