Psychology of feedback: How to give or receive valuable critique

How can you give and receive more productive feedback? Form a psychological contract with a trusted partner.

MELANIE KATZMAN: I encourage people to provide feedback to one another. It's a gift. It's also often part of your job. But, too often, we don't go far enough. So I suggest that we create psychological contracts. You don't do it with everybody, but it is an opportunity to agree to exchange extremely honest feedback by mutual consent in a safe and trusting way.

There's a number of different ways in which you can do that. One is in the immediate. I say to somebody who I trust, whose opinion matters to me, "I'm getting up on stage. Let me know afterwards: Was I clear? Did I give too much information, too little information? Did I move too much? Did I engage with the audience? Tell me the truth." That's an immediate request for honest feedback and we are creating a psychological contract. You're not going out of bounds if you tell me exactly what you think. I also tell people if they're going into a meeting, pick the person who's going to pull on their ear to let you know you're going off topic, whether your data is really not holding up in that room and getting an immediate sense from somebody the unvarnished truth about what's going on.

The other way in which we negotiate psychological contracts is to create a space within the group that you're working to say "We're going through big changes in our company right now. There's going to be a lot of noise in the hallways. Not everyone's going to like what we're doing but when we come into this room we're going to share what we're hearing, how we're feeling and we're going to work through that together." So it is creating a safe space; it's agreeing this is where we're going to bring that information and understand that not everything's going to be pretty, but we have mutually consented to having that sharing.

So, when we establish a psychological contract this is not a written agreement. This is an agreement between people, preferably, I look you in the eye or I speak to you directly and I ask permission and you give it to me. It doesn't exist, by the way, forever; you have to renew those contracts. You can negotiate them for the moment. You can negotiate them over a period of time. I say to you, "I know you're coming up for promotion. I'd really like to help you get to where you need to go. Would you like me to give you feedback on a more ongoing way?" I've asked you. You've given me permission. We've now contracted that, over a period of time, with a particular goal in mind we're going to have continual exchanges. You're going to expect that feedback from me and I'm going to take on the responsibility of delivering that to you regularly and clearly.

In the absence of negotiating that contract people can feel as if they have been impinged upon, that you are going beyond what is socially accepted or interpersonally comfortable. So be clear, be mutual, and then be extremely candid.

  • Feedback is a gift, says business psychologist Dr Melanie Katzman. Giving or receiving feedback can be a formal part of our jobs, but in Dr Katzman's assessment, we often don't go far enough with feedback.
  • Katzman suggests creating a psychological contract with a partner who you respect and trust. In that contract, you agree to exchange extremely honest feedback by mutual consent in a safe and trusting way.
  • In this video, she lays out the rules for such a contract and how you can embark on one. This kind of feedback is not advised without a clear contract as people can feel you are going out of bounds. So be clear, be mutual, and then be extremely candid.



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