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Employee feedback: how to give it, how to receive it, and how to make the most of it

July 10, 2019 by Eric Robinson

Giving and receiving feedback is an essential ingredient for the long-term success of any organization… or any relationship for that matter. Companies are built on professional relationships, and the strongest relationships are built on effective communication.

I am Eric Robinson, Support Engineer at Hotjar, and I’d like to share my strategies for giving and receiving feedback in the healthiest, most productive way possible. I’ve seen these techniques work well here at Hotjar, and I hope they inspire you and your team to take your communication skills to the next level.

Table of contents

What is employee feedback? And why is it important?

Employee feedback is any information exchanged by employees (formally or informally) regarding their performance, skills, or ability to work within a team. Both supervisors and peers may deliver feedback, and when done tactfully, the process can create a stronger, more harmonious workplace.

Feedback is important because it helps break bad habits, reinforces positive behavior, and enables teams to work more effectively toward their goals.

5 strategies for giving effective, actionable feedback

Whatever your role in your company, at some point you’re going to have to give feedback. In my experience, giving praise is easy because everyone loves a nice compliment. Constructive criticism, on the other hand, is much harder to deliver… and can be just as challenging to hear. 

Keeping quiet may feel like the path of least resistance, but it’ll be harder on you and your colleagues in the long run because the problems will just fester. Rather than taking the easy way out, take a deep breath and use the following strategies when it’s time to speak up.

1. Give timely, ‘live’ feedback

Have you ever held something in for weeks or months before you finally let someone know what was on your mind? You wouldn’t be the first person to do that, but it’s never the best way to go (trust me, I speak from experience).

When you hold off, minor issues can grow into major ones, and the person receiving the critique is more likely to become defensive if you start pointing out problems that stretch back weeks, months, or years. You’ve also robbed them of the opportunity to make an improvement the entire time you’ve held back your feedback.

Plus, it’s just easier to solve problems when you address them quickly. In the U.S., we call it ‘ripping off the BAND-AID’. The idea is that peeling a BAND-AID off slowly is far more painful (physically and emotionally) than giving it one firm yank.

Of course, don’t be in such a hurry that you send the message via email or text.  Written communication carries far less nuance than spoken communication, and in my experience, you can convey more context verbally. That way, they won’t take your words in ways you never intended. Instead, have a live conversation if at all possible (in person, over video chat, or on the phone).

2. Use tact, but don’t sugarcoat anything

There’s a popular technique for giving constructive criticism called ‘sandwiching’, but it’s one we discourage here at Hotjar. The idea is to layer critiques with compliments so the criticism doesn’t hit so hard.

Honestly? That feels insincere to me, and most people can see through it. At Hotjar, we prefer the Radical Candor approach—and, as proof, here are some of our team members reading the book it's based on:

hotjar-radical-candor

Radical Candor is a bestselling book by Kim Scott that has grown into a methodology and a movement. It encourages employees to directly challenge one another, but it asks that you do it with personal care. Challenging without personal care results in ‘obnoxious aggression’, and refusing to challenge can result in ‘ruinous empathy’ or ‘manipulative insincerity’.

radical-candor

So, instead of sandwiching your criticism, give it to them straight… with care!

Let your co-workers know that you’re not criticizing them as a human being, and if you’re their supervisor, make sure they know their job isn’t in danger (unless, of course, their job is at stake… but if that’s the case, in most cases it shouldn’t be the first time you’ve addressed the issue).

3. Make it clear that you’re on the same team

There are two ways you could approach employee feedback:

You vs. them: you could sit them down with a stern look on your face and treat the interaction like a zero-sum game, where only one of you will walk away as the winner.

** or **

You + them vs. the issue: you can approach it as a potential win-win, where you come together to address an issue and collectively work to fix it.

Obviously, the latter option offers the greatest opportunity for growth. It provides the psychological safety required to create an open environment, and it paves the way for real change.

4. Be specific and provide context

When addressing an issue, it’s important to give specific examples of where the problem occurred. Be as precise as possible about when and where you’ve noticed the issue and why it’s problematic.

Here’s an example of vague, non-actionable feedback vs. specific, actionable feedback.

Vague, non-actionable feedback Specific, actionable feedback
“You’re rude to me during meetings. You’re always trying to one-up me, and you treat me like I’m stupid.” “Earlier today on the client call you interrupted to question some of the data. At the time, it really seemed to me to throw off the flow of the meeting. In the future, I'd prefer for you not to interrupt the way you did. I value accuracy in data, so could we talk through some options together for how, in the future, we might ensure our data is accurate without interrupting the flow of these client calls?"

The vague feedback may sound familiar to you because, let’s face it, it’s the way most of us argue. We do it with friends, family, and romantic partners—but it’s rarely productive.

The specific, actionable feedback is far more constructive, and it pushes everyone toward a real solution. That’s what feedback is all about.

5. Be aware of any imbalance in power

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when your boss says, “Can I see you in my office?”

Your brain senses a threat, and your adrenal glands release cortisol (the stress hormone). Blood-flow rushes to the primitive parts of your brain so you’re ready to flee or fight, and your mind closes itself off to new ideas. We’ve all been there, and yet, it’s easy to forget what that feels like when you’re the one who has more power in an interaction.

We should also be aware that there are unconscious biases and unwritten power structures at play in the world. In my case, as a white male who is older than the average Hotjar team member, my words might carry more weight than I realize. While it may be something we don’t always talk about, it’s vital to remember that some groups are afforded more social power than others.

hotjar-team-3.jpg

That’s why it’s important to remember your social location as you prepare to give feedback, especially when you occupy a position of power. Taking this into account helps you better provide psychological safety so you can bring out the best in everyone on your team.

