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8 Tips for Giving Great Peer Feedback

The last constructive criticism I received was from my cat. After presenting her with the organic, gluten-free food that I'd spent arguably too much money on, she refused to eat it. 

Can you believe that? Does she even care that I consulted blogs and veterinarians about the best diet to put her on? Unfortunately, we’re not great at communicating feedback to each other because we’re of different species.

Luckily, that’s not the case when giving feedback in the workplace. It’s easy to communicate criticism, but it’s not always easy to do it effectively. This can especially be the case when providing peer feedback, which is a trend that’s growing in different workplaces.

Part of assembling a great team means providing helpful feedback so they can grow, and peer-to-peer discussions of strengths and weaknesses is a way to round out the top-down feedback employees receive from their supervisors and glean a fuller picture of how they can improve. In this post, we’ll discuss why peer feedback matters and how to deliver it effectively.

Why Feedback Is Important

Feedback is an important and necessary part of anyone’s career path, whether you’re in your first job out of college or have been a CEO for many years. Feedback from managers, peers, and reports is critical to identifying performance strengths and weaknesses. It provides employees opportunities for growth and education in their roles. What’s more, it often results in improved communication and better understanding of expectations between employees.

You might think that employees dread giving or receiving feedback, especially if it’s negative, but that’s actually not the case. There are some surprising statistics about the importance of feedback to employees who receive it, especially if it’s negative:

Zenger/Folkman surveyed nearly 1,000 employees, and 72% thought their performance would improve with the help of feedback. Additionally, 57% preferred corrective feedback over praise, and 92% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that negative feedback, when delivered correctly, is an effective way to improve performance.

It’s clear that negative feedback is not only desired by employees, but it’s beneficial. So, now the question is how to deliver constructive feedback correctly so employees aren’t demotivated and discouraged by it. One answer to this question is the peer review, or the 360 review.

Peer reviews are designed to provide a broader picture of employees and how they work with others, not just their supervisors. They’re not intended to replace or contribute to regular performance reviews or salary negotiations.

Instead, they’re designed to help employees set goals related to interpersonal and professional skills in the workplace based on feedback managers and peers provide. The goal of peer review is to provide a clear picture of a team’s performance from the inside, out, and to create a team culture and spirit of positive reinforcement as well as constructive feedback from those who know the employee best.

To shed some light on ways to give feedback to your peers that’s helpful, actionable, and not uncomfortable, I’ve rounded up suggestions from my own peers and trusted leadership sources to get you started.

8 Tips for Giving Great Peer Feedback

1) Assume good intent.

This is good advice for anyone on the receiving end of constructive feedback, but it goes for those giving peer feedback as well. As uncomfortable as you might feel providing feedback to your peers, they want to hear from you: 76% of employees surveyed were motivated by positive feedback from their peers.

I asked my colleague, HubSpot Marketing Director Rebecca Corliss, what advice she gives for providing great peer feedback.

“For those who feel uncomfortable giving feedback, I hear you. Especially if you don't want to hurt someone's feelings, it can be really difficult.” Corliss suggests that peer reviewers and feedback recipients view the comments as a gift. “If your feedback is shared constructively and with genuine care for the other person, you're doing it right.”

HubSpot Sales Blog Editor Leslie Ye echoed this sentiment. “Your peers are there to help you improve, not cut you down or make you feel bad,” Ye says. “Their feedback isn't a reflection on your worth as a person. Remind yourself of this to make feedback feel less personal."   

2) Review regularly.

If peer reviews are incorporated regularly over the course of a working relationship, they won’t be viewed as a sporadic and dreaded event only followed by an employee’s mistake. Instead, peer reviews will be part of an ongoing two-way discussion that allows for honest and open communication and faster problem-solving.

I have a weekly check-in where I receive feedback from my manager, and I receive peer feedback each time I submit a blog post to HubSpot Marketing Blog Editor Carly Stec for her review. Communicating regularly about my progress and growth makes it feel less like a review that I dread and more like an ongoing conversation that I look forward to as a way to improve my work.

Stec suggests, “make giving and receiving peer feedback a consistent habit, and it'll start to feel less intimidating."

3) Come prepared.

Fractl surveyed 1,100 employees about how they felt about difficult conversations in the workplace, and they found that respondents were more likely to be somewhat or completely satisfied by feedback conversations with a direct report than with a superior. The promising result? Nearly 50% of respondents were somewhat or completely satisfied with difficult discussions with peers.

How do you ensure that feedback conversations between peers are productive and leave all parties satisfied? Come to feedback meetings prepared. A whopping 85% of the survey respondents said they prepared for difficult conversations in advance, and that’s smart advice for any feedback meeting, no matter how casual.

When preparing for a feedback meeting with a peer, have the following questions in mind to ensure that the time is well-spent:

  1. What are your goals? What are you both seeking to get out of this meeting?
  2. How can you both work together to achieve them? How can you help your peer grow and improve?

4) Learn the other person's style.

