Do you know the difference between positive feedback and constructive feedback? And what about upward vs. downward feedback? Have you ever tried to give someone feedforward?
There are several types of feedback and ways in which you can compliment or suggest improvements for someone’s work. Doing so—and doing it correctly—is essential to effective workplace communication and teamwork.
And that starts by knowing the difference between the many types of feedback and when to apply which. When done right, your team will continuously learn, grow, and excel. Together. So why do people flinch when they hear the word feedback?
Feedback’s bad reputation
As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, feedback is an evaluation of an action, event, or process and the act of feeding that evaluation back to the original source. This means that, by definition, feedback can be both positive and negative.
Yet when you hear the word feedback you probably instantly think of negative feedback. Our collective understanding and expectations of feedback are heavily skewed towards the negative rather than the positive. No wonder your team members stop smiling the second you say “can I give you some feedback?”
But feedback shouldn’t have this negative connotation. The whole goal of giving feedback in the first place is to affirm that something is already the best it could be or, if not, to present ways to improve it. Either way, feedback is there to provide a positive effect.
The whole reason why feedback is perceived as something negative is that, often, it isn’t provided correctly nor constructively (more on that below). But before we dive into that, let’s quickly look at the different sources of feedback in the workplace.
Feedback routes at work
So what are common directions of feedback being given and received within the workplace? Although anyone can (and should be able to) give feedback to anyone, there are three common routes that feedback follows within an organisation.
Route 1: Downward feedback
This is probably the most common feedback route, where someone higher up in the company gives an employee feedback on something they’ve done.
For a long time, this was the only direction of the feedback given within a company. Managers and bosses pointing out the mistakes employees made to set them straight and prevent the same mistakes from happening again.
That’s how feedback in business was always handled. And that’s why we have such an ingrained fear of feedback. Receiving feedback meant being told off by your boss for doing something wrong. Depending on your boss, this could mean being humiliated in front of your colleagues. And depending on the severity of the mistake, it could even mean your job was on the line!
Luckily, the way feedback is handled and given has evolved with the times. Now, more and more companies are promoting different feedback routes within their organisation.
Route 2: Upward feedback
Companies are slowly losing the archaic, hierarchical mindset in which the only way is top-down. Instead, employees’ voices are valued more and hierarchies are flattening.
An important part of this transformation is the increasing number of companies that actively encourage employee-to-manager, or upward, feedback. In this case, an employee gives feedback to someone higher up in the organisation.
Upward feedback levels the playing field within your organisation. It not only promotes accountability for everyone in the business but, when done in the right way, it stimulates growth for everyone in your organisation.
Although an incredibly important type of feedback this is often also the hardest to implement. After all, it’s hard to speak freely and provide feedback openly to the person who controls your salary, career progression and, ultimately, whether you keep your job.
You can find out more about how to implement this in our separate guide on how to create a feedback culture in the workplace.
Route 3: Peer-to-peer feedback
This refers to feedback given by one team member to another. With peer feedback, both employees are on an equivalent level in the company’s hierarchy. Promoting this kind of feedback within your organisation results in stronger, constantly improving teams.
Unfortunately, employees are often scared to hurt the feelings of their peers, due to the negative image we have of feedback. This can make it challenging to introduce a peer-to-peer feedback culture within your team.
But certainly not impossible.
Continue reading the rest of this article and the next feedback guides in this series (see bottom of this article) to learn how to successfully implement this in your business.
Further feedback routes
The three routes mentioned above are the most common (internal) feedback routes you’ll find in the workplace. But that’s not all. For example, companies also work with people from outside the organisation who might give or receive feedback as well.
Some additional examples include:
- Self-feedback, more commonly known as self-assessment or self-evaluation, refers to when you give yourself feedback. This is an essential part of any strong feedback culture. By assessing your own work you not only reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses, but learn to understand and deal with other people’s feedback better.
- Customer-to-company feedback, in which customers give feedback on the service or product delivered by the company. This type of feedback is generally unstructured as you cannot teach customers how to provide effective and constructive feedback as you can with employees. But oh, how we wish you could…
- Company-to-applicant feedback, in which your company provides feedback to a job applicant after rejecting their application. This is an important, yet often overlooked, practice in the hiring process. Find out more about the dos and don’ts in our guide on providing feedback after rejection.
These are all examples of the directions of the feedback process.
In most organisations, you will find a combination of different feedback routes at play. For instance, a popular framework of organisational feedback loops is the 360-degree feedback model, intertwining upward, downward, and peer-to-peer feedback to create a more holistic approach to giving feedback.
Now you know more about the directions of feedback let’s dive into the actual content of the feedback that’s given.
Different types of feedback
There are multiple ways in which feedback can be classified and categorised. Below, you’ll find an overview of the most common feedback types.
Let’s start off positive. Say your colleague has worked really hard to get an important task completed. Not only is the result more than you hoped for, but they even worked overtime to get it over the line ahead of the deadline. You’re incredibly grateful, so you want to show your appreciation by complimenting them on their great work.
Example of positive feedback: “Well done on that task! The result is great and it’s impressive that you managed to get it over the line ahead of the deadline.”
This type of feedback praises what someone has done. It shows that you appreciate and value them and the work they put in. It’s aimed at highlighting their strengths and achievements.
Note that positive feedback does not necessarily include a suggestion for a certain action to follow from the feedback (unlike constructive feedback). You just show appreciation and praise.
As such, positive feedback can be something simple as giving your team member a quick shout out on Slack for delivering an interesting presentation. Positive feedback isn’t giving a backhanded compliment or taking credit for someone else’s work.
Now negative feedback is the opposite. In this case, someone has done something bad and you point it out to them.
