When it comes to guessing what others think of us, we often assume the worst, says Stanford GSB lecturer Carole Robin. “In situations where we are not getting feedback, we are essentially flying blind, and I believe that causes unnecessary stress,” says Robin. The solution: Create a “feedback-rich” environment in personal relationships and in the workplace. “The less I am worried about how I’m seen by my boss, my coworkers, and even my direct reports, the freer I am to focus on higher value-added work such as coming up with new ideas and being more efficient in helping to implement them,” says Robin.
But providing feedback to a colleague or a friend can be difficult and scary, especially when it concerns something that is hurting your company or your relationship with that person. That fear, Robin says, is based on a belief that many hold that constructive criticism will harm the relationship. As a result, she says, when someone is engaging in dysfunctional behavior, the tendency at first is to say nothing, especially when that behavior bothers you.
The reality is that feedback can actually strengthen a relationship, because knowing that another person is going to tell it to you straight creates and builds trust. What’s more, trying to ignore bad behaviors means that that they will most likely only continue. Over time, they will likely bother you even more. Taking the risk of providing feedback shows the other person that you are invested in the relationship and willing to take the time to help fix the issue.
The question, then, is how do you provide feedback in a constructive way. It takes practice, Robin says, but one key is making sure that feedback isn’t given just once in a while, but instead is part of the ongoing maintenance of the relationship. Employees who rarely receive feedback are more easily upended by one piece of constructive feedback. Without the context or perspective that ongoing feedback provides, they might blow the comment out of proportion.
Of course, constant criticism, research shows, damages most relationships, and complimentary feedback is an important aspect of building them. “People do need to learn how to do both — equally and effectively,” Robin says. To give constructive criticism to someone, you need to have built a relationship with them that includes positive feedback too.
Feedback, when well given, also involves a bit of self-disclosure. That is because in disclosing the impact the other person’s behavior has on them, the person giving the feedback becomes somewhat vulnerable. That in turn helps the receiver “hear” it better and not feel as though he or she is the only party who is vulnerable in the exchange.
“That is not to say that I am advocating open kimono,” Robin says. But you should also avoid going to the other extreme: “spinning” an image and keeping major parts of yourself hidden. Such superficiality makes it hard to connect to you, and that in turn can leave managers lonely and isolated, she says. And because many employees walk softly around people in authority anyway for fear of offending them, they are less likely to provide honest feedback to managers if they feel like they don’t know where managers are coming from.
“We think, ‘If you know this about me you wouldn’t like me as much or find me as influential,’”she says. However, what her students discover in the Interpersonal Dynamics course she teaches at Stanford GSB, the opposite can be true. People end up being more connected to the person, and more willing to be influenced by them “because I took the risk of letting you know me better.” Disclosure also begets disclosure, she says. People are more likely to share something about themselves with someone who does the same.
It is also important to be a good receiver of feedback, Robin says. People who don’t receive feedback well are much less likely to get feedback and therefore forfeit the opportunity to learn about the impact of their behavior on others, she says. “That means they end up operating in an unhealthy vacuum of information.”