Giving (and receiving) Feedback with Psychological Safety

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Giving (and receiving) Feedback with Psychological Safety

retrospectives and psychological safety

Providing constructive feedback is one of the most powerful things you can do to help others achieve their goals, be happier in their work, create psychological safety and help your teams and organisations perform at their best. Badly delivered feedback is one of the quickest ways to destroy psychological safety and break down trust in a team.

It’s really important to bear in mind how, why, and when feedback is delivered, or if it should be delivered at all. The effects of badly delivered feedback can be devastating. Poorly delivered feedback that is timed badly, delivered without concern for how it may be received, or feedback that is not actionable, can hugely impact psychological safety.

Badly delivered feedback destroys psychological safety and performance

All feedback is the result of an opinion. Remember that point when delivering feedback and receiving it.

Feedback must be true, and it must be actionable. When you receive feedback that isn’t actionable, you may feel trapped, targeted, and criticised rather than empowered. Poorly delivered feedback may simply describe what is wrong, without a suggestion of how any improvements could be made. Without providing actions or changes, feedback is simply badly delivered criticism.

Different Types of Feedback

It’s handy to think about the different types of feedback; we have:

  • Appreciative – you’re doing a good job, keep going!
  • Coaching – do this differently.
  • Evaluative – against this set of expectations/measurements, here’s how you’re doing in comparison.

Thanks to Mark Eddleston for the “Types of Feedback

It’s also worth bearing in mind that since all feedback is based on opinion and perception, not all feedback is true or accurate, and it’s important to remember that just because someone has given you some feedback, it doesn’t mean you need to act upon it. Feedback may be the result of misperception, a specific personal perspective, or even delivered with an intent to manipulate. So when you’re receiving feedback, consider:

  • Is this feedback true?
  • Is this feedback specific and actionable?
  • Is it genuine and coming via positive intent?
  • Is the person delivering it doing so with care and concern for me?
  • Is the person delivering this feedback experienced or qualified enough to do so?
  • Is the feedback appropriately timed?
  • Is this feedback delivered in a suitable, possibly private, space?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, then you may wish to discard or ignore the feedback, and provide constructive feedback in return.

How to deliver feedback and improve psychological safety

If you only remember one thing, make it the “Platinum Rule”: Treat others how they want to be treated. That means delivering feedback in a way that the recipient prefers, not how you prefer to deliver it. And that means asking how they want to receive feedback. Of course, they may not yet feel psychologically safe enough to be honest about how they want to receive it, and may instead tel you what they think you want to hear. But nobody said that leading people was easy – you must put the work in to first create an environment of psychological safety.

Good feedback must be:

  • True (as much as is possible)
  • Non-trivial (i.e. it must actually matter)
  • Well intended
  • Solicited (i.e. permission must be sought to provide feedback)
  • Actionable
  • Timely (i.e delivered as soon as possible)
  • Specific and precise
  • Private (unless explicit consent is given for it to be public)
  • Delivered from your perspective, not of others
  • Limited to only one or maximum of two points
  • Combined with positive encouragement
  • A conversation, not a statement (the recipient has the option to dispute or reject it)
  • A two-way street (the recipient may provide feedback in return)
  • Focussed on behaviours and performance, not personalities or style

When delivering feedback, first make sure that your perception is correct. Check in with the recipient, others on the team, or your coach, to make sure that what you believe to be true, is actually true. We only experience the world through out own rather foggy lens, and we’re often mistaken in respect to what actually happened, and we can never truly know the intent behind someone else’s actions.

Avoid trivial feedback. Whilst you, as a manager, may feel highly detail-oriented and that you want to provide every opportunity to your team to improve, recognise that frequent, trivial feedback can have a chilling effect on efforts by team members through a (well founded) fear that everything they do will be critiqued. As a result of frequent, trivial feedback, their interpersonally safest option in this case is to not try at all, or only carry out very low-risk, low-impact tasks where the risk of critique is low.

In respect to the material of the feedback, try providing actions in the form of experiments, such as “Next time, maybe you could try doing X instead of Y, and seeing if that works better.” By making everything an experiment, the risk of “failing” is significantly reduced.

And if you’re a manager, be aware that almost every comment you make, in private or public, can be perceived as “feedback” by your team members even is you don’t intend it as such.

When to refrain from giving feedback

Bear in mind that sometimes no feedback might be the better option – if someone simply needs encouragement, is finding life or work particularly challenging, has recently experienced trauma, the best thing to do may be to simply say “Well done, keep going.” Feedback can wait until they’re in a psychologically suitable place to receive it. This is why it’s critical to check in with the recipient before providing feedback.

The danger of really badly delivered feedback, or feedback delivered at a time when the subject is not able to accept it, may be that their performance suffers, or they simply quit – they give up and stop. It’s better that someone keeps going and doing “ok”, than they just stop completely. Positively-intended feedback can often have the opposite result if delivered poorly.

Feedback and psychological safety

Great feedback can enhance an already high performing, psychologically safe team, but poorly delivered feedback can destroy psychological safety, so be careful, empathetic and mindful when delivering it.

Download the Psychological Safety Action Pack to work deeper into team dynamics and performance.

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