Three Types of Feedback and How to Use Them Properly

How to Engage With Different Types of Feedback

Feedback is supposed to, when used correctly, push someone further. In a nutshell, the aftermath of feedback should be one of two scenarios. The first is an improvement. If the feedback is critical, improvement should follow. The second is a continuum. If the feedback is purely positive, the recipient would be expected to continue in the same positive way that led to them receiving positive feedback.

This sounds incredibly straightforward, and possibly even a bit patronising, right? Well, feedback can very, very easily be misconstrued. This is mainly due to the fact that feedback can also be very easily misgiven. Constructive criticism, in particular, requires a specific approach to the combination of words you use when giving it to someone.

A word out of line and the recipient gets bogged down, their confidence can take a dive and next thing you know… you’ve gone from having a worker with great potential and the means to reach it, to a worker who can’t be bothered anymore because they think they’re not good enough. A careful combination of words.

In learning, a great way to be taught is to be shown what ‘great’ looks like. I can tell you how to drive a car ‘til the cows come home, or I could show you what excellent driving looks like and you could give it a go in a car park. The second is proven to work better, for the most part.

In light of this, I’d like to share an example of a time when I received fantastically worded feedback. I’m 15, in secondary school, and studying for my GCSEs. Maths… has never been my strong point. Most could probably relate to that. Sitting in a classroom at fifteen years old knowing precisely jack-squat about what ‘Mr. Who Can Remember’ is drawing on the whiteboard.

Anyway, I needed a decent grade in maths to attend my desired college. My teacher once pulled me aside after class and said to me – ‘Jack, you’re doing alright and I’d like to push you further.’ He said a fair bit more than that, but the brilliance is, all the best points of great feedback are right there in his opening sentence.

Math formulas on black chalkboard, business equations

Let’s dissect it. ‘You’re doing alright.’ – doesn’t sound all that appealing on its own, granted. The key here, however, is that he didn’t give me false hope with a ‘great’ or ‘excellent’ because, ultimately, I wasn’t being either of those things in his class. I was alright, plain and simple. That’s what he said.

First tip – honesty, but in a positive manner. He told me how it was, he called a spade a spade but did it in a way that didn’t make me want to decode the quadratic formula as self-torture. Especially considering his follow-up sentence. ‘I’d like to push you further’. Notice that he didn’t say ‘I’d like to see you improve’, which suggests that I was starting lower than my classmates – bogged down. He suggested that I was starting in a good place, that there was room for improvement and he thinks that we should explore that room. Awesome piece of feedback. Second tip – positivity.

Now, I’m putting this last tip in its own paragraph simply due to its importance and request for close attention. He. Did. Not. Say. ‘But’. You know what would have really bogged me down, a confidence boost, followed by a confidence cut. ‘You’re doing alright, but…’. I wouldn’t have even needed the rest of that sentence to know that I’m actually probably not doing alright and that the next thing out of his mouth is going to be telling me I need to improve. Such a great start comes to an awful end with a simple three-letter word. But. It has its place. That place is not here.

So, how do we follow in this great man’s footsteps and start giving people awesome feedback? Well, you need to know the types of feedback to choose from:

Types of Feedback #1: Peer-to-Peer Feedback

Friendly coworkers enjoying conversation and giving feedback

I’m putting this first because feedback amongst colleagues is its own separate entity. Think about your day at work, today, yesterday, or maybe right now up until the point where you’re (hopefully) completely engulfed in this article. Think about a particular conversation you’ve had with a colleague today, even a casual morning chin-wag will do. Can you identify the feedback in that conversation? I’m talking about things like this:

‘Morning, John. Good week so far?’
‘Hello, mate. Yeah not bad, just struggling with this deadline for Friday.’
‘Ah, yes. I know how it is. Why don’t we grab a bite for lunch, take our minds off it?’
‘Sounds good.’

Doesn’t sound like types of feedback, does it? What’s just happened there is, John’s colleague has suggested he take a mental break from his stressful work and do something different. Hopefully, according to John’s friend, John will feel better afterward and hit his deadline on Friday. Maybe not formal, maybe not constructive, but feedback on his behavior nonetheless.

Can you find a similar piece of feedback in your conversations? The point here is that you’re giving and receiving feedback at work all day long. Mostly, however, this feedback is reactive. Throwing in some proactive, positive feedback every now and then will boost your colleagues’ confidence. These things also tend to catch on, throw it in a few times yourself and watch other people start feeding back to you in a positive way. Feedback is not always obvious, but the effects are always the same.

Types of Feedback #2: Positive Feedback

Bright pink sticky note with a smiley face

This is an obvious one, of course. There are, however, a few nuances of positive feedback that need to be carefully understood before you go brightening people’s day all willy-nilly. The first is to pick your moment. Praising someone for their work should be the sort of thing you should be able to do any time you like, with the same effect – brightening that day and hopefully motivating the recipient.

