Giving Feedback at Work

When I was young, my mother often repeated: "If you don't have something nice/kind to say, don't say anything at all." I often think about that at work, but in a modified way.

If I have something useful, constructive, cautionary, clarifying, or propelling to provide to a discussion, then I should say something or take action. But I've caught myself many times writing up a response to a message in Slack or a story/issue with my opinion on a subject, positive or not, and before hitting "send" thinking about whether I'm actually providing value, whether not speaking would have roughly the same impact on the outcome.

I use a significant multiplier against the value of my contribution if it's going to be critical feedback, if it has "stop energy" against someone's attempt to solve a problem in a specific way. My contribution has to be really important if it's going to have "stop" instead of "go" energy.

In those cases, it helps to start with truly open, non-accusatory questions about the person's goals and the problem at hand. On the one hand, that saves me from putting my foot in my mouth if I didn't fully understand the problem and, on the other hand, it prepares the person for critical feedback by first listening to them and creating a shared understanding of the problem they're solving.

Even if there are flaws in a coworker's proposals, there are almost always good parts as well. I try to integrate critical feedback as a vehicle for maximizing the impact of the valid parts, avoiding catastrophic mistakes, and leaving issues of taste or opinion to the person doing the work.

People have different default levels of optimism, trust, risk aversion, and go/stop energy, but I wanted to share a small piece of the internal calculus I go through as I think about how to interact at work.

Tags: management communication workplace

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