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How to Give and Receive Feedback Within Psychologically Safe Spaces

Feedback is an essential aspect of growth, both personally and professionally. But for feedback to be effective and catalytic, it's crucial that it takes place within a context of psychological safety. This ensures that the feedback isn’t just heard, but also understood, appreciated, and actioned.

As I navigate my professional journey, the moments that stand out aren't always the project successes or achievements; often, they are the moments when a colleague or manager took the time to provide constructive feedback within a safe space. It's here that I felt understood, valued, and genuinely motivated to improve.

Audre Lorde, a pioneering Black feminist and writer, once said, "I am my best work - a series of road maps, reports, recipes, doodles, and prayers from the front lines." This sentiment emphasizes that our personal and professional journeys are continually evolving. Feedback, within the right setting, can serve as those invaluable road maps.

What is Psychological Safety?

Before diving into the mechanics of feedback, it's imperative to understand psychological safety. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson describes it as a "shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." In simpler terms, it's the confidence that one can speak up, share feedback, or admit mistakes without the fear of punishment or humiliation.

A study from Google's Project Aristotle, which sought to understand what makes teams effective at Google, found that psychological safety was the most crucial factor in successful teams. Team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other was paramount to their success.

The Five-Step Process to Creating a Safe Space for Feedback

  • 1) Foster a Safe Environment: Before feedback is exchanged, establish an environment where the individual feels safe. This might mean choosing a neutral location, ensuring privacy, or even setting some ground rules about the conversation’s intent and purpose.

  • 2) Be Specific: When giving feedback, focus on specific actions or behaviors rather than making it personal. "During the meeting, I noticed..." is more effective and less confrontational than "You always..."

  • 3) Listen Actively: When receiving feedback, it’s essential to genuinely listen. This means not interrupting, asking clarifying questions, and reflecting back what you’ve heard. This ensures the feedback is genuinely understood.

  • 4) Express Gratitude: Whether you're on the giving or receiving end, expressing gratitude is crucial. Thank the person for their insights or for being open to feedback. As Maya Angelou wisely stated, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

  • 5) Follow-Up: Feedback shouldn’t be a one-time thing. After the feedback is given, set up a time to revisit the conversation. This can help ensure that the feedback is being acted upon and provides an avenue for additional clarification or guidance.

Bonus: Remember the Human Aspect: Feedback isn’t just about improving a process or action. It’s about people. Approach feedback with empathy and an understanding of the individual’s feelings and perspectives.

Incorporating the Feedback

Once feedback is given and received within a psychologically safe environment, the real work begins. This involves reflecting on the feedback, making necessary changes, and continuing the dialogue.

Receiving feedback can sometimes be challenging, particularly if it's unexpected or perceived as critical. Here, again, the concept of psychological safety is crucial. Within a safe space, one can process feedback, ask questions, and genuinely use it as a tool for growth.

Psychological safety and feedback are intertwined. For feedback to truly be a catalyst for growth, it must be exchanged within a safe, nurturing environment. The steps outlined above, along with an understanding of the core principles of psychological safety, can serve as a foundation for more constructive, meaningful feedback exchanges.

Remember, feedback, when delivered with empathy and clarity, is a gift. It provides a roadmap for growth, innovation, and continuous improvement. And, as we strive to build more inclusive, dynamic, and successful teams and organizations, it's a gift that will be indispensable.

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