Just like with the positive feedback above, when given on its own this type of feedback is not constructive. Instead, you merely criticise whatever mistakes someone has made, which is why it’s sometimes also called negative or destructive criticism.
Imagine you and a colleague have to prepare a deck to pitch to a new client on Thursday morning. You divide up the work and set the deadline for Monday. Your colleague doesn’t send their part till Wednesday afternoon, leaving you to QA their work late that evening ahead of the pitch. On top of that, the work was sloppy and some parts were missing.
Example of negative feedback: “You were way too late with your part of the work and it was filled with mistakes! I had to stay in the office all evening to clean up your horrible mess!”
Does that sound helpful to you in any way, shape or form? Didn’t think so. That’s why you should avoid giving negative feedback (or criticism) like this.
Unless someone really messed up, beyond the point of trying to help them improve, negative feedback is never the option. So does that mean you can’t say negative things about someone’s work?
No. You just need to make it constructive.
Now constructive feedback, also referred to as constructive criticism, can be both positive and negative. In fact, constructive feedback could even be neutral and free of judgment. Let’s explain with an example.
During this week’s lunch-and-learn session, your colleague from the HR team gave their first-ever presentation at work, a fascinating talk on how to avoid burnout. You want to compliment them on the amazing job they’ve done and give them a tip that you, as an experienced presenter, have found helpful in the past.
Example of constructive feedback: “Your presentation was incredibly interesting and so well presented! Especially for the first time, it’s impressive how you handled it and answered all those questions throughout the presentation. I actually have a lot of experience in presenting so wanted to share some advice that helped me in the past. I found that leaving questions till the end causes less disruption and makes the presentation flow more smoothly.”
How would you classify the tone of this type of feedback?
Surely the beginning is positive. And although the second part suggests improvement, it isn’t negative either, right? You aren’t saying they did something wrong. You are merely suggesting something that has helped you in the past and that they might find helpful as well.
This feedback is constructive as it gives the receiver useful, actionable advice intended to help them improve. They can use this feedback for further development. That’s why it’s called “constructive”, from the verb to construct. Build.
This is different from positive or negative feedback, where you just observe a certain action or task and place a value judgment (good or bad). You don’t add any guidance on how the person can improve, making the feedback static and isolated.
That’s why constructive feedback is (almost) always the best type of feedback you can give. You promote positive change and help the receiver develop and grow by giving them specific tools to facilitate that growth.
Of course, giving positive feedback in the form of a shout-out or compliment doesn’t require further action. But if you’re saying something critical or even negative, it’s your task to also provide actionable feedback on how to improve whatever the receiver has done wrong.
If you just point out mistakes but don’t provide solutions, you’re not helping anyone move forward. Not yourself, not the receiver, and, in the end, not the organisation.
Now remember that bad example of negative feedback we gave? Here’s what an improved, constructive version might look like:
Example of constructive negative feedback: “You were late with your part of the work and, as I spotted several mistakes, I had to review all of it to ensure it was in order and could be sent over to the client. Moving forward, I suggest we have weekly check-in sessions to discuss your progress. This way, there’s a better chance you will stay on track to deliver a project on time. Furthermore, I suggest you set aside some time to review your work before sending it over or, alternatively, I can QA your work for you.”
Moving forward with feedback in the workplace
We’ve seen how destructive feedback can be when done wrong. But that’s not a reason to stop giving it.
An Officevibe survey showed that 4 out of 10 employees are actively disengaged when they get little or no feedback and a further 82% of employees say that they appreciate both positive and negative feedback.
Employees want to learn and grow, and (constructive) feedback can help them achieve that. But companies have to ensure that the way they give feedback and encourage employees to give feedback amongst each other is done the right way.
This has led some to question the concept of feedback as we know it and search for a new approach. One such management theory that aims to provide an alternative is the concept of feedforward.
Feedback vs. feedforward
The concept of feedforward in management was developed by Marshall Goldsmith, an executive leadership coach. The main premise is that we should focus less on mistakes people made in the past and more on giving them advice on how to find solutions in the future.
Whereas feedback focuses on the past and what has been done, feedforward aims to only focus on opportunities that can happen in the future.
Giving feedforward means giving advice and support on how the receiver might finish a project, deliver a certain deadline on time, or organise their overall workflow.
As such, with feedforward, you’re not evaluating or assessing someone’s work like you are with feedback. Instead, you’re rather coaching the individual to help them excel. That’s why it’s often called feedforward coaching.
Example of feedforward coaching: “I saw in your weekly planner that you’re about to kickstart that project. That’s exciting! I was thinking, what if for the entire duration of this project, you write a short retrospective at the end of each week. Look back at what you’ve achieved that week, how the project is progressing, and what steps you’ll take the following week. This could really help with keeping such a large project manageable and identifying any blockers early on in the process.”
Feedback vs. coaching
Although a useful concept, (feedforward) coaching shouldn’t be seen as an alternative that fully replaces feedback in the workplace. That’s because they’re two parts of the same whole. And your business needs both.
To successfully assess how an employee is performing you need to look at past events. What work they’ve done, what they’ve done well, what they’ve done not so well. The employee, their colleagues, and their manager alike need to reflect on these points and be able to provide (self) feedback to learn from the past.
Equally important is to look at the future. To have someone coach the employee, helping them tackle future challenges and find solutions to problems without looking at past performance. This feedforward or workplace coaching can be done by the same actors or, as in some companies, by a dedicated workplace coach.
That’s why, ideally, your organisation incorporates both.
Food for thought
A truly holistic approach combines all of the above—or well, aside from deconstructive negative feedback!
By introducing a system of giving and receiving feedback (and feedforward) in your team you create a workplace environment where people learn, collaborate, and thrive. Do you want to find out how to do this in your business?
Then read the next guide in our feedback series on how to give feedback.