3 strategies for receiving feedback gracefully + putting it to good use

What happens when the tables are turned? When you’re the receiver of feedback (positive or negative)? If you struggle sometimes to listen with an open mind, you’re not alone.

We all have defenses, and sometimes they get the best of us, but the following three strategies will help you listen with an open mind—so you can maximize your potential as an employee and as a human being.

1. Be mindful of your own defenses

Regardless of whether your colleague has zero tact or they do everything perfectly, you may feel your defenses kicking in when they sit you down to give you feedback. So, what do you do when that happens?

The first step is to be mindful of what you’re feeling. Whenever we feel threatened, we snap back and defend ourselves. At times like these, it’s best to pause and reflect, without responding right away. Usually, our first thoughts aren’t our best thoughts when we feel threatened, so try to explore their point of view with an open mind.

You may discover, after sitting with your emotions for a bit, that your colleague has some valid points. Or maybe not? In either case, nothing good will come from a snappy comeback. Zingers only work for politicians, and that’s not what we’re going for here.

2. Affirm the effort to give feedback

Let’s say they’ve totally missed the mark. They’re acting crazy and you know it. What do you do then? Thank them for taking the time to offer you feedback.

You’re not blindly agreeing with their assessment—you’re affirming their effort to give feedback, and feedback is something you need in order to grow.

All feedback is a gift, and by thanking them for the effort, you’re opening yourself to additional feedback in the future. And the next piece of advice they give you might be the one that transforms your relationships and takes your career (or your life) to the next level.

Plus, the person giving you the feedback will feel the benefits of actually being heard. They might decide to stay with the company longer as a result, and their experience working with you might improve.

Tip for managers and executives: it can be really hard for people to give feedback to a manager or someone who has more social power than them, so remember that if you're on the receiving side, it’s especially important to affirm their gift of feedback when it comes from someone less powerful. It may have taken extra courage on their part to offer it.

3. Follow up on the feedback

Whenever someone gives you feedback, flag those notes and follow up at the next meeting. In between meetings, do some serious introspection and see what you can learn from the feedback, even if it’s minimal. Also, consider sharing the feedback with trusted colleagues so you can figure out whether others see your behavior in a similar light.

When the next meeting rolls around, check back in and let the feedback provider know what you learned from it and how you’ve worked to change (if that’s truly the case).

Following up will let them know that you value them, you’ve taken their feedback seriously, and it will give you a chance to finetune your efforts to improve yourself.

5 examples of effective employee feedback tools we use at Hotjar

There are a number of tools you can use to record and track feedback. Here are five feedback tools we find useful here at Hotjar.

15Five

15Five is a short questionnaire that every Hotjar employee fills out regularly (weekly or bi-weekly), which their team lead reviews. This is what it looks like:

15Five-1

15Five asks the employee to rate their experience for that one- or two-week period on a scale of 1-5, and it asks them to describe what went well and where they need extra support.

The form sometimes includes an additional question that changes from week to week, such as, “Rate how likely it is that you’ll be working at Hotjar in 18 months?”

Lastly, since all our employees are connected on the 15Five system, they can use the @ symbol to ‘high-five’ a colleague, giving them credit for something awesome they did.

One-on-ones

After filling out the 15Five form, team leads hold one-on-one meetings with their direct reports to discuss the challenges they’re facing, the status of their projects, and anything mentioned in the 15Five.

Performance review

Okay, so this is where you should do as we say, not as we do.

At Hotjar, we’re still finalizing our regular review process. Don’t worry—our people still get the raises and promotions they deserve, we just don’t have it down to a science just yet. But we’ll be there soon!

eric-professional-development.jpg
THIS IS ME BRAINSTORMING ELEMENTS OF OUR PERFORMANCE REVIEW SYSTEM

In any case, there shouldn’t be any big surprises in the performance review. For example, if someone only learns during her review that she misses too many deadlines, then her lead has failed her—because the lead should have brought that up months ago when the problem surfaced.

Informal feedback

Informal feedback takes place regularly at Hotjar. Since we’re a 100% remote company, we communicate frequently through chat and video conferencing, and we do our best to incorporate those principles of radical candor whenever we communicate.

As I mentioned above, it’s usually best to reserve more serious criticism for video conferencing, since chat and email can distort the message.

I’d also add that critical feedback is usually best-delivered one-on-one. The exception to this rule would be when an issue affects the entire group (e.g., someone makes an offensive joke in a group meeting). Something like that should be addressed in the group because it happened in a group setting and thus affects the psychological safety of the group.

Personal retrospectives

In Agile software development, ‘retrospectives’ are meetings held at the end of a project. They’re used to discuss what went well and what could have gone better.

At Hotjar, the Marketing department has their own take on this theme—something they call ‘personal retrospectives’. Instead of reflecting on a project, the idea is to have a roundtable meeting where everyone reflects on each others’ strengths and areas for improvement.

They’ve only done this once so far, but they found it to be a valuable exercise, and they plan to do more in the future.

What’s your approach to giving and receiving feedback?

If you’ve been in the working world for more than a year or two, you’ve almost certainly given and received your share of feedback. What approach did you find most effective as a giver and/or receiver? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

PS: for full transparency, thanks to our Content Lead Louis who interviewed me and helped me structure my argument, and our freelance writer Matthew who worked on this draft.  

Eric Robinson
Eric Robinson

Support Engineer at Hotjar - Eric is passionate about helping teams create environments where everyone can thrive.