1. “Great job! I really like how you handled the client’s question and pivoted to point out how we’re already thinking about the next steps.”
  2. “You know, next time, you might think about outlining what those steps might be, pulling in a case study, or inviting the developer that recently completed a similar project as a resource.”
  3. “Overall, I’d say you’ve shown real leadership that exceeds your job description.”

Above, are three examples of types of feedback, in this case, that someone might receive on a project.

The first is expressing appreciation. Hoorah! You did something great, here’s a well-deserved kudos; even better, it’s specific so you understand what it was you did that was so great. By identifying the “thing” you know to try to do that again, rather than just aim for doing a “great job.”

The second offers coaching. What could you do even better? How might you approach this differently, if you knew more, had a different background, or were thinking about it in a different way? By taking in someone else’s point of view, you expand your possible options and playbook for next time. You grow based on someone else’s experience by understanding how it might have helped your situation.

The third passes an evaluation. Whether a good or bad evaluation depends on the circumstance, but evaluation places the actions in a larger context to give it meaning. Here’s where you are, either above, at, or below expectations. While it’s useful to know when you’re thinking about your goals, it doesn’t help you know what you did right or expand your knowledge to help you do it better.

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen explains that most dissatisfaction around feedback occurs when people expect one of the three kinds of feedback described above, but receive the other. You were expecting appreciation for your hard work, but instead you were told what you could have done differently. Or, you were hoping to get more technical insights into how to improve your time, but were told that you gave a great effort for a beginner. Or, you wanted to know where you stood for that promotion, but instead you were told “great job” with no sense of context.

This really hit home for me and I’ve tried to think about it when I give or receive feedback. You see, “feedback” was a trigger word for me in a previous manager/employee relationship. I would receive cryptic messages about an urgent need to go over some “feedback,” then be stuck waiting as the meeting was scheduled far out, then pushed and rescheduled. When the meeting finally came (after a sleepless night where I was certain that the “feedback” was that I wasn’t a good fit and I should pack my desk), the feedback was completely obscured by the rest of the conversation that I couldn’t tell you what it was or if it was ever actually delivered. Other times, I’d receive what I assumed was “coaching” based on the amount of gesturing involved, but I could not penetrate the meaning of the vague, euphemistic words. Whatever was being communicated was lost and no amount of leaning closer, blinking, or attempting to formulate a question could extract the content from the “feedback.” When I did have my review, I was blindsided by anonymous feedback from co-workers on a limited engagement. I had expected an issue that I had brought up many times and discussed in detail, but other comments seemed arbitrary and mean-spirited — not relevant or productive. I was told to work on it.

I struggled to connect the feedback with my experience. How could I reconcile how others saw me with how I conducted myself? First, I needed a better mirror. By looking to the team that supported me everyday and the client that trusted me, I realized that I already had everything I needed. I could find better allies and mentors to help me identify areas to work on. I could lean into my strengths, imagine how things could be different, and put my energy into solving problems for other co-workers instead of focusing on what it felt to be on the receiving end of someone else’s bad experience.

Appreciate, coach, evaluate: align your feedback to the need and you’ll never miss the mark.

Writer, researcher, observer