Corrective Feedback: Difficult, But Worth It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "No Rules Rules" by Reed Hastings. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is corrective feedback? What does it achieve and why is it important?

Corrective feedback is constructive criticism that is aimed at identifying issues and helping direct someone on how to resolve it. While validation may feel better, corrective feedback is the key to growth.

Read on for more about corrective feedback and how it helps.

Promote Candid, Frequent Feedback

With an office full of talented, collaborative employees, Hastings learned that he could maximize their potential by promoting frequent, candid feedback. He encouraged employees to be candid with everyone on the team—superiors, colleagues, and subordinates. In fact, frequent feedback became so ingrained in Netflix’s office culture that not speaking up was considered an act of disloyalty, because it inhibited the company’s improvement. 

After discovering the power of transparent, constructive feedback in his marriage counseling, Hastings brought the approach into the office. He encouraged his staff to openly share their feelings and opinions, as long as they did it with positive intent, without attacking or hurting others. 

Corrective Feedback Is Difficult and Valuable

In most workplaces and social settings, people typically refrain from giving critical and constructive feedback. There are many reasons for people’s reluctance to speak up:

  • They don’t want to come across as rude or difficult. 
  • They worry that others will disagree with their feedback. 
  • They don’t want others to think that they’re not team players. 
  • They don’t want to upset the other person or cause an argument. 

When most people receive corrective feedback, they tend to feel vulnerable, doubt themselves, or become frustrated—and those feelings are magnified if they’re criticized in front of other people. Your brain is wired to crave group acceptance, because our ancient ancestors had to stay in good standing with their tribes in order to survive. As a result, when you hear criticism, the primitive part of your brain interprets it as a threat to your survival, and it reacts with the fight-or-flight response. In other words, when most people hear negative feedback, they want to run away. 

By contrast, positive feedback actually triggers your brain to release oxytocin, a chemical that makes you feel good. This is why most people would rather give and receive compliments than critiques. However, research shows that people still acknowledge the value of truthful, corrective feedback: 

  • By a 3-to-1 margin, people believe corrective feedback is more helpful than positive feedback. 
  • More than half of people surveyed preferred receiving corrective feedback. 
  • Nearly three-fourths of people believed that corrective feedback would improve their own performance. 
  • Almost all of the people surveyed agreed that negative feedback—when delivered constructively—raises performance level.

Although it can be uncomfortable, people value corrective feedback because it provides the opportunity to produce a better outcome, creating a feedback loop. Feedback loops help people learn faster and accomplish more as individuals and as a team: 

  • Frequent, direct feedback promotes open communication and prevents misunderstandings. 
  • Candor creates an atmosphere of co-accountability, in which everyone keeps each other on point (instead of only managers having the authority to correct others). 
  • Feedback and co-accountability reduce the need for rules and hierarchies. 

However, even if everyone in the organization agrees on the value of candor, well-intended feedback can be poorly received and create counterproductive tension and resentment. In order to avoid this, Hastings took several steps to develop a culture of candor. 

Step 1: Employees Give the Boss Corrective Feedback

Leaders should show how much they value feedback by being the first to receive it. This sets the tone for a candid environment, but it can still be intimidating for employees to critique their bosses. Managers can lower this barrier in two ways: 

  1. In one-on-one meetings with employees, list “feedback” as an agenda item. This shows that you’re serious about soliciting critiques, and that employees’ candor is not only allowed, but expected.
  2. Respond to feedback in an open, appreciative way. For example, move closer physically, use a warm tone of voice, look into the employee’s eyes in a positive way, and thank the employee for her candor. These cues show the employee that it’s a safe environment to voice her opinions. 

In addition to setting an example for openly accepting criticism, leaders often need to hear what their employees are thinking. The higher your position in an organization, the less feedback you typically receive, because colleagues are less likely to question an executive than a mid-level employee. Furthermore, the consequences of a manager’s error are typically greater than a junior employee’s mistake—the junior employee may flub a single project, while the manager could steer the company into a bad business deal. Leaders need their staff to let them know when they’re veering in the wrong direction. 

Step 2: Teach Employees How to Give and Receive Feedback 

As discussed earlier, even well-intended, constructive criticism can make the receiver feel hurt and defensive, so it helps to have parameters. At Netflix, Hastings developed the 4A guidelines: 

  1. Aim to assist: The goal of giving feedback should be to help the individual, team, or company improve—not to hurt the person, vent, or advance your own agenda. 
  2. Actionable: Corrective feedback should focus on how someone can improve, not what she’s doing wrong. 
  3. Appreciate: When receiving feedback, fight the urge to be defensive or to give an excuse. Show the person you appreciate her candor and helpful intention by listening and considering the advice with an open mind. 
  4. Accept or discard: You don’t have to follow all feedback—as long as you consider it. When someone gives you feedback, thank her, consider her message, and decide whether or how to use it.

Step 3: Give Feedback Anywhere, Anytime

People often want to wait until the right moment to give constructive criticism, in order to avoid embarrassing or upsetting the recipient. But if you wait to give feedback, you may be robbing the person of the opportunity to use your critique and correct the issue. For this reason, Netflix encourages employees to give feedback anywhere, anytime—even if it’s in the middle of a meeting. With a culture of candor and a staff of people who know how to give and receive constructive criticism, a public critique that could be considered disruptive in another setting becomes a corrective lifesaver.

Step 4: Corrective Feedback Should Be Motivating

Even in a culture of candor, there can be a fine line between constructive criticism and abrasive critique. To avoid this, managers should coach employees on how to give corrective feedback and monitor their delivery. Ultimately, candid feedback should be delivered in a way that makes the recipient feel positive and motivated, not discouraged and unproductive. In addition to following the 4A guidelines, follow these principles when giving feedback: 

  1. Don’t give criticism when you’re angry. 
  2. Use a calm voice to deliver feedback. 
  3. Reflect on your message and consider preparing your thoughts before delivering your critique. 

Candor Optimized the Staff’s Talents

Hastings had already stacked the Netflix staff with high achievers, and once they adapted to giving and receiving candid feedback, the exchanges raised everyone’s performance

  • The increased exchange of candid feedback helped people know how they could improve, which raised individual and company-wide performance.
  • Frequent, direct critiques increased the pace of work progress, as people learned more quickly and increased their effectiveness.
  • Having an environment in which people could be transparent reduced office politics and backstabbing.
  • When one person was receptive to constructive criticism, it made the people around her feel more comfortable giving and receiving feedback.
Corrective Feedback: Difficult, But Worth It

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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