Changing the feedback experience using positive psychology

Originally published at: https://blog.openzeppelin.com/changing-the-feedback-experience-using-positive-psychology/



As a new initiative, we will be sharing some insights into our culture — the way we work and what we think is important at OpenZeppelin.

But before getting into that, I wanted to share a bit about myself and my journey so far at OpenZeppelin.

About me

I’m Carolina. I have a background in psychology. Understanding the human mind has always been a passion for me. For me, this goes hand in hand with another passion — helping others. Even though I didn’t see another path other than clinical psychology at the beginning of my career (what some of the members in my family were doing), I eventually realized I could apply all this knowledge to the world of organizations. That’s how I landed my first job as a Project Coordinator at an international company where I helped students from all over the world find volunteering and internship opportunities in Buenos Aires.

After many years of working in international and remote teams, I joined the OpenZeppelin team in December 2018. My first challenge was to significantly grow the team and turn the group into a truly distributed team. Since I’ve joined, we have hired 8 new team members located in different areas around the globe: Argentina, Australia, Russia, and the US.

With that task happily accomplished (though we are still hiring!), and now being a distributed and remote team, we are constantly thinking of ways of how to improve collaboration, sense of belonging, and happiness at work.

On feedback

One of the topics we focused on this year, and the topic of this first post, was feedback. We feel that receiving feedback is part of a healthy culture. This is why we want to make sure that, at OpenZeppelin, everyone is receiving feedback on what they are doing great and what they need to improve on. We know that people that receive feedback from their peers or supervisors feel valued and motivated to do great work. Being in HR, you can often see how, at times, it is hard to give and receive feedback. This is mainly because there are different expectations from both sides which can end up being frustrating and demotivating for both managers and team members.

On the other hand, motivated team members will perform better, go that extra mile that every company needs, and ultimately, will be happier individuals. Being that we spend most of our day at work, I believe we deserve to be happy there. Don’t you?

So, if we are talking about happiness at work and wanting our team members to feel valued and respected, we should take into account how managers at our organization are giving feedback. While researching this subject, I came across a positive psychology approach for giving feedback.

The ideas and concepts of this approach into feedback are derived from material developed by Shift Positive. All credit goes to them for their awesome work!

Applying positive psychology to Feedback

According to this approach, employees that are valued by their strengths and their unique contribution to the team feel more motivated and perform better. During feedback sessions, managers can ask the right questions to identify those strengths, while also focusing on what the person should be doing instead of what they are doing wrong.

According to the founders of Shift Positive, feedback in organizations today is broken, and these are some of the main reasons why:

  • It is usually given once a year and tied to compensation or annual review.
  • There is lack of context. Managers usually don’t go over the specific situations around the feedback.
  • It usually focuses on areas of improvement but doesn’t mention what the person could do to be more effective.
  • It is rarely followed up on or tracked.

There are also some delivery flaws:

  • Forty percent of employees are likely to disengage when they feel ignored by their managers when they don’t receive any feedback.

Feedback should be constructive and done at its best:

  • You trust the intention of the person sharing feedback with you.
  • There is context around the feedback, meaning that you understand the circumstances around it.
  • You have a clear idea of what to do (rather than what not to do).
  • It is given at the correct time.
  • Moving forward, you have the right social support for improvement.

Changing the feedback experience

In order to change the feedback experience, we should focus on two things:

  1. The How: Change the way we give feedback and do it focusing on what is working, rather than what is not.
  2. The Who: Feedback involves more than a single individual receiving it. Providing the right support is key to the success of the feedback process.

Going back to how we give feedback, from a strengths perspective, when we are using our strengths, we are more engaged and energized. Weakness might be informative and insightful, but it is insufficient to change because you don’t focus on what the person should be doing instead. Above all, weaknesses can trigger negativity bias. Our brain is more prone to remember negative situations.

How to give constructive feedback

In order to achieve more constructive feedback, use the solution-focused approach. When we focus the questions on the how and the what instead of the why, we produce more ideas.

The proposition under this model is to identify the desired behaviors and communicate them. For example, instead of telling someone “You talk too much”, we can advise them to use active listening skills which will be more helpful. The person will also be more receptive and empowered by this feedback than if you tell them what they should stop doing.

It’s important to take the necessary time to think about what successful behavior looks like; otherwise, it won’t happen.

A recommended exercise for this is the T-chart for personal and individual use:

  • Problem-focused feedback: Capture what the problems are on the left side. These are things that you think the person can improve.
  • Solution-focused feedback: Capture the focus on solutions on the right side: What do I want this person to be doing instead? Try to envision and see it for yourself. These should be specific behaviors or actions we want this person to conduct. Also, the manager will now know how to measure and what to look for because they worked on specific feedback.

Providing the right support

In order to see change, we need to also provide support once feedback is provided. Managers should monitor team members’ growth and help them achieve those desired behaviors.

This model also challenges the notion of confidentiality when giving feedback. Managers provide context around it, being able to bring real situations to the conversation around feedback.By teaching people what you want and giving constructive feedback, the need for confidentiality goes away. It is no longer necessary to be confidential if you can bring up solutions.

Summary

To summarize, useful feedback has the following characteristics:

  • Offers context — It’s not confidential, we provide context on specific situations around feedback.
  • It is clear in the intention — The person receiving feedback knows what to do.
  • It is timely.
  • The manager offers social support for that person.
  • It is focused only on strengths; we don’t look at the weaknesses.
  • It uses solution-focused questions.
  • It creates a 2-way accountability and also supports the person besides just giving feedback.

As a manager, you have the possibility of highly impacting your employees’ performance, productivity, and satisfaction at work. Oftentimes, we focus too much on the processes, and we forget that we have a person with their own experiences, strengths, and weaknesses right in front of us.

It’s important to get to know your employees and to identify their strengths and motivations with them so they can thrive in their role. This will also impact the overall organization and your satisfaction in your manager role.

I truly believe that by applying positive psychology, we can improve happiness at work and performance. If you haven’t done so yet, it’s worth trying out and seeing the results for yourself!

I would love to know more about your experiences with feedback: How is feedback handled in your organization or community? Did you have any good or bad experiences regarding feedback? How would you like to receive feedback? What was the most useful feedback you ever received? Please share them in the forum! You can also follow me on Twitter for more tips on feedback and culture!

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