4 Ridiculously Easy Ways to Inspire Honest Feedback at Work
Honest feedback at work

As a former art student, I still sweat if you ask me about portfolio reviews.

Review days were often a harrowing experience. After long hours and late nights of work, my classmates and I would post our prints up on a carpeted wall with thumbtacks through the corners, one person at a time, with the hope of hearing some honest feedback.

I love positive honest feedback

I love positive honest feedback, don't you?

More often than not my prints were analyzed, dissected, and deflated by my peers. And after it felt like everything had been ripped to shreds, my prints came down, someone else's went up, and the process began again.

It should have been a positive experience. The long-term goal was to gain a better understanding of what worked, what didn’t, and the best direction to take the work next time.

Of course, it also came with a grade attached.

Whether you are a project manager overseeing a team or looking to communicate more effectively with your teammates, soliciting, accepting, and providing feedback is always part of the job. Making sure that feedback is honest and direct is the most effective way to communicate constructively, whether that message is negative or positive. And the science is there to prove it.

I'm not sure how that works

Explain the psychology of feedback to me

For example, did you know that if you are untruthful, it can damage your work performance? A recent Ernst & Young study found that “moral stress,” or the “bad feeling” you get after telling half-truths or outright lying, can result in a 20% decline in work performance. Furthermore, research from The British Psychological Society found that aversion to providing negative but candid feedback from peers or between manager and subordinate could be a sign that the workplace promotes low self-esteem among workers.

Luckily, the research also shows that forthright exchanges between employees have clear, direct benefits. Gartner recently released a report that found high-quality peer feedback could be attributed to “boosting employee performance by as much as 14%.” The Journal of Applied Psychology found that managers largely become fairer over time when given consistent, honest feedback, especially from their reports.

There’s a difference between “honest” and “constructive,” though.

Positive portfolio reviews (if there were any) aren’t the ones I still remember. Once, a photo that I was particularly fond of came back with a post-it note review from my professor. “The light gleaming through the window is one of those examples where you have to wonder if it was skill or luck that was responsible,” my professor wrote.

I didn’t feel like he was leaning towards skill.

If it was just luck, as my professor seemed to imply, there wasn’t any useful information in his note that I could build on next time. I was left to interpret his meaning, and guess at what the next step should be. Honest feedback could have been the backbone of the portfolio review sessions. Had my professor followed these guidelines, we could have improved the classroom communication and, eventually, our work, together. Here are a few ideas that would have worked in our classroom, and will work for you too.

1. Create a Psychologically Safe Environment

Supportive team members create a psychologically safe environment

Psychological safety is about support.

The constructive criticism I received at those portfolio review sessions could have improved my artwork. Under more positive conditions, I think it would have.

So how do you go about creating an environment at work where honest feedback can be shared openly and without creating friction between team members?

Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, shares three easy guidelines to help teams communicate effectively while pinpointing, learning from, and eventually overcoming communication problems.

The first step is to recognize uncertainty and the necessity of interdependence among team members working on a project. She says. “Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.” Acknowledge that your team is tackling a problem that no one knows the answer to yet. Because everyone is going to be learning together as you go along, it is especially important to have everyone’s voice involved in the process finding a solution.

Your team has the best opportunity to grow when everyone speaks up, asks questions, and improves together.

The second step to creating a psychologically safe environment is to acknowledge that even you, project manager or not, are going to make mistakes (because we all know that everyone makes mistakes).

Show your colleagues that you’re open to feedback when something doesn’t go right, and they will
be more likely to let you know when they see it happen, improving the project.

Here is a calculator to help you determine how open you are with your colleagues.

If they feel safe offering feedback, they will feel safer receiving it as well.

Finally, Edmondson stresses the importance of modeling your own curiosity. “Ask a lot of questions,” she says. “That actually creates a necessity for voice.”

Todd B. Kashdan suggests that one way to do this is by starting meetings by opening up space for creative ideas to emerge.

“When ideas are in their infancy, search for what is interesting and ask questions. They can be tough questions, as long as they arise from the desire to gain knowledge as opposed to the need to exert control.”

Promote the practice of sharing thoughts amongst the team, opening up the space for good and bad ideas. It makes it easy for everyone to get involved and to pick the best ones.

2. Seek out Feedback for Yourself

Ask for feedback at work

Ask for advice

One way to make sure your coworker is comfortable hearing your feedback is to ask for feedback yourself. It will help build trust between the two of you, which is essential to making honest feedback stick.

Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, told Business Insider that the best thing to do is to ask a colleague for their advice rather than their opinion. Specifically, Cialdini says, “When you ask for someone’s opinion, here’s what that person does: psychologically, they take a half-step back from you. They separate and they go into themselves to find an answer.”

He adds that, better yet, “asking for advice causes [your colleague] to take a half step towards you psychologically, to put themselves in a partnership, collaborative, cooperative state of mind. And the research shows they become more supportive of your plan or idea before they experience it.”