Whilst it is pretty tough to pick a bad time to give someone positive feedback, there are times you can choose that will heighten the impact of said praise. Let’s say your staff member is stressed with a pile of paperwork that needs to be done by a close deadline. They’re thinking about not much other than this deadline. If you were to go and praise their work mid-flow, it might boost their confidence a bit.

Ultimately, though, the deadline is still the main thing on their minds. Try waiting until the end of the day, when their work is done for the shift and then they’ll leave work with praise on their mind, not stress.

What matters even more, however, is your wording. If you word positive feedback in the proper manner, you could interrupt your worker for a full 20 minutes and they’d probably be cool about it. Rather than the vagueness of ‘keep it up!’ etc. try giving, what I like to call, case-specific feedback. Telling someone to keep it up feels like a box-ticking exercise. Telling them why they should, now that’s case-specific.

“John, thank you for completing that project report. I thought it was fantastic because it was insightful, impactful, and engaging. Really great work. I’m looking forward to seeing even better reports from you next time, that’d really be something awesome!”

Let’s dissect that brilliantly worded piece of positive feedback.

Firstly, ‘Thank you’ – this makes your worker feel like they’ve done something that they weren’t ‘forced’ to do because it’s their job. You made them feel valued. Next, ‘It was great because…’ – the ‘because’ is the real key. Not only have you told them to keep it up, but they know exactly what to keep up. You made them feel like you really care about their work. The three adjectives together are also a really impactful method of giving feedback: insightful, impactful, engaging.

Lastly, ‘Looking forward to seeing even better things next time.’ Now they feel valued, they feel like you care, and you’ve avoided the potential for complacency by effectively telling them the sky is the limit. Great – you’ve just given a very effective piece of positive feedback.

Types of Feedback #3: Constructive Criticism

Employees giving constructive criticism to one another

Never to be confused with negative feedback, which is a highly pointless thing to give someone. The difference between the two is simple; ‘Why’. Turn negative feedback into constructive criticism by telling your worker how they can improve on this in the future.

Negative feedback looks a bit like this:
“John, that project report was not your best work. I’d like to see better from you next time.”

It baffles me that feedback like this is still given. Tell your worker something similar to this and watch them produce a poor standard of work for the rest of the day. Even worse, that project report was something John thought quite highly of, now his standard of work and motivation will drop probably for the rest of the week. Until he produces something you approve of, at least. A big key when giving feedback that isn’t positive, is to gauge what the recipient thinks of their work first.

If they think it’s great, you need to tackle the situation very differently. If they knew itwas bad before they sent it off to you, then you’re simply calling them out on it, which is OK but telling them how to improve next time is something you still cannot leave out.

Constructive criticism looks a little more like this:
“John, I just looked over your project report. What do you think of it?”

Scenario 1 – ‘I thought it was pretty good, boss. Why, what did you think?’

In this case, as a manager, you need them to understand why it wasn’t their best work first before you even consider suggesting means for improvement. If you tell them it needs to be better, they need to know why it’s not good enough in the first place. Tackle this in as positive a way as you can.

Scenario 2 – ‘I know, boss. Not my best work but I had three other deadlines last week.’

This is different, they know it was bad and they’re telling you why. So, understand and empathise with their reasoning, suggest that; next time, it is OK to prioritise the project report over other deadlines. Then begin telling them how they need to improve, again, in a positive manner.

The thing is, in this case, if they knew the work wasn’t their best then they probably already know how to improve it. Your influence is most likely not all that great in this sense. It’s when workers don’t know why their work is not of good standard that you should be having a detailed conversation about improvement.

This is something I think most people don’t quite clock onto. As a manager, your objective is to get your workers to produce high-quality work. Your workers’ objective, however, is to produce that work. There needs to be more working together and turning feedback into conversations in order for both parties to meet their objectives.

What to Avoid Altogether in Types of Feedback

Instructor helps woman to drive the car
Instructor helps woman to drive the car

Don’t be my driving instructor.

Overall, we can talk about feedback and how it’s positive or negative or well worded or poorly worded. At the end of the day, in all those conversations, we’re at least talking about actually providing someone with feedback. A lack of feedback is really the one to avoid.

People in the workplace do not work off of the ‘no news is good news’ mentality. Providing your workers with no feedback at all is absolutely the worst thing you can do. Doing well, and not knowing you’re doing well, means that your standard of work and motivation will slowly decrease throughout the year.

My driving instructor was a lovely man. Horrific at giving feedback, however. I was continually frustrated with this because, if I was asked to reverse bay park and did it flawlessly, he’d simply say that we can move on to the next phase of lessons. That was my only gauge of how well I was doing, being allowed to move on.

My question was always: ‘If I do that in the same way on my driving test, will I pass?’. The fact is, I never knew. I didn’t know if I was the worst driver he’d ever taught or the next Lewis Hamilton. When it came to the test, I felt hideously unprepared. I had no idea whether what I’d done in lessons was what I should be doing in the test, or not.

It pains me to admit that I failed. Don’t be my driving instructor.

Structure your types of feedback carefully, avoid confidence cuts, avoid complacency and you’ll be brightening days willy-nilly left, right, and centre.

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