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Why 1:1 feedback is so hard (+ how to fix it on a cultural level)

Does giving one-on-one feedback to your team members feel natural and comfortable? Or is it something you avoid or cringe about doing?

Behind the scenes

Last updated

18 Aug 2022
Why 1 1 Feedback Is Hard And How To Get Better At It

Whether it’s about giving praise or talking about decreased productivity, many people find feedback of any kind one of the most challenging things to do both at work and in relationships. And it’s understandable. 

Giving and receiving feedback can feel like growth for one person and agony for others. 

Even with the best intentions, giving feedback can cause the recipient to feel hurt, increase tension, or fail to accomplish anything substantial—especially when it’s unsolicited or only focuses on the positive or negative. 

But if you want to make any meaningful change, effective and actionable feedback is the foundation for growing together—as individuals, as a team, and as a business. 

It’s a skill, like any other, that takes practice and, ahem, feedback to know if you are doing it with kindness and sincerity. Here at Hotjar, feedback is ingrained in our culture, and we strive to keep it flowing regularly—so there are no surprises at a performance review or end of a project or deadline.

This includes me. Receiving feedback is not reserved for a select group of people. 

I’ll be the first to admit I have my own skill areas I’m looking to improve—so I keep my door open to receive feedback at all times. For example, I’m still working on my communication style and how I respond to team members when they pitch me ideas. (Let’s just say my brain goes a mile a minute sometimes, and I speak before I think, but I’m working on it!)

I only know about this because my team members have given me this valuable feedback—which I’m thankful for. With that in mind, becoming an effective feedback communicator and receiver combines:

  • How psychologically safe your team members feel to be vulnerable

  • Always assuming positive intent first

  • How your employees show (not tell) your company values

  • Guidance on how to deliver clear feedback with empathy 

  • How to put suggestions into action

Let’s explore how we put this into practice. Here are five ways you can create a culture where feedback isn’t something to be feared and how to make it easier for your team to both give and receive it:

1. Establish a culture of trust and transparency

You can follow every best practice in the world for one-on-one feedback, but if you haven’t built a culture of psychological safety within your organization, it will likely fall flat. Your employees won’t feel supported but will be constantly worried about whether they’re doing a good job.

At Hotjar, we start with a culture of trust and transparency, which filters throughout all of our actions. It starts with the small things, like giving our new engineers access to the code base on day 1, or allowing individual teammates to book their own vacation days without asking permission. Those simple acts extend to feedback. 

We give our employees the autonomy to give feedback anytime and trust that they will do so in a professional, constructive manner. On a formal level, this looks like:

  • Regular training for team leads and employees on feedback

  • Weekly questionnaires for team leads and direct reports 

  • Weekly one-on-one meetings between team leads and direct reports

  • Retrospectives at the end of sprints and projects

On the informal level, we use Slack and video conferencing when we need to act fast. For example, when roadblocks arise, jumping in with actionable suggestions and questions can mitigate any blocks before they derail a project.

2. Assume the best of your team

Fight the assumption that if your teammates are lagging behind or made an error, it’s because they don’t care about doing a good job or they’re checked out. Instead, assume the best first.

Making mistakes and having an off day is normal. Nobody gets it right every time.  Always assume that if your team members had the context, tools and capacity to do it better, they would have.

Can there still be performance issues? Yes. But starting with this assumption makes it much easier to deliver feedback in an honest but kind way.

3. Focus on value-driven feedback

You always want to help your team members do their jobs more effectively. Sometimes, that means giving feedback on hard skills—helping a colleague write stronger email copy or to write code with more finesse—but you can’t just focus on the what. You have to give room for feedback on the how.

When you’re a values-driven company like Hotjar, your core values have to be part of everything you do, not just a few words written on a wall or lost in a company document. 

We evaluate our employees not just on work performance but how they live out our values every day, such as working with respect. For example, this could look like part of honoring yourself and your own time with a healthy work-life balance.

I’ve seen so many companies talk about work-life balance, but then set up a structure that subtly rewards people who work 80+ hours a week or work through vacations and weekends. What we do instead is include work-life balance as part of our peer feedback process in performance reviews, so if you’re taking on too much, we can address it and give that feedback.

4. Embrace radical candor 

If you’ve never read Kim Malone Scott’s book Radical Candor, I highly recommend it. In it, Scott outlines several styles of communication—including radical candor, which is the hardest of all. Essentially, it’s the idea that you can care personally and challenge directly to give clear feedback with empathy.

The basic principle of radical candor is that there’s room for you to be direct and constructive without being offensive or directly attacking a person’s character. 

When you focus on just being “nice,” you deny your team a chance to grow. I encourage my team all the time to think about constructive feedback as an act of service that helps them become a better teammate. 

When feedback comes from a place of care—and you’ve built that into the culture of your team, along with trust and transparency—it’s much easier to give and receive feedback. Even if it’s hard to hear, everyone involved can take it less personally and know that the person giving feedback has their back.

5. Make feedback more than actionable

The best kind of constructive feedback is specific and actionable.

Actionable is often interpreted as providing steps or suggestions for how to improve. More than that, though, you need to provide an opportunity for that teammate to try again and maybe fail again. This might look like: 

  • Directing them to training or conferences to close a skill gap

  • Pairing them up with a mentor once a week

  • Giving them a chance to shadow other roles in the company

  • Finding projects that test a gap and help them grow

In the end, it’s all about giving someone a chance to put your suggestions into action. This means time, practice, and patience and losing the expectation of a fast fix. So I’m curious, what feedback do you have for me about this article? Did you find this helpful? Is there anything else you’d like to see me dive into deeper?

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