Building that foundation of trust doesn’t have to be hard. It can be simple actions like praising others’ accomplishments, sharing information, and trusting your teammates. It may seem obvious, but by allowing yourself to trust your co-workers' skills, they are likely to see you as trustworthy as well, helping to create that bond.

3. Listening is Important, Too

Listen carefully

Listen carefully

During those infamous portfolio review sessions, one rule my professor enforced was that you weren’t allowed to talk when your work was up on the wall.

No defending yourself, no explaining your thought process.

It is easy to get defensive and try to protect yourself when a group of peers is doing their best to find flaws in your hard work. But by removing the opportunity to explain your intent you had to really pay attention to how your peers understood your work.

You just had to sit there and listen.

And sure, my professor’s words carried a little more weight because he was, after all, the one giving me a grade; he was the named authority. But I sometimes struggled to take my classmates seriously. They were peers, and half the time I could see their eyes gloss over as I critiqued their work. Why should I listen to their feedback if they didn't want to hear what I had to say?

When it comes to teams, giving and receiving feedback becomes even more complicated between peers. Everyone is responsible for the end product as opposed to an individual artist working solo. When there are problems to be addressed, it can be a recipe for pointing fingers instead of constructive critique.

Amy Edmondson, who also contributed to the section on creating a safe environment, tells the story of a study worked on as a young researcher. She wanted to know, “do better hospital patient care teams make fewer mistakes?” (You can find the specific part of her speech referencing the quantitative effects of honest feedback here.) With the help of trained nurse investigators, she evaluated the highest performing teams and combined it with data on how many mistakes were reported per team. Initially, it appeared that the best teams were making the most mistakes. It was only after further study that it became clear that the best teams were reporting more errors because they were also the most willing to openly discuss them, and to use them as a learning experience from which everyone could improve.

A surprisingly good resource for demonstrating active listening is the Auditor General’s office of the Australian government. They outlined the three stages of understanding when it comes to hearing and accepting feedback in a productive way.

  1. Be aware of your initial reaction, and be able to moderate it. Processing feedback will take more than a few seconds, and you don’t want to seem dismissive.
  2. Reflect on your own performance and ask for specific examples to help you understand the feedback.
  3. Respond by thanking the person giving the feedback. Being open to receiving feedback helps to build trust between colleagues. Then focus on future improvements and provide specific steps to move forward.

4. Be Supportive With Feedback

Constructive honest feedback

Constructive honest feedback

Writing in Psychology Today, Emma M. Seppälä says, “Not only can feedback given in a supportive way be honest, it is immeasurably more effective than blunt criticism in three critical ways: It motivates performance, is less likely to be misinterpreted, and uplifts rather than crushing employees.”

It is equally important to provide specific examples with positive and negative feedback. Highlighting particular strengths will reinforce what is working and encourage development. Offering criticism with specific guidelines for improvement will make the solution tangible.

Rather than telling someone “your work is sloppy," a better way to frame it would be “Your report had the right research, great analysis, and excellent organization. With a little bit of tweaking to some rough spots with spelling and grammar, I think we'll be able to present it to the board."

Dr. Kristina Hallet, a clinical psychologist and executive coach, says “If employees are primed to give and receive honest feedback as part of what moves the whole team forward, this tends to go better.” 

She continues,

“Feedback should start with what people are doing right – and be detailed and specific. Following this with detailed commentary on specific areas that can be improved, with accompanying suggestions for change and availability of resources, makes it easier to take in and process the feedback. Finally, the feedback needs to be neutral and geared toward content, not personal. It’s personalized negative feedback that disrupts interpersonal relationships among colleagues.”

When it comes to negative feedback, it can be tough to be critical of a team member. After all, when you have to work together every day you want to be on good terms with each other. But most people want to hear the hard truth.

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman argue against the default assumption that most managers dislike giving negative feedback because they assume that people don’t like to receive it. In their survey of 899 people, Zenger and Folkman found that 57% of survey respondents prefer receiving corrective feedback and “when asked what was most helpful in their career, fully 72% said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback.”

Unsurprising? Knowing how to improve should help you improve, after all. The more significant takeaway from Zenger and Folkman's research was that honest feedback is a two-way street. They “found that subordinates whose managers did not listen to their point of view before offering up feedback were significantly less interested in receiving negative feedback.”

So again, the first step for a project manager or peer that is trying to reach a colleague and share feedback that is effective and supportive is to be open to receiving it.

Honest Feedback is Good Feedback

Honest feedback

Some honest feedback is more helpful than others

In an art class, there may not be any way to avoid a bruised ego when portfolio reviews are involved. Thankfully, the workplace generally recognizes that sticking everyone’s ideas with thumbtacks and putting them up on a wall just to punch them full of holes is not the best way to foster productive teamwork.

Building trust among team members by being open to honest feedback, and providing it with specific, helpful, examples go a long way toward creating safe environments where projects can thrive.

And if nothing else, avoid passive-aggressive sticky notes (or blog posts). They aren’t going to endear you to anyone.

Do you have any tricks or tips for promoting honest feedback among your team members? Be sure to let me know in the comments.