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August 3, 2017

How to design a new feedback experience

Ironically, it was in the office that I was pushed to revise my approach to gift-giving when my team and I redesigned the gift-giving experience for a Design Thinking online workshop. The approach of framing the act of gift-giving as an experience shifted my mindset and triggered reflections on how to apply the approach to other settings. What if we tried to redesign the feedback-giving experience? 
In this post, I use the analogy of thoughtful gift-giving to reflect on effective feedback and argue that if we rely on the same principles, we can positively impact our relationships to create a culture of trust. After an introduction on the reasons for giving, I will discuss three aspects of gift-giving that can enhance the way we prepare feedback: empathy, care, and delivery.

Why we give

The aim of the workshop was to design a gift that was both useful and meaningful, a task that reminded me of an agreement that my family made years ago for Christmas. Back then, the family agreed that we would only allow books as presents so that we could spend more time reflecting on each other’s interests instead of searching for inspiration in shopping malls. Since ultimately, the reason for giving is to signal care, reflecting on the receiver’s interests, needs and values is crucial for choosing a gift that will resonate with the receiver.
We give on two different occasions, usually with best intentions and unaware of blind-spots that can undermine the impact of our gifts. We prepare presents for pre-set dates, for birthdays and holidays, where, all too often, gift exchange becomes the centre of the celebration. Busy preparing for the yearly event, we end up more concerned about meeting the deadline than connecting with the receiver. The outcome is a poorly prepared gift that misses its purpose.
Often though, we give outside special occasions to signal care, appreciation or to address a particular matter. But, despite noble motives, receivers do not always understand our intentions and the outcomes are uncertainty and unspoken doubt. For instance, we may think of a colleague who gives a cactus because he knows about his fellow’s love for the desert. She, in turn, gets upset because she reads indifference towards the relationship into the gift.

“Ask people when feedback happens in business and they usually talk about times such as the annual appraisal, […] In fact, feedback is around us all the time. Every time we speak or listen to another person, in our tone of voice, in the words we use, in the silences which we allow, we communicate feedback […]”

Bob Dignen

We give to signal care and thereby contribute to trustful relationships and still, it happens that our intentions are misread. By gaining empathy with the recipient and being mindful of external factors, we can prevent clumsy presents to cause misunderstandings or even disrupt our relationships.

The power of empathy

Empathizing refers to the ability to feel with others and to accept, without judgment, that their views might differ from ours. If we want our gifts to resonate with the recipient, emotionally or intellectually, we rely on empathy to read their particular needs and values.
Sometimes though, there is something holding us back from empathising. When receivers have opposing views, we feel discomfort and thus, reluctant to put ourselves into their shoes so that we may ignore the obvious. For instance, we carefully prepare a hand-made gift for our friends’ wedding. Driven by the aim to create something personal, we ignore the friends’ signals asking for a pragmatic, maybe even financial, contribution.

“Empathy is a competency that allows you to read people. Who is supporting whom? Who is pissed off and who is coasting? […] Carefully reading people will also help you understand the major, and often hidden conflicts.”

Annie McKee, HBR 03/2015

Depending on our relationship with the recipient, the same gift triggers different reactions whether it addresses a friend, family or colleague. While close friends rarely misinterpret gifts, a professional environment can induce uncertainty and unexpected reactions. This being said, when the recipient feels that we truly care, our clumsiness will be easily forgiven or at least overlooked independently of our relationship.

Giving is caring

Ultimately, we give because we care, and when we care, empathy helps us to choose a gift, which is free of both, expectations and judgment. If receivers are not expected to reciprocate, they will feel relieved from pressure and free to appreciate the gift instead. The absence of judgement, in turn, allows the receiver to reflect on the intrinsic value of the gift without double-guessing its intent. 
In general, we do not need to state that our gift comes without expectations and judgement since the interaction of our posture, mimic and tone, will tell the truth, no matter what. When we give with authentic care, our body is consistent with our words, the recipient instinctually feels our intentions and we create a trusting atmosphere.


Outside a trusting atmosphere, we often resist to show authentic care. We hide the actual message of the present out of fear of rejection and ignore that a precious wholehearted gift will fail its purpose when left unwrapped on the doorstep. On the other hand, a gift that we buy last-minute in a jumble shop will not get any better when wearing a golden ribbon. While under-wrapping disregards the gift’s intrinsic value and distracts from our intention, over-wrapping will trigger wrong expectations. In sum, thoughtful delivery is a crucial part of gift-giving since any inappropriate medium will distract from what we aim to say through our gift.

“Employees were far more focused on how they had been ranked than on the nature of the feedback they had received. [For them] the medium was the message.”

Stanford Business Case HR-38 : 4

Great followers understand when to take decisions that are crucial for continuity. And, they have the spirit of owning the decision and going with it. A stable connection nurtured by mutual trust in the other’s abilities will restore the flow. Hence, in moments of uncertainty, both dancers can prove their character, share responsibility and thereby create the magic of Lindy Hop.

The nutshell to take home

Constructive feedback is the main ingredient for personal growth. In this post, I claim that we can create a self-reinforcing culture of trust by redesigning the way we give feedback. To succeed, I suggest creating a feedback experience that relies on the same success-factors than gift-giving: Empathy while preparing, authentic care in giving and mindfulness in delivery.

“The power of work connections is really the power of relationships that are built authentically relating to another person and recognizing their uniqueness, and doing so in a respectful way that builds trust.”

Edward D. Hess

So, shall we think of feedback as gifts? Not all gifts must be sweet though and even the sour ones can lead to trust and personal growth if the goal of giving is a positive contribution to the receiver’s personal growth.

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