As you may already know from previous career experience, feedback can sometimes rub you the wrong way. It might be the content of the feedback, or you might be taking criticism personally, but it could also be because you and your colleague delivering feedback have different communication styles.

Stec suggests that peer reviewers “take time to learn how the person you're working with prefers to receive feedback -- and package your notes accordingly.”

Ye encourages expectation-setting prior to giving feedback so colleagues know what to expect from you early on. “I'm a very direct person and my feedback is the same way. I know that my feedback can come off as blunt or abrupt, so I set the expectation early on that that's my style, so people receiving feedback aren't taken aback."

The easiest way to learn your colleague’s style is to ask: Do they prefer in-person discussions, or emails? Do they want big-picture feedback, or do they want to dive into making changes? Consider asking colleagues about personality assessments, such as the DiSC test, that might provide you with greater insight into how you colleagues communicate and work best.

5) Get to the point.

We’ve written before about the importance of not giving feedback in the form of a “sandwich,” wherein constructive feedback is preceded and followed by positive feedback to lessen the sting of criticism. It can often make your peers feel patronized and condescended to, so skip the sandwich.

Instead, try a feedback flatbread (bear with me here, I’m hungry). Instead of prefacing constructive criticism with praise, dive into the feedback head-on, and follow it up with discussing how their strengths can be used to solve the problem.

In another study, Zenger/Folkman surveyed nearly 4,000 employees who’d received negative feedback asking them if they were surprised by the criticism they’d received, and 74% had already known and weren’t surprised by the feedback. So when you’re preparing to meet with a peer about ways they can improve their work, it’s safe to assume they know themselves fairly well. Address areas of growth and ways they can use their strengths to improve, rather than following a compliment-critique-compliment sandwich recipe.

Ye notes that the compliment sandwich can “obscure the true feedback and often lead to more rounds of back-and-forth,” but she echoes the need to interweave positive comments into peer feedback discussions. “It's discouraging to not receive any positive feedback, and it's a missed opportunity to call out and reinforce good habits."

6) Encourage a growth mindset.

Are you familiar with the fixed mindset and how it compares to the growth mindset? For a quick overview, these concepts were coined by psychologist Carol Dweck in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues.”

When providing peer feedback, phrase your comments and challenge your colleague to think in terms of a growth mindset. Instead of focusing on individual tasks your coworker didn’t accomplish, give them feedback about how the skills they’re learning to tackle contribute to the bigger picture of their professional success.

Praising or criticizing peers by telling them what they are -- right or wrong, good or bad -- can inspire a fear of failure and making mistakes that stagnates learning. Corliss says it best: “Most folks see feedback as a time to sit down and tell people what they're doing wrong or what they need to do better. While that can be true, I think there's a better way to view feedback: offering people a reflection of themselves that they may not be able to see.”

Producing successful work is important, but as a peer, it’s important for you to provide feedback that gives your colleagues a fuller picture of their progress and growth that empowers them to experiment and learn new ways to define “successful.”

7) Use the passive voice.

I know, you probably read the title of this section and wondered, “wait, doesn’t this advice go against a cardinal rule of writing?” Before you write me off, hear me out: The passive voice is integral to giving productive peer feedback that’s helpful without being personal. It allows your feedback to focus on the problem, not the individual who you’re critiquing.

Compare these two styles of feedback on the same hypothetical article:

  1. “You didn’t support the claims you made in the article.”
  2. “This article would be stronger with most research to back its claims.”

See the difference? While the two critiques are communicating the same thing --  the article needs more support for its claims -- the second is a more productive way to provide feedback to a peer. Focusing feedback around the subject instead of the individual makes it less likely that your peer will become defensive of themselves and will lead to an altogether more productive conversation.

Remember, 57% of Zenger/Folkman’s respondents said they preferred corrective feedback. Your peers and colleagues want to know how to improve, and if it’s your job to help them in that process, you owe it to yourself and your coworkers to have the most productive conversation possible.

8) Embrace technology.

It’s 2016, and it’s time for peer feedback to get with the program. As we mentioned earlier, it’s courteous to learn how your peers like to receive feedback to tailor an approach that works for their learning style, and that can include technology.

Experiment with different ways to deliver constructive criticism electronically, such as via email, Google Drive comments, Slack, or Evernote. One benefit to communicating peer feedback electronically is that it can be documented and saved for future reference.

On the other side of the coin, there are many ways to electronically harness positive peer feedback as well. Here on the HubSpot Marketing team, we use TinyPulse to gauge employee engagement and happiness, but also to give “cheers” to our peers for great work that their supervisors might not have noticed. YouEarnedIt lets employees provide similar real-time praise.

Your peers want to succeed in their roles, and feedback from managers and peers is integral to making that happen. The next time you sit down for a feedback conversation with a peer, ask yourself if you’re doing the best you can to make your criticism fair, actionable, and empowering.

What’s your favorite way to receive feedback from a peer? What’s your advice for giving constructive criticism to your coworkers? Share with us in the comments below.

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