Giving Feedback with Psychological Safety

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Giving Feedback with Psychological Safety

retrospectives and psychological safety

Providing constructive feedback is one of the most powerful things you can do to help others achieve their goals, be happier in their work, create psychological safety and help your teams and organisations perform at their best.

However, it’s really important to bear in mind how, why, and when feedback is delivered, or if it should be delivered at all. The effects of badly delivered feedback can be devastating. Poorly delivered feedback that is timed badly, delivered without concern for how it may be received, or feedback that is not actionable, can massively damage psychological safety.

Badly delivered feedback destroys psychological safety

Feedback must be actionable. When you receive feedback that isn’t actionable, you may feel trapped, targeted, and criticised rather than empowered. Poorly delivered feedback may simply describe what is wrong, without a suggestion of how any improvements could be made. Without providing actions or changes, feedback is simply badly delivered criticism.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that not all feedback is true or accurate, and it’s important to remember that just because someone has given you some feedback, it doesn’t mean you need to act upon it. Feedback may be the result of an opinion, or even delivered with an intent to manipulate. So when you’re receiving feedback, consider:

  • Is this feedback specific and actionable?
  • Is it genuine and coming via positive intent?
  • Is the person delivering it doing so with care and concern for me?
  • Is the person delivering this feedback experienced or qualified enough to do so?
  • Is the feedback appropriately timed?
  • Is this feedback delivered in a suitable, possibly private, space?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, then you may wish to discard or ignore the feedback, and provide feedback in return.

How to deliver feedback and improve psychological safety

Good feedback must be:

  • Well intended
  • Solicited (i.e. ask for permission beforehand)
  • Actionable
  • Timely (delivered as soon as possible)
  • Specific
  • Private
  • Delivered from your perspective
  • Limited to only one or two points
  • Combined with positive encouragement
  • A conversation, not a statement
  • A two-way street (be open to receiving feedback in return)
  • Focussed on behaviours and performance, not personalities

When delivering feedback, try providing actions in the form of experiments, such as “Next time, maybe you could try doing X instead of Y, and seeing if that works better.” By making everything an experiment, the risk of “failing” is significantly reduced.

When to refrain from giving feedback

Bear in mind that sometimes no feedback might be the better option – if someone simply needs encouragement, is finding life or work very challenging, the best thing to do may be to simply say “Well done, keep going.” Feedback can wait until they’re in a psychologically suitable place to receive it.

The danger of really badly delivered feedback, or feedback delivered at a time when the subject is not able to accept it, may be that their performance suffers, or they simply quit – they give up and stop. It’s better that someone keeps going and doing “ok”, than they just stop completely.

Feedback and psychological safety

Great feedback can enhance an already high performing, psychologically safe team, but poorly delivered feedback can destroy psychological safety, so be careful, empathetic and mindful when delivering it.

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