How to invite and give constructive feedback: A virtual webinar with Dr. Jen Heemstra
In May 2022, BIOME hosted Dr. Jen Heemstra (she/her), Professor of Chemistry and department chair at Washington University in St. Louis, for a webinar on inviting and giving constructive feedback as a mentor in science.
Dr. Heemstra is a highly regarded chemist whose work focuses on harnessing the assembly properties of nucleic acids for applications in biosensing and bioimaging. In addition to her research, she is an educator and a strong advocate for mentorship education and mental health in academic spaces through social media, blog posts, and nationwide initiatives. During her presentation, Dr. Heemstra defined constructive feedback, discussed why it can be challenging to give and receive, and provided strategies for navigating through difficult conversations.
Here, we provide the slides from Dr. Heemstra’s presentation. We invite you to refer to her slides and read through the summary of her talk below.
What is and isn’t constructive feedback?
Imagine you are a professional runner, sprinting as fast as you can during a race. In that moment, it can be difficult to think about all the aspects of your form; how your ankles are bent, how your hands are cupped, your posture, and your breathing. You are likely operating on “auto-pilot” and thinking about making it to the finish line. A coach is there to observe you and catch all the ways that would impede your success. The feedback that your coach provides is not meant to make you feel good or bad, it is neither vengeful nor flattering. Rather, it is information designed to help you understand what you are doing well and where you can still improve for your next race.
Constructive feedback can be viewed as coaching to help someone be better at what they do.
What is radical candor?
When you hear the word “feedback”, what comes to mind? Some words that were shared during the webinar were “disagree”, “judgment”, “self-worth”, “insecure”, “harsh” and “failure”! We all laughed after noticing that none of us came up with words that were positive. It was clear that we’ve all experienced hurtful feedback. A lot of this hurt comes from how feedback is delivered. We often think we have to choose between being caring and being candid. The book Radical Candor by Kim Scott argues that we can choose neither, either, or both at the same time! Radical candor, a communication principle described by Kim Scott, is the ability to challenge directly while simultaneously showing that you care.
How does this work in practice?
Say you have a mentee that has missed a deadline. You feel super frustrated because this is not the first time that this has happened.
Ruinous empathy: You care personally about your mentee, but you don’t challenge directly. You say nothing, feel bad, and the mentee continues to miss deadlines. The relationship silently deteriorates because of poor communication.
Manipulative insincerity: You don’t care personally, and you don’t challenge directly. You gossip to the rest of the lab, saying how frustrated you are by this person. The person never knows you were upset, continues to miss deadlines, and thus the problem continues.
Obnoxious aggression: You don’t care personally and you challenge directly. You say something like “how dare you miss this deadline!” and make your mentee feel scared and sad without understanding the real issue or how to avoid it in the future.
Radical candor: You care personally and you challenge directly. You say something like “hey I really care about you and your career, but I’m seeing you not meet expectations. Let’s talk about how I can help you make this deadline.” By challenging your mentee on their behavior while also acting with empathy, you are creating an actionable solution to the issue.
Tips for giving feedback
Dr. Heemstra suggests that mentors “practice feedback before giving it”. The goal is to care personally and challenge directly at the same time. This requires that mentors get into the mindset of genuinely rooting for their mentee to succeed. Try writing out exactly what you want to say, and thinking about the specific strengths of your mentee and potential areas for improvement. Follow up by considering how you would feel receiving the feedback you wrote. Is it SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based)? You can always revise to be more caring, but don’t reduce your candor.
The SBI (Situation-Behavior-Impact) model is a helpful formula for delivering feedback. Take some time to think of a real or invented scenario using the following template. Blank SBI templates can be downloaded from the Save & Share menu.
- Share the situation. Be as specific as you can. Where were you and what was the broader context?
- Describe the behavior(s) without assuming what the other person was thinking. When in the above described context, what happened?
- Explain the impact that person’s behavior had on you. What was the cause and effect here?
Keep in mind that you can use the SBI model to highlight your mentee’s strengths as well as potential areas of improvement. You also ask for feedback on your feedback!
Tips for receiving feedback
Receiving feedback requires just as much practice as delivering feedback. In fact, learning to receive feedback graciously will make you better at giving it! The first step in receiving feedback well is recognizing that we are constantly striving to be better scientists and team members. Try to remain neutral when listening to feedback. If this feels challenging, consider imagining that it is for someone else in the moment. Does it feel reasonable once you view it objectively?
After receiving feedback, give yourself time to digest the information. You may even tell the feedback provider that you need time to reflect and process the feedback before responding. Take some time to summarize the things you want to work on and make a plan. Some questions to ask yourself are: would you have the same feedback for yourself? Have you heard this feedback before?
** EXTRA IMPORTANT** See feedback as a gift! Thank your mentors and peers for the honest feedback they provide. It shows that they care about your success. A successful round of feedback can also lead to more successful rounds of feedback– be appreciative that your environment facilitates this sort of candor.
Feedback exercises you can implement
Surveys, anonymous or not, are a great way to invite feedback from others. Google forms is an easy platform for generating and distributing surveys. Potential questions to include are:
- What am I doing (or not doing) that is hindering my ability to be an effective teammate, leader or mentor?
- What can I do to better support our shared group culture and values?
- Based on my feedback from last year, I have been working to (blank),have you seen me improve in this area?
Every person in a lab can have a survey for others to fill out, this way everyone owns their feedback. If participation is low, organize a time to do it all together.
The Vosshall Lab here at Rockefeller uses this anonymous survey to solicit feedback.
Follow Dr. Jen Heemstra on Twitter @jenheemstra or @HeemstraLab. If you would like to check out her research or mentorship education initiates visit https://www.heemstralab.com/.