Chances are, we’ve all given feedback and been, to be blunt, total jerks about it.
As an example that we’re just pulling out of thin air and that definitely didn’t happen, imagine that at a previous job we worked somewhere with an open office plan. This can be an awkward environment in which to give feedback, because any discussions are heard by everyone. Say, to circumvent this, we sent a coworker, whom we’ll call Hermione, an email. Enough time has passed that we can’t remember the reason for the feedback, but we can remember the effect: Hermione came up to us in person, crestfallen at the coldness of the email. (We may have signed it, “regards” — a detail we’ll never forget and are honestly still cringing over, because our coworker was particularly thrown off by it.)
Hermione asked if they could talk about the problem in person instead, and apologized for the mistake while we squirmed in discomfort and embarrassment. But, we also apologized for our method of communication and promised to direct feedback to Hermione in person in the future — and with much less drama (perhaps even no drama?).
1. Mistakes were made
2. Your feedback checklist
3. How to not sound like a jerk
4. Scripts for feedback scenarios
The problem here is the way the discussion was started and framed. We weren’t wrong to send an email to have a feedback discussion, but it should only have been the start of a discussion, or the suggestion to have one — perhaps outside the office. The problem is, these conversations can seem scary or awkward or daunting (or, often, all of those things). They can certainly be somewhat uncomfortable! But they don’t have to be, and approaching them straight on, with the clearest, most economical language you can muster, can make the whole process of giving and receiving feedback from coworkers a lot easier, simpler, and, ultimately, more helpful in the long run.
A long email was not required; instead, a simple, “Hey, can we talk about [x]?” introduces the feedback conversation in a straightforward way, so the other person doesn’t get stressed about what their coworker wants to talk about . By then moving the conversation to the real world, it can go from long missive to a simple back-and-forth. This kind of back-and-forth is particularly important: it helps you be a better coworker, because it serves to preserve the dynamic of mutual respect and power. Between coworkers, there has to be the promise that whatever suggestions or critiques or ideas you have or make regarding your coworker and their work, they are the ones who make the final call.
Before giving your coworker feedback, ask yourself a few questions. This will help you identify what your end goal is for the feedback, and how this conversation will get you both there.
Even if your workplace has a strong feedback culture, feedback is difficult and it can be easy to make a mistake and come off terribly when giving your coworker feedback. Maybe you act like you’re an expert in their field, or you try to pull rank, or you imply they know less than they do -- all and any of which will make your coworker less likely to listen to you, and think of you as kind of a jerk.
But with a little forethought, you can even manage to bring up these issues without wanting to die inside, or making your coworker feel bad. Think back to that end goal: is it for your coworker to begin doing something in a more efficient manner, or is it a behavior you’re hoping to encourage them to modify? If it’s a behavior, remember that we’re all human, and sometimes working with others can be a little tricky.
Additionally, ask yourself: can you substantiate your feedback, or is it your personal opinion? Also, consider how you can best use your emotional intelligence, or EQ, to communicate. Finally, while these conversations can sometimes feel awkward, remember that bucking up and having them will be so much better in the long run.
Here’s how to tackle four common work situations with your coworkers:
If the feedback is more constructive, is it about:
1. A pattern.
For example, your coworker speaks really loudly when they’re on the phone, in an open office.
1. "Hey, I know you’ve been working hard to close that new deal but could you try to speak more quietly when you’re on the phone or find a conference room for longer calls? It can be distracting in the office.” By acknowledging your coworker’s hard work, you’re showing that you admire their efforts. Starting with that more positive element can help them hear your feedback— they have been working hard, and may not realize how loud they’ve been.
2. A deadline.
For example, your coworker is missing deadlines on a project you’re working on together, preventing you from moving forward on it.
1."Hey, do you have an idea of when you might be able to finish [x]? I understand you have a lot on your plate, but it will help me keep the project on track if I know when you’ll be done.” It’s the effort to be collaborative, and your willingness to understand, that will help this feedback go down more easily.
2. “Hey, I saw that you missed that deadline. Is something up? How can we fix this?” This is a slightly more intuitive, open approach. By asking your coworker how they’re doing as part of your feedback, you acknowledge that something may be going on with them, what they’re going through is valid, and you show them that you care to fix it with them.
3. An incident.
For example, your coworker made a passing insulting joke about you or a colleague.
1.“Oh, I don’t think that’s fair.” This is a straightforward way to address that the joke wasn’t okay, without causing you to fall into a trap where you might get more emotional.
2.“That’s inappropriate.” This is a bit more stern: your coworker crossed a line, and they need to know that— it’s concise and direct, without being harsh. Usually this is a script to use in the moment, but it can be followed up with reaching out to HR or upper management. Use your best judgment, but remember that you deserve to work in a respectful, safe environment, and your coworkers help make that environment.
4. A project.
For example, your coworker asks you to review some work for them.
1.“I liked [x,y,z]. I wasn’t so sure about [x,y,z]. I’d think about approaching it with [x,y,z].” When your coworker invites you to give them feedback on something they’ve been working hard to execute, it’s vital to really break down the strengths as well as the weaknesses— and, when possible, provide some gentle guidance to help steer them in the right direction.
Giving feedback to your coworker doesn’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable. In fact, it can be a great way to strengthen your relationship and better collaborate. Make sure you know why you want to give feedback, be tactful in doing it, and whatever you do, don’t send it out of the blue via email (not that we would know anything about that).