A peer of mine, “Bruce,” was up for promotion. As part of his assessment, I was asked to provide 360° feedback for him, contributing to the confidential feedback alongside his boss, peers, and subordinates.

I liked and respected Bruce, and for the most part my feedback was very positive. But in the comments section I wrote:

“Bruce often gives me critical feedback or advice which I have not requested. I’m sure his intention is good, but it feels somewhat demeaning. He is my peer, not my boss. If I want feedback I will ask him for it. I think this behavior may undermine his effectiveness as a colleague and a leader.”

After I submitted my response, I realized I had never spoken to Bruce about my discomfort with his unsolicited feedback. I thought to myself, “Golden, don’t be such a chicken and hide behind an anonymous survey. Go and talk with him about it.” So I did. I set up a meeting and told him I was the person who had written that comment on his survey. He was quite surprised at my reaction, and he said, “I always think of feedback as a gift.”

Giving feedback to colleagues is great — when it’s wanted

That got me thinking. Was there something wrong with me that caused me to feel resentful about his comments? I think it’s often wise to reflect on your reactions and understand where you’re coming from. And it may be that I am particularly touchy about unsolicited criticism.

But I think Bruce was mistaken. Criticism is not always a gift, at least not a wanted gift. In fact, it reminds me of the times when someone has given me a tool they think I need, when I have no desire for it. A weekly planner can be a welcome gift, or a passive aggressive rebuke for missed dates. As with unsolicited advice, it feels as if they’re saying, “I know better than you.”

How to give feedback to peers that’s actually constructive

There are times when your job is to provide feedback. My husband is a violin teacher. He doesn’t wait for his students to ask for feedback before telling them they’re holding the bow the wrong way. 

Teachers, managers, coaches — many people are paid to provide advice and feedback. There are other times when we have a moral responsibility to intervene. If you see someone abusing a child, you must speak up even though the abuser doesn’t want to hear it. 

But outside of those relationships, we generally do better to give feedback only when we are asked for it. Even if our intention is good, our impact may not be so positive. Especially in professional peer relationships, make sure that the recipient is really eager to hear what you have to say.

The good news is that Bruce took my feedback seriously. He stopped giving me unsolicited criticism and we are cordial professional colleagues to this day.     

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    Quite amusing to get this today. I wrote something to a colleague and put it in draft as not sure whether she would want my ‘criticism’. On second thought I decided not to send it and just let it go. My suggestion is probably needed but in the end it would have meant more work for the person and she is very busy.
    Then there you were Gail with your take on criticism. NOW I’M REALLY GLAD I DIDN’T SEND IT!