Do as you would be done by: the golden rule of feedback

Why is the golden rule so important to good feedback?

All of us will have encountered the ‘golden rule‘ — that is, to treat others as one would wish to be treated, and this extends to giving feedback in the manner we would like to receive it. At the heart of the golden rule is empathy, the ability to see things from another person’s point of view and to care as much about them as you do about yourself. However, this doesn’t mean that you never point out mistakes and only tell people how wonderful they are so as not to hurt their feelings. Caring about others includes caring about their ability to be successful and that means being honest about where they are falling short: giving what we might call ‘tough love’.

The golden rule is a core concept in most religions and ethical beliefs; in fact, according to recent studies, it was mentioned as early as 3,000 BC in the Vedic Indian tradition - “Don't do unto others what you don't want done unto you; wish for others what you wish for yourself”.

To be effective, feedback has to address performance honestly and specifically, whether it is positive or negative. To say, “That was awesome!” or “That was terrible!” is equally unhelpful unless you are able to specify what exactly was done well or done badly. For someone to learn from both their successes and their failures, they need to understand what worked and what didn’t. The importance of empathy in a feedback conversation is not so much what is said as how it is said.

A woman sitting at a desk looking disappointed and defeated.

Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes will help you to craft your feedback in such a way that they will be able to use it positively and not feel hurt or diminished by it. Think how you would prefer to receive this feedback if the situation was reversed, and act accordingly.

These tips are the key to giving good feedback.

  • Be prepared

    Make sure you are clear about what you need to say and what outcome you want. Have your facts ready as well as possible solutions.
  • Help the other person to feel safe

    Find a space that is private and not intimidating. Make sure your tone of voice and body language is open and non-threatening. Remember they may be feeling very anxious.
  • Be respectful

    You are feeding back on a person’s performance or behaviour not attacking them personally. Stay professional.
  • Have a two-way conversation

    Give them time to process the feedback, and encourage them to ask questions and make comments.
  • Be constructive

    Help them to set goals and look for solutions or strategies that will help them in the future. Make sure you have commented on the positives and not just the problems. Be ready to offer resources, further training and follow-up if necessary.

What you want is for the other person to come out of this feedback conversation eager to build on what they have learned and feel that their contribution is important to you and valued by the team – just as you would want for yourself. That’s a win for everyone.

If you want to explore giving feedback further, check out our course Giving effective feedback to empower your team for a more in-depth look with some helpful models and strategies.

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