Worth It: How to Brave the Feedback Fear Factor
We could share a statistic, but we don’t need to. Intuitively, you just know. The majority of the people in your workplace don’t like giving feedback—and they aren’t very comfortable receiving it, either.
It’s understandable, right? The allure of keeping things agreeable tempts even the most well-intentioned people to avoid confrontation, stay busy, and keep the conversation surface-level. This impulse can have disastrous effects. Complacency. Bottled frustration. Weak team bonds.
In the workshops we facilitate at The Frontier Project, we talk a lot about the importance of being able to give and receive feedback. We agree with Donna Hicks, author of Leading with Dignity: How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People, that growth requires conflict.
And yet, in practical execution, many of us find feedback conversations intimidating. That’s why we decided to spend a month challenging ourselves to get better at having them.
How Our Month-Long Feedback Challenge Worked
Research the topic of feedback, and you’ll quickly encounter the importance of being specific. The more specific your feedback, the easier it is for your recipient to understand which behaviors they should start, stop, or continue.
For our feedback challenge we used a format known as SBI, which stands for Situation, Behavior, Impact. The SBI format prompts feedback-givers to provide specific details in a simple way.
Creative Manager Stephanie Wolf said, “The SBI format helps you stay focused on the real issue. You can't get away with saying ‘you always’ or ‘you never,’ which is rarely accurate. You can't make assumptions about someone's motivations. You can't hide behind a bias you might have of someone. You focus on a specific behavior and the direct effect of that one thing.”
Here’s a quick example of how SBI feedback works:
Situation: Describe the specific scenario.
“Jim, remember last Thursday’s software release?”
Behavior: Illustrate the behaviors you observed.
“You were visibly frustrated, and you kept asking your teammates to move faster. I saw you lose your cool at least once and yell at one of the developers.”
Impact: Share how the behavior you observed affected the team.
“Your lack of composure only made the team more stressed, and there were multiple issues that came up as a result. The release would have had fewer bugs if you had calmed down, rolled up your sleeves, and worked more collaboratively with your team.”
“Using the SBI format, I’m able to be much more confident in giving constructive feedback to my colleagues...Since feedback comes from a place of caring and a desire to help people improve, it’s counterproductive if your feedback conversation is confusing, muddled, or unclear,” HR Manager Kelsey Thayer said.
Once we had the right feedback format in place, the structure of the The Frontier Project feedback challenge went like this:
You have one month to conduct three SBI conversations with three people from our team. Each conversation should have a different intent:
- SBI Conversation 1: Share with someone why you love working with them, how they brighten your day, or something special they add to our team.
- SBI Conversation 2: Talk with someone who consistently does amazing work. Be specific about the behaviors that are getting great results.
- SBI Conversation 3: Spend time with someone you need to clear the air with or have some kind of constructive feedback to offer.
Within a few days our calendars began to populate with new feedback meetings—evidence we were eager to practice what we preached in our workshops.
Designer Megan Herron said, “I got a phone call from a co-worker I don't work with a ton, and she told me how much she enjoys working with me on projects because she feels like I understand her requests well and she doesn't have to worry if I will get my work done on time. It was really nice to hear that from somebody I have limited hours working with.”
Once the challenge was complete, we took some time to reflect on the experience. Were we able to get over our feedback fears?
What Our Employees Said About the Feedback Challenge
“The great thing about this challenge is that it forces you to practice. Just like anything, giving feedback is the kind of thing you have to get wrong a few times before you start getting good at it. And the only way to improve is with reps,” said Stephanie Wolf.
Kelsey Thayer made a similar observation: “Having difficult feedback conversations can still make me nervous. I’m only human and I still battle with my ego. Thankfully, practice makes perfect, or at least gets me into a good rhythm of giving and receiving constructive feedback.”
Team members noticed how the SBI format helped them pause and think about giving positive feedback more effectively, too. “The SBI format helped with positive feedback because it required me to give more details as to why what they did was so helpful. It's easy to tell somebody, ‘You did a really great job handling that difficult conversation with the client,’ but that doesn't necessarily tell them exactly what they did that was so great. Giving them more details helps them repeat [the behavior] later on with other projects," said Megan Herron.
Kim Scott reminds us in Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, “The way you ask for criticism and react when you get it goes a long way toward building trust—or destroying it.”
As we learned in our month-long feedback challenge, the habit of giving and receiving feedback effectively can be built through commitment and repetition. When an organization makes a habit of giving specific, constructive, personalized feedback, teams become more cohesive. They tackle tough challenges and have each other’s backs under duress. They help each other push past obstacles, both personal and professional.
“Make sure that you are seeing each person on your team with fresh eyes every day. People evolve, and so your relationships must evolve with them. Care personally; don’t put people in boxes and leave them there,” writes Kim Scott.
We need each other to grow. As we’ve experienced at The Frontier Project, feedback has the potential to change someone’s career trajectory for the better. For each of us, stepping up and having SBI conversations is a challenge worth tackling—not just for a month, but as an ongoing commitment. It's a commitment to one another and to the health of our organization.