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A Guide for Giving Better Feedback

By Rohit Sharma, May 8, 2017

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Giving unpleasant feedback isn’t fun for anyone. It’s always difficult to convey that we are not passing objective judgement on a person’s idea, product or performance. Rather, it is a subjective set of thoughts informed by the lens through which we view the world. This lens is influenced by where we live, our upbringing, education, race, gender — you name it.

Within companies, and in my case when considering which Founders to fund, we don’t always take the time to communicate the biased framework we bring to the table. But it’s far better to expose all the ways in which we are not objective so the feedback recipient understands where we’re coming from.

We’re always biased, and the idea of giving truly helpful feedback can seem daunting in light of this challenge. But there are a few things we can do to give better feedback to our peers, the employees we manage and existing or potential business partners.

First: Consider your obvious and not-so-obvious influences.

Obvious influences include things like how you may unconsciously favor a coworker who graduated from your alma mater. But not-so-obvious influences are sneakier. Here’s a quick way to tell what they are: When discussed, what topics make you insert metaphorical ear plugs before the person speaking has finished expressing their thoughts?

Are you likely to be critical of a fanciful marketing campaign brainstormed at an all-hands meeting because your team will have to manage the logistics? How might that fact influence your ability to listen and provide helpful feedback to the person with the idea?

Second: Acknowledge your biases.

Once you know your obvious and not-so-obvious influences, your biases will become pretty clear. Realize that these biases are continually evolving based on our daily experiences and the information we consume.

Our “feedback frameworks” are also influenced by patterns and anti-patterns we’ve learned and unlearned, sometimes multiple times in our careers. Do some soul searching in terms of all the factors that led you to your biases so you are equipped to explain them.

Third: Declare your biases to the feedback recipient before delivering your thoughts.

My firsthand experience with this comes from the Founder’s side of the table. As a young entrepreneur, I had high hopes of convincing a well-known investor in Silicon Valley that my idea would work. Instead, the investor carefully laid out his “thinking framework” to an impatient young Founder (me) who was desperately hoping to hear a “yes” without further questioning.

One of the fundamental tenets of his framework was that the opportunities he funds must have a chance of creating a new market, not merely fit into an existing one. The reason he wasn’t leaning across the table, wanting to invest, was that the idea I’d presented had no real hopes of seeding a new market. I was disappointed, and the fast-thinking part of my brain wanted to interject with why his reasoning was wrong.

But over the years, that particular explanation of the investor’s framework stuck with me. Looking back, he had openly declared his biases prior to sharing why my idea didn’t fit his perception of a successful idea.

This openness, a fundamental tenet to strive for in the venture landscape, is dependent upon communicating our own susceptibilities and how they play into our choices. In essence, check your biases and accompanying privilege at the door so the feedback recipient is well aware of all the factors that affect your opinions. The feedback recipient will then have the right context for interpretation.

“This is my feedback for you, and the reason I feel this way is because I have had these experiences.”

“Here’s what I’m thinking, and this is why.”

For example, explain that your experience giving presentations at conferences has made you particularly conscious of your team’s public speaking abilities, or that because you have kids in middle school you are more likely to question the feasibility of an app that’s supposed to encourage pre-teens to finish their homework.

Whether the feedback recipient takes your opinion into account or not is up to them. But regardless, there’s usually something valuable to be learned when we’re real about our bias baggage.

Taking Feedback Better

On the other end, we have biases when we receive feedback too. We may struggle to accept a piece of feedback because our experiences (biases) direct us to. We tend to have an emotional distance from opinions that don’t fit our framework even though we may intellectually appreciate them.

It doesn’t help that we’ve been wired to think that feedback from a boss, mentor or potential investor = true facts. This is something we must unlearn in order to better integrate critical feedback into our understanding of ourselves and where we may have room to improve.

When we understand that feedback actually = biased opinions, we beat ourselves up less about it and we can better process that information.

A version of this article appeared on Fast Company