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7 Reasons Why Giving Feedback at Work Fails

Marta Kuzma
7 min read
Apr 21, 2020

Being part of a team comes with various responsibilities. Of course, you have to do your part, but what about supporting others? Being asked for feedback often causes stress and anxiety. It gets even worse if you haven’t been asked to provide it. How do you give feedback in a helpful way while making sure you don’t offend your coworkers? You’ll find various tips and tricks on the internet. But to deliver feedback successfully, you also need to know what not to do. Let’s talk about why sometimes giving feedback fails, even when you have the best intentions. 

Teamwork. The word that becomes a key phrase in the story of every successful business. In all the meticulously crafted, colorful CVs, being a good team player sits right next to the multitasking skills. Both promises are put to the test in an unforgiving work environment. Everyone finally gives up on proving their expertise in doing many complicated tasks at once. How about excelling in teamwork? Well, this one isn’t up for negotiation. Being a vague term itself, teamwork requires many other abilities for one to be successful. One thing no one mentions among their soft skills is the ability to give or take feedback. Today, we will focus on the former. 

Some of the reasons our feedback fails seem obvious when we read about them. Yet we often forget about the right practices when we’re put in a stressful or challenging situation. Soft skills like this one require a mindful approach and good self-control.  

Why giving feedback fails  

1. You forget about the main goal of giving feedback

Whether your colleague simply needs your input or you’d like to share your concerns, the goal remains the same. You both strive for improvement. Feelings of disappointment or frustration take their toll and make people forget about their main intention. Take a step back if you feel like negativity is taking over the conversation. A deep breath will help reset your mind. Make sure you’re both on the same page. 

Simple questions or confirmations will clear the atmosphere. “Do I sound too negative? I want both of us to be satisfied. Let’s focus on what we can improve here.”

2. You engage in the discussion before knowing the full picture

Make sure the project or situation you want to talk about is clear for both sides. Before giving feedback, get the full picture, and make sure both you and your colleague are on the same page. 

If you want to talk about a specific situation, start from a quick recap of what happened. The way we perceive things depends on our individual personalities and experiences. Sum up your impression, and ask your colleague to do the same. Focus on facts and outcomes. Don’t assume another person’s intentions. As soon as you both share your impressions, you might find out that something that seemed to be a problem was a simple misunderstanding. 

If you’re giving feedback on your teammate’s work, don’t be afraid to ask detailed questions. Ask for the context and the goals of the task. Make sure you have the full picture before you offer your feedback or ideas. 

3. You jump into a monologue instead of a conversation

It’s essential for both sides to feel equal when feedback is given. Even if your expertise or position in the company differ, make sure your colleague feels respected and valued. If you jump into a monologue, the impression of being told off will not help your teammate feel safe and supported. Your feedback will fail and won’t be helpful. 

Ask questions to improve the flow of your conversation. “Is everything clear? Do you need more context on that?” Also, leave space for others to ask their questions too, and be open to explaining things in detail.  

4. You’re being vague and imprecise instead of suggesting actionable improvements 

Watch out for confusing or unclear statements. Be precise about what you’re saying. Think of the actual changes that the project will benefit from. Suggest improvements that can be implemented instead of judging the current situation. Whatever your feedback is about, deliver solutions rather than opinions. 

Let’s say your colleague asks for your feedback on a social media post they are creating. Instead of saying it seems too long or unengaging, suggest quick fixes. “Why don’t we add a question or a call-to-action to engage the audience?” This will inspire your colleague to improve the post rather than make them focus on what they did wrong. 

5. You don’t give reasons for suggested changes

Throwing ideas at your teammates won’t make them understand where you’re coming from. Make sure you’re clear about why your suggestions could help. Tell your team what worked for you and why. Explain how they will benefit from implementing your suggested changes. 

Imagine you work in a customer support department. Your colleague is chatting with a customer having technical issues, and they are struggling to provide solutions. The customer is getting frustrated that it’s taking so long. Instead of suggesting that a detailed ticket will be more relevant in this situation, explain your reasoning. Tell your coworker that technical issues often take longer, especially when the tech department needs to be involved. Suggest that with a ticket, the customer will be able to go about their day, and your team will gain more time to resolve the problem. Your colleague will learn not only how to handle this situation but also how to explain it to the customer.

Explaining your idea in detail allows your coworkers to reuse the new information in the future. Quick fixes only help in a given moment. When you explain the situation better, you give your teammates tools instead of ready-made solutions. 

6. You focus on the person rather than the problem

We all come with different experiences and knowledge. We have different strengths and weaknesses, and our actions are a result of many things that happen during the day. To give constructive feedback, don’t judge the person. Focus on the problem or task at hand. You cannot change people, and you shouldn’t try. Let them improve on their own by supporting them during the various situations they face at work. 

If you felt offended with something your colleague said during the lunch break, telling them they lack emotional intelligence will only fuel the conflict. Instead, talk about this particular situation and how it could be avoided. When you want to comment on a particular project, comment on the project and not your colleagues’ qualifications. Avoid talking about people. It only ruins the team’s spirit and your relationships at work. 

7. You criticize   

By criticizing people, their work, or behavior, you only move further away from resolving the problem. Criticism puts people on the defensive. Instead of talking about a specific project or situation, they will end up justifying their actions. Their resistance comes from feeling attacked. You both lose precious time that could be spent on brainstorming ways to improve. 

The Feedback Fallacy article in the Harvard Business Review disrupted conventional thinking about feedback. It pointed out that, “Humans are unreliable raters of other humans.” 

“Our evaluations are deeply colored by our own understanding of what we’re rating others on, our own sense of what good looks like for a particular competency, our harshness or leniency as raters, and our own inherent and unconscious biases.”

To make a long story short, none of us are a source of truth. Our feedback cannot be objective. By criticizing others, we send a message that we know better. Instead, we should focus on our own experiences and share ideas we think could work. Be open-minded and humble. When everyone feels equal, respected, and understood, the conversation will bring value and space for improvement.

That’s what we should all strive for. Great teamwork comes from good intentions and a desire to help and support each other. Be mindful when you talk to your team, and give feedback that inspires others instead of hurting their feelings.