The first time I heard the phrase “feedback is a gift,” I almost laughed out loud. Yes, what a beautiful gift to give your coworker (and yourself!), the gift of an awkward conversation and possibly months of resentment. So imagine how thrilled I was to find out that my new job had a formalized, annual feedback process, and one that I was basically required to participate in.
For those who have not gone through this process: 360’s are an opportunity to give candid and direct feedback to your coworkers, usually acting as a forum for that conversation you haven’t gotten around to having yet. At my company, employees receive an average of 16 pieces of feedback from their peers, and people often take weeks to finalize what they will say to each other. I found the process intimidating, to be sure, but I also considered myself to be a fairly good communicator.
After my first time going through 360’s, I started to reassess my skills. It slowly dawned on me that I had only practiced communication for when the situation was already bad. My strategies were more along the lines of “count to 10 and try to not yell back,” and less about proactively addressing poor communication. I could handle conflict if I was in the middle of it, but I was still strongly averse to initiating difficult conversations. I avoided verbalizing my feedback for fear of creating conflict, but ultimately this was counter-productive. It may feel like you’re being nice to someone by not pointing out their shortcomings, but it's not “nice” to swallow your feelings if those feelings eventually manifest as resentment.
I’ve had plenty of work interactions that I’ve decided to “grin and bear it,” and I’ve gone for many “walks to get coffee” that were just me venting about a coworker. Now, I don’t think that direct feedback would have fixed 100% of these situations, but I should have been more willing to try. They might have been receptive to my feedback, they might not have — but by holding it in, I wasn’t giving them a chance to change. Perhaps more dangerously, by bottling up my emotions I was becoming bitter about the situation, which is never a part of a healthy work environment!
To be clear, I’m not saying that I avoided conflict at all costs, but I would usually wait until the issue had happened a couple of times. By that point, my issue might have turned into a larger problem and have become more difficult to fix. Part of my behavior stemmed from a fear of conflict, sure, but part of it was me feeling like I had to have “enough” of a problem to bring it up. I didn’t want to be seen as whining about every small issue.
If feedback isn’t a part of company culture, it can seem overblown to pull a coworker aside after a meeting to discuss their communication style. No one wants to be seen as nagging, or thin-skinned. Encouraging frequent and candid feedback, however, allows people to bring up problems when they are small and addressable.
In the end, soliciting 360 feedback is only the first half of the equation. It is equally, if not more, important to consider how coworkers responds to the feedback once it has been collected. At my company, it is common for team members to share a 360 summary with one another, “share one positive and one negative piece of feedback that you received.” It’s not just ICs who are involved in this process; managers will often go over highlights and lowlights from their feedback at department meetings.
I’ll be honest — sharing negative feedback about myself with my team members was way scarier to me than giving or receiving negative feedback with an individual. A one-on-one feedback session was kind of like hashing out an argument, but to share that experience with the larger group? That was terrifying! These feelings came not from a place of pride, or never wanting to admit that I could be wrong — I was instead concerned about appearing weak in the workplace.
As a woman in a technical field, I’ve put up with a number of people questioning my skills or ability based on (let’s be real) no data. This experience has caused me to put up walls with new coworkers, feeling like I have to prove myself as an expert before I can trust them to see me as proficient. To openly announce my weaknesses, then, seems like a step in the very wrong direction. It takes a lot of trust in your “stunning colleagues” to be vulnerable like this, to hope that they have your best interests at heart while you open yourself up to criticism.
Luckily, this process gets easier over time. A culture of frequent and direct feedback also fosters introspection, and with practice it’s gotten easier for me to acknowledge and vocalize my weak points. If my coworkers feel that they can talk to me candidly about any issues that they have with me, it also means that it will be easier for me to bring up problems on my end.
360s are not designed to be the singular feedback session in the year, ideally they are merely a marker amongst frequent feedback sessions. When I started at this job, I thought that receiving negative feedback would be the most difficult part of the process. Hearing (hopefully constructive) criticism can be uncomfortable, sure, but just turning over that criticism in your own head isn’t that hard. The more difficult part for me was publicly engaging with that feedback — being honest to my coworkers about my shortcomings, and also engaged enough with the group to contribute my own feedback.
Improving my feedback skills has made me more effective at work, but I've also noticed benefits outside of the office. I’m getting better at acknowledging issues early on, and I’m learning how to be more direct when I bring them up. Work relationships, friendships, romantic relationships: they all benefit from each party being honest about their feelings, and not letting problems fester. I’ve come to terms with 360s and formalized feedback sessions; they have pushed me to engage with my coworkers in a way that I would have otherwise avoided. Communication is a skill, and like all skills it required practice to improve.