You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.
Zig Ziglar

I recently had the pleasure of debriefing about two dozen “360” employee feedback evaluations for a global company. For most of the employees this was the first time they had ever participated in such an exercise and the debriefing session was often met with a lot of anticipation and in some cases anxiety. I did my best to reassure folks that this was just one way the company wanted to engage them as employees, but I was left with the sense that it was the idea of getting written feedback in the first place that was difficult. Folks wanted to get to the “bad” stuff quickly to get it over with.

I found the same to be true at a nonprofit organization where I prepared people for their annual performance evaluations. Different industry, different culture, and different town, yet nobody relished the idea of receiving feedback even if it was being delivered in a sensitive and constructive way. People were afraid and braced themselves for the worst. There was a sense that the feedback was not going to be useful, but instead used as a weapon to put people down.

Generally speaking, feedback is a powerful way to interact with employees. Positive feedback can make them feel good whereas negative feedback can hurt badly, particularly when taken in as a personal affront. But it is just not that simple is it? Despite the many fantasies you might have, you have to admit that nobody is perfect. You are not, your employees are not, your boss is not, your wife, husband or kids are not, and neither is your organization. Being able to receive and utilize feedback, be it positive or negative, can be the tipping point to greater levels of success and deeper personal satisfaction.

Let’s first look specifically at negative feedback. Negative feedback is one of the processes that let people, organizations, systems, etc. know that something is either not working or requires improvement. For example, when we see dead fish floating in the river, the ecosystem gives us feedback that the river is polluted. When you get sick your body is telling you that you need more rest. When the car is out of gas it will stop running.

There are many areas where we seem to be okay with feedback. We have accepted it as a natural way of life, but there are even more areas where we are not at all okay with it. Most of these areas are in the personal arena. They have to do with our performance, our values, our pride; stuff that is usually connected with the ego. When we get personal feedback about things that matter to us and we are attached to the outcome, bang, we get hurt. When we don’t care and don’t take it personal, we say “thank you”.

Unfortunately, most of us have never learned how to receive or give feedback. It wasn’t taught to us in school (although I wish it had been). We are clueless how to do it, when to do it, and when not to do it. Some people don’t want to offer negative feedback because they don’t want to hurt other people. Others like to be martyrs and would rather talk behind someone’s back about all the things that don’t work about them. When was the last time that you went to someone else to complain about a person when you could have gone directly to them? Yes, we have all done it.

As a leader you are in a prime position to master and teach your employees, friends, and even family members how to give and receive feedback in a positive and constructive way. You can begin by teaching folks how to deliver positive feedback that goes beyond an “a-t-a boy”. There are two parts to this:

A) Tell them how to acknowledge (deliver positive feedback about something they did in the past) and champion (let them know that you believe they can do a task to be carried out in the future) one another. In a work setting, then have them make it part of the staff meeting.

B) Have them practice offering and emotionally taking in positive feedback from one another. This creates a wonderful platform for future in teaching people how to deliver negative feedback, sometimes referred to as constructive criticism.

Once you have some positive successes under your belt you can start to work on mastering delivering negative feedback. Below are some guidelines to assist:

Feedback Giver:
1. Make sure the time is right to deliver the feedback.
2. Deliver feedback when you are neutral about the topic
3. If at all possible, deliver the feedback directly to the person for whom it is meant.
4. Be sure both parties have closure before ending the conversation.

Feedback Receiver:
1. Don’t take things personal. It is not always about you.
2. Be open and curious. Ask questions.
3. Get some assistance when get your buttons pushed.
4. Be sure both parties have closure before ending the conversation.

Finally, no culture is going to change without practice. If you create plenty of opportunities for people to both give and as well as receive positive and negative feedback they will become used to the process and your organization, department, or family will run more smoothly and people may even be happier.