How To Give Helpful and Meaningful Peer Feedback

13 August 2019

Productive and effective companies thrive on a culture that encourages communication between team members. Whether engaging in small talk, ideating or fine-tuning itineraries, or tackling projects across departments, learning how to give and receive feedback in the work environment helps people identify their professional strengths and weaknesses and establishes good working relationships, which, in turn, help companies grow and advance professionally. Giving feedback involves one person offering commentary to another person about past behavior or actions with the intention of influencing future behavior. Done in a meaningful and considered way, this feedback can lead to more well-rounded and fruitful peer-to-peer discussions.

“Without feedback, it’s difficult to grow both personally and within an organization,” said Ciara Hautau, head of marketing at Fueled, where a large part of her job is managing direct reports and providing and managing feedback. “Though it can be hard to hear, it’s insanely important as peers and managers that we deliver both positive and constructive feedback.”

Learning how to give productive peer feedback allows companies to flourish.

In a brick-and-mortar business, it can be easier to read body language and address any concerns before they have a chance to fester. In the adventure travel industry, however, many corporate teams may consist of people spanning a wide range of cultures, time zones, and job responsibilities and titles. These nuances can make giving peer feedback more complicated at times, but it’s just as important — if not more so. Next time you’re in a position to offer feedback to a peer, here are a few ways to ensure it’s done in a helpful and meaningful manner.

Ask For Permission

Nobody likes to be blindsided, especially if they’re about to receive a dose of criticism. Be kind to your coworkers and ask permission before providing feedback. “If you are not providing critical performance feedback, gauge readiness for feedback,” suggested Leesa Schipani, a partner at KardasLarson Human Resources Consulting. “Ask something like: 'Are you open to feedback?’ ‘May I give you feedback?’ or ‘Would feedback be helpful?’”

Additionally, if the feedback is part of a larger conversation, offer a specific amount of time you plan on giving feedback (for example, “Could we set aside 15 minutes to discuss your work on this project?”), and allow your colleague to decide on the best time to talk. This sets up the foundation for a conversation in a way that won’t throw anyone into a defensive position.

Be Timely

Though it’s good practice to ask permission and give coworkers the chance to decide when they’d like to receive that feedback, don’t wait too long. The best time to give feedback is as soon as possible so that any details from a specific instance are still top-of-mind. This also ensures that any possible animosity or tension between colleagues doesn’t build up before a conversation takes place.

Focus On The Problem, Not The Person

When providing feedback, avoid framing the problem around the person’s personality and instead focus on the work-related issue or concern. Identify skills and areas of improvement, and provide actionable solutions that could make the working environment better. Most people are generally aware of their strengths and weaknesses, but they may not know what to do about the problem, which is why it’s important not to simply state what the issue is. Instead, offer feedback and then follow it up by discussing how their strengths can be used to solve the problem.

For example, instead of saying “You are not showing up at our team meetings. You need to be at the meetings,” try “I’m concerned you have not been at our team meetings. We’ve been discussing important information and your presence in these discussions is important to us.”

Be Specific And Direct, But Be Mindful Of Tone And Language

In general, it’s a good idea to be direct and clear with your messaging so there’s no confusion about what the problem is. “For feedback to be actionable, it must be specific, including real examples of behavior or performance. If possible, include suggestions for changes that can be made right away, that are measurable and realistically achievable,” said Ashley Porciuncula, a freelance product and tech consultant. Avoid generalizing when giving feedback, and use data or specific examples to back up any assertions.

Though this is good advice, it’s also important to consider nuances that might be present in a multicultural team. This might affect the tone and language choices used during the exchange. “Tone is everything,” Hautau said. “This can be the difference between ‘hurtful’ feedback and constructive feedback. There’s no need to yell or be rash in delivering feedback as it then becomes tainted by your emotions.” In some cultures, direct communication is common, and in others, it’s important to “save face.” Consider the cultural codes of each team member and customize your behavior accordingly when giving peer feedback to ensure what you’re saying is being received the way you intend.

Adopt A Platform For Company-Wide Communication

Open and ongoing communication is important, especially for companies that work with a web of remote employees. Without in-person contact every day, it can be more difficult to build a foundation of trust and rapport upon which work relationships can flourish. Avoid developing a company culture where the only time communication with remote workers happens is when there is an issue requiring critical peer-to-peer feedback.

One way to encourage more frequent and casual conversation — which can also be used for feedback purposes — is to establish a company-wide communication system and policy. Adopt and encourage the use of a system like Slack or Google Hangouts to connect geographically dispersed teams and enable real-time exchanges. “While members of different cultures prefer different kinds of communication, a key to ensuring workforce cohesion is aligning team members around a common platform,” said Kirsten Blakemore, senior consulting partner and diversity and inclusion practice leader at Partners In Leadership. “Whether that mode is email, in-person conversation, or a new workplace communication tool, all employees should be trained on how to engage in the kind of communication with which the whole team can benefit.”

Keep The Commentary Professional

In today’s hyper-connected world, the line between professional and personal lives can become hazy, but what happens at work should stay at work. As such, any feedback about professional performance should be done in a work setting during work hours.

When delivering something that could be perceived as negative feedback, have the conversation in a private setting. “Praise can be given anywhere and it’s often nice to praise someone in public. Constructive feedback should always be given in private in order to give the other person the space they need to process the feedback. Sometimes it can get emotional,” said Alexis Haselberger, a productivity, time management, and leadership coach.

Feedback Should Be Ongoing

Though feedback is often equated as criticism, infusing positive feedback in communication with colleagues helps reinforce those things done well and encourages growth in a positive manner. In addition, establishing a relationship that consists of ongoing feedback — both positive and negative — sometimes makes it easier to accept negative feedback because it’s couched in a holistic, full picture of professional development and growth. “Understand what kind of feedback you are giving,” Schipani said. “Are you providing appreciation to motivate and encourage, coaching to increase skills, or evaluation around where they stand? Know that appreciation and coaching go a long way to build your relationship.”