Feedback

by Paul Matthews

Important principles

When you are giving feedback, there are some important principles to hold in mind and elements you need to include to make it effective.

Timely, not late

Don’t wait for yearly performance reviews to give feedback. Good feedback should be given in a timely manner, ideally as soon as possible after the issue or event to be discussed. The caveat to this is when emotions are running high as a result of the event and some time may need to pass to allow everyone to calm down. If you give feedback while you are angry or frustrated, it will become criticism and do more harm than good. Back off – and think. Balance the needs for timeliness and preparation.

When an event is fresh in a person’s mind, they are able to recall why they behaved in a certain way, and the details of the event. This makes for a much richer discussion and a more fruitful learning experience for everyone.

Excess time will dull people’s memories; indeed, they may even forget the event altogether, as it may not have had the same significance for them as it did for you. There will also be confusion as to why something was not said at the time of the issue or event. People may even resent that you have ‘stored it up’ to use against them.

Note

If emotions did run high as a result of an event, treat that as feedback to yourself:

  • What can you learn?
  • What emotional buttons got pushed?

Where it helps, not hinders

You also need to consider where to give your feedback. What constitutes an appropriate setting will vary, depending on the type of feedback to be given.

Positive feedback can be given just about anywhere. Many people do not mind if they are praised in an open room in front of their colleagues, and this type of recognition will greatly enhance the power of the feedback. Some people, however, may not like this and may feel embarrassed. It is important to be able to gauge the person in order to understand if they appreciate positive feedback being given when their colleagues are around or not.

There is a need for a note for caution here though. If you single out a team member at a meeting for praise and another team member did the same job last week and received no praise, what will they think?

Constructive feedback requires greater attention to location. If this type of feedback is given in front of a group of people, it may not be appreciated and is likely to make the receiver of the feedback feel defensive or angry. These are two emotions that are not going to be conducive towards the person taking the feedback on board and changing their behaviour.

In general, constructive feedback is best given away from others. Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed to do this.

Specific, not vague

Above all, the golden rule for giving feedback is to ensure that you have examples of the behaviour that is to be reinforced or modified. Make sure the examples are detailed, recent, accurate and relevant. Without clear examples, the recipient of your feedback may not understand what it is you are getting at, and just exactly what they need to change or keep doing.

Make sure that you include an accurate description of the behaviour that you are discussing and describe the behaviour that you would like to see instead:

This morning, you shouted at Jenny across the office when we had the crisis, and it slowed up the process of the resolving the problem.

This describes the behaviour that was inappropriate and it is specific to the actual behaviour that occurred. It also gives the outcome of the behaviour, although this would need to be followed up with some explanation:

The resolution of the problem was delayed because Jenny’s attention and thoughts were distracted to thinking about why you were shouting at her, rather than concentrating on resolving the issue at hand. She had to take five minutes outside to cool off – five minutes that would have been more constructively spent getting the problem fixed. Sarah had to go with her to help calm her down, which meant that another person wasn’t working on the problem.

This explains to the person what was wrong with the behaviour and the outcome of their actions. You might follow up with

You could have considered pulling Jenny aside quietly for a moment to explain what you thought she was doing wrong.

This helps the person to understand what they could have done differently. It does not dictate what should have been done; it simply describes and suggests a more positive approach.

Focus on performance or behaviour, not the person

Your feedback should not label or describe the recipient. It should focus on the performance or behaviour. Do not use comments such as ‘you are unhelpful’, or ‘you are bossy.’ This type of comment is likely to make the recipient defensive and unresponsive to the learning opportunity.

You could instead say something like

When you said that you wouldn’t do the report for Michael, it appeared a bit unhelpful. Instead of just saying no, you could have asked him what he needed and suggested how you could have helped, or explained that you also had a huge report to complete, rather than simply refusing outright.

This example helps the person to understand what it was about their behaviour that came across as unhelpful, rather than generalising by saying that the person is unhelpful.

Do not make comments about aspects that a person cannot change, such as something that is long over and done with, or that is related to their personal circumstances. Instead, focus on areas that can be changed, and link feedback to the task or role:

It’s frustrating for me to lose valuable time with you. If you arrive late, we can’t discuss everything we aimed for. It’s important for us to get this right because the team needs a good decision from us.

This helps the person to understand that they can change their behaviour by turning up on time and why it is so important.

Clear and direct, not ambiguous

Being clear is all about using simple language that is easy to understand. Keep it as brief and to the point as possible:

I’ve noticed that you’ve been coming in late nearly every day. When you arrive at work late, it sets a bad example to the team. I’d like you to come in for 9:00.

This is clear and direct. There is no beating around the bush. It explains the behaviour, the outcome and the desired change in behaviour. Of course, in this instance you may also want to get to the bottom of why the person is repeatedly late, and then make suggestions.

Remember

You cannot not communicate.

Don’t just imply what you want to say. If the person has to guess what you are getting at, they may get it wrong or be in doubt. This will not help them to correct their behaviour, as they may focus on the wrong thing.

Offered, not imposed

Feedback should be offered to people, not imposed. You can do this by letting the person know that you want to give them feedback, and that it is going to be a positive, developmental event:

Can we have a chat later? Would you be interested in hearing some feedback and ideas? I’d really like us to get more out of the initiative. Perhaps we can discuss how we could achieve this.

This lets the person know that you want to give them feedback and ideas, rather than that you want to criticise them or blame them. It would be difficult for a person to deny such a constructive request. If, however, you launch into feedback without invitation, it may make the person feel defensive.

Owned, not side stepped

Don’t pass on the responsibility of the feedback. Don’t use phrases such as ‘everyone thinks...’ or ‘nobody likes...’ Take responsibility for your actions and for what you are saying: use ‘I think’. and ‘I don’t like.’

Never palm off the responsibility for a constructive message onto another person: for example, ‘I don’t know, but the boss says you could have done this.’ This completely devalues the developmental process and is not taking responsibility as a manager. It can also leave the individual not trusting the message that is being given to them. After all, if the boss thinks that, why didn’t they just say it themselves? If you are unable to say what you think, the other person is also likely to see through it and think that you are somewhat of a coward.

Balanced, not one-sided

To be balanced, you can start with a positive comment and then move into the constructive feedback:

I liked the report that you did – the information was very helpful. However, the way that it was presented made it hard for me to find the relevant points. It would have been clearer for me if you could have used bullet points instead of large blocks of text.

This explains to the person that the work that they did was good, but it could have been even better if the information had been more easily accessible.

Frequent, not irregular

Don’t make feedback a once-a-year event that only occurs during appraisals or formal reviews. Try to get into the habit of giving feedback daily. This will also help your team get used to receiving and giving