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Biz Ladies: Giving Meaningful Feedback

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Today’s Biz Ladies post comes to us from previous contributor and editor at MailChimp, Kate Kiefer Lee. Kate has helped companies write friendly copy and create voice and tone guidelines, and she is also releasing her first co-written book Nicely Said this June. Today she is giving us some expert insight on how to properly deliver feedback. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today, Kate! –Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump…

Feedback is an important part of any relationship, professional or otherwise. Even if you don’t call it “feedback” in a friendship or marriage, you’re probably exchanging it every day. At the office, there’s a lot of pressure on both giving and receiving feedback. Constructive criticism challenges us and makes us better at our work, but receiving it tends to make people feel uncomfortable and defensive. Accepting feedback can be especially hard for people who do creative work. We hold our words and designs close to our hearts, so the last thing we want to hear is that someone isn’t impressed. Direct but compassionate delivery makes all the difference.

Whether you’re a freelancer, a business owner, or a manager at a company, you probably give feedback all the time. Feedback happens in lots of different places: formal reviews, design critiques, project debriefs, pitches, emails and impromptu chats around the office. Here are some tips for giving meaningful feedback on creative work.

Don’t surprise feedback attack.
Before the conversation, give the other person a summary of what you want to talk about. You have plenty of time to prepare for the meeting and figure out what you want to say, so it’s only fair to give them a head’s up. Even something like “Do you have a few minutes to talk about your work on the proposal?” or “Let’s sit down and go over your designs” can help the other person understand what to expect. That said, don’t give people too much warning. If you schedule a meeting days in advance and the other person is expecting negative feedback, they may not be able to sleep at night until then. You wouldn’t want to put anyone on edge or make them feel nervous around you, so a day-of warning is usually best if you’re giving casual feedback.

Say exactly what you mean.
Lisa DiMona is a literary agent at Writer’s House who has been in book publishing for more than 25 years and represented a number of bestsellers. Feedback is obviously a huge part of her job. “In my line of work people respond best to feedback that is specific,” she says. “Authors respond well when I take the time to give them either praise or criticism that is concrete: This is working great and that, well, not so much.”

Being direct is the hard part. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so you might be tempted to soften your delivery with compliments or disclaimers. But when you sugarcoat your criticism with praise, people will only hear the praise. You need the other person to understand where they can improve, so don’t let that message get lost in your delivery. If you have a mix of positive and negative feedback, go over your points one by one. Tell people exactly what you liked about their work, but be specific about how the work needs to improve, too. Remember that people take negative feedback more personally than positive feedback, so be supportive if they seem upset or have follow-up questions for you.

Use concrete language when describing the issue or the work. Saying something like “this look isn’t really what I was going for” or “I’d like to see you improve your writing” won’t help anyone get better. Name the problem, and focus on it instead of making general statements about the person. Try not to say “you” too much, and don’t use words like “always” or “never.”

Say why it matters.
Explain why this feedback is important. You’re asking someone to make a change for a reason, so spell out exactly how that change is going to help. Instead of saying “You need to work on your communication skills,” try something like “If the whole team is involved with the website from the beginning, it will get done faster and there won’t be so many changes at the last minute.” Motivate the other person by giving them a vision of the future without the problem.

“If a project is not for me, then I always try to convey why it’s not for me, which authors seem to appreciate,” says Lisa. “When someone has taken the time to fully consider creative work and give feedback, that exchange is quite meaningful for most people.”

Give casual feedback often.
If people only receive feedback in formal settings like annual reviews or project debriefs, there will be a lot of tension surrounding those conversations. Keep the lines of communication open, even when everything is going great. Try to normalize feedback—both positive and negative—in your professional relationships, so people come to expect it from you. If you manage a team, encourage them to ask each other for feedback. You could even arrange weekly or monthly design critiques, where people are invited to bring their latest projects and talk about them with the group. If you work in an office or studio, stop by people’s desks to check in on their progress and ask how you can help. Deliver your feedback in a casual and friendly tone. In a truly collaborative culture, team members exchange ideas and welcome each other’s opinions. When you start working with someone new, you might even want to set their expectations by saying something like “Just so you know, we exchange a lot of feedback around here!”

There shouldn’t be any surprises in formal reviews or critiques. When someone is getting regular feedback on their work, they know what to expect during sit-down meetings. If they’re shocked by your criticism, then the problem might be on your end.

Participate.
Approach negative feedback as a problem you’re solving together. Say how you can help the other person work toward their goal. You could offer regular check-in meetings, additional training, or to take something else off their plate so they can focus on a specific project. In her wonderful book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown calls this “sitting on the same side of the table.” Her engaged feedback checklist is full of tips to help you prepare for those difficult conversations. You can download a poster version on her website.

After you’ve shared your feedback, give the other person a chance to ask you questions or tell you about their own concerns. Let them talk, and actively listen. Resist the urge to interrupt or challenge them. They might have some feedback for you, too. Maybe they feel like you didn’t set clear expectations, or they didn’t have the right tools to do the work you asked of them. Whatever it is they have to say, try to really hear them.

Remember that nobody’s perfect.
Think of the last time someone criticized something you worked hard on. It hurts! Creative work is usually subjective, too, so people may be offended or feel like your criticism is unfounded. When you give negative feedback, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If the conversation is hard for you, you can be sure it’s even harder for them. Make a point to communicate with kindness, and don’t tear them down with judgmental words like “bad” or “wrong.”

End on a high note, so the other person leaves the meeting feeling encouraged and ready to improve their work. Thank them for their time, and say something nice before they leave. If you know they worked hard on a project even though it didn’t meet your expectations, say so. Tell them you look forward to seeing their next project, or invite them to stop by anytime to chat about their progress. If you like working with them, now’s a good time to tell them that. As Lisa says, “Generosity is the best policy, for sure.”

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5 Comments

Suzi (The Pillow Studio)

This is great. I am going to use it as a little reminder “check list” the next time I have to give feedback (personally or professionally). I think it will really help me make my point more concisely and directly. Thanks!

Laurel

Really useful – I’m a designer and I love working at a design studio where those around me are open to exchanging ideas and opinions. Which of course includes regular feedback. When people are closed off or uncommunicative the atmosphere can stagnate quickly – affecting everyone. We all have bad days or designs that wind up being dead ends but if everyone would follow this advice it would certainly soften off the rough edges.

Karen Steinberg

This is a great post. I’m a designer and used to work for a company with a large studio of designers that all collaborated and gave feedback on each others projects on a regular basis. I now have my own firm and work alone or with just an assistant and my tradespeople most of the time. It is much harder to get feedback until I post my work on social media. That’s an entirely different type of criticism since it isn’t necessarily coming from your peers and it may or may not be constructive. Sometimes it is positive, and sometimes people can just be plain mean. I haven’t experienced this personally yet, but I’ve seen it with other designers and it’s cruel. It’s a shame that people can’t keep their comments constructive on social media.

Steffen Maier

Great post! I believe the the importance of expressing why this feedback is important and what the practical implications shall be cannot be over-emphasized.
In order to make feedback meaningful, it’s important to allow every individual to give and request it at any time, instantly and continuously. With Impraise we empower everyone to gather feedback on the special field of interest. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.

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