From Gen Z to Boomers: How to Give Critical Feedback at Work

Generational expectations about workplace norms differ widely. So you may need to adjust how you give constructive criticism.

The Washington Post

April 22, 2024

7 Min Read
feedback key on keyboard

You have a slew of options in how you deliver critical feedback at work. And depending on your generation, what you deem acceptable may vary.

We heard from you, our readers, who had a lot to say about our recent story exploring Gen Z's expectations for workplace feedback. Some of you think Gen Z needs to grow up and stop complaining — after all, you and your colleagues managed just fine. Others applauded Gen Z's demand for more constructive delivery and pointed out that all generations want feedback that is timely, collaborative and balanced, even if the youngest are perhaps becoming the most vocal. And some believe good management practices apply to all generations.

With four generations (Gen Z, millennials, Gen X and boomers) making up the majority of the U.S. workforce, communication and behavioral norms may vary. Learning how to work with colleagues who have different views is key to success at work, experts who study multigenerational workforces say. When it comes to critical feedback, which can be tricky no matter who's giving or receiving it, navigating differing expectations becomes especially important.

"The whole reason we want to understand generational differences, especially in critical feedback, is because we want the message to land as well as possible," said Giselle Kovary, generational expert and head of learning and development at Optimus SBR. "It's less about what you want to say and more about how they need to hear it."

Related:Why Young Talent Is Adopting Tech as a New Career Option

Here are some expert tips for giving and receiving critical feedback.

Know Your Audience

To better understand someone and communicate the message effectively, consider a worker's norms.

Resist the idea that how you expect to give and get feedback is the same for everyone, said Megan Gerhardt, a professor at Miami University and author of "Gentelligence: A Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce." Instead, think about how a person might expect to give or receive feedback and work backward. That way you can deliver criticism in a way that will be heard and absorbed.

For boomers, respect their experience and expectations around formal processes, said Jake Aguas, Biola University professor and author of "Generation Z and the Covid-19 Crisis." Gen X likely needs transparent, direct communication with an emphasis on autonomy. Millennials normally think about inclusivity and may expect a more informal coaching or mentorship approach. And Gen Z wants to feel they can play a role in finding the solution as well as personal investment from the person giving them feedback, he said.

Related:IT Professionals Prioritizing Work-Life Balance, Report Finds

That might mean changing the strategy depending on generation. For boomers, for example, Gerhardt suggests leading with curiosity, using phrases like, "Can you help me understand why things are done this way?"

"My favorite analogy is think about it like you're traveling," she said. "You're aware you're going to a different culture … with different norms and views. When you interact, you work harder to make sure misunderstandings don't occur."

Prepare Beforehand

Plan what you want to say, how to deliver it and the intended outcome. Whatever you do, just don't wing it, Kovary said.

Homing in on your emotional intelligence skills can be helpful here, Aguas said. Be aware of yourself and how others may react to you. You can practice delivering feedback to friends and family members of different generations by asking them how they view a particular workplace procedure or how they might react if you offered a specific critique. Remember not to judge their answer, he said.

Develop a Relationship

Establish a supportive relationship before you have to deliver critical feedback.

If the only time a colleague or employee hears from you is to hear what they've done wrong, the feedback could be taken much more harshly than intended, experts agree. Acknowledging someone's experience, perspectives and efforts can go a long way in creating a connection and relationship of mutual respect. That may make it easier for someone to hear critical feedback, as they'll know the intention is good, Gerhardt said.

Managers and employees can also proactively set expectations by telling each other how they give or expect to receive feedback, Aguas said, like explaining that they need a weekly one-on-one or hope to check in every couple of days.

Make It a Two-Way Street

Approach every conversation with the expectation that you may also have to receive feedback.

No conversation should be one-way, even if you're prepared to deliver specific points, Kovary said. Prepare to actively listen. Read in between the lines, notice body language, validate the other person's experience, and paraphrase what was said back to ensure you're understanding correctly.

If you're on the receiving end, you may have to give feedback even if the door isn't necessarily open for it. Aguas suggests taking a non-threatening approach by simply knocking on the metaphorical door.

"The number one thing I've seen work among all generations is to ask for permission," Aguas said. "It could be as simple as, 'I had a thought,' or 'I see something differently, and I'd love to share with you if you're open to that.'"

Showing you intend to partner can make a difference, as all workers want respect, connection, agency and autonomy at work, Gerhardt said.

Ask When Needed

Sometimes we don't get feedback when we need it. In those cases, it's on us to speak up.

For some, giving negative feedback is hard, and they may need a little push. So if you're not getting enough feedback, you can frame it in a way that's digestible, Kovary said. For example, you could say, "On a scale from 1 to 10, how did I perform? And what would I have needed to do to be a 10?"

Managers can also solicit feedback from the people who report to them: "How can I support you in your work? What activities do I do that engage you most often? Have there been things I've done that diminished or broke our trust?"

In all cases, detach the feedback from the person and focus on the work, Kovary advises.

Don't Make It Personal

Before you get upset at critical feedback, pause, breathe and take a second to think.

Oftentimes, the intention of a person delivering feedback may be entirely different from its impact. Just because it's delivered in a way you don't like, don't take it personally, experts advise.

"Feedback is like a piece of gum," Aguas said. "You pop it in your mouth, you chew on it, and then you move on."

If you're getting feedback that rubs you the wrong way, ask clarifying questions, Gerhardt said. Sometimes getting that additional context can change how you perceive that feedback, she said. Consider: "Can you help me understand what the goals of this feedback are?" "Can you help me understand how this feedback compares to other people at my career stage?"

Don't jump to conclusions, as generational norms may muck up the intended message. It can also help to be vulnerable in how you're taking the feedback. You can also ask for a few days to think before you respond to ensure you remove your emotions from the issue, Gerhardt said.

If you're giving feedback, start and end at a place of understanding. Begin with the idea that this moment presents an opportunity, and end by checking that you're on the same page, she added.

Leave Room for Improvement

Most importantly, recognize that there's always room for improvement.

You should strive to ensure feedback is specific, measurable, action-oriented, timely and results-focused, Kovary said. And we should aim to be more open to receiving it. Those are things all generations can do better, she said.

"It doesn't have to be as it always has been," Gerhardt said.

Danielle Abril, The Washington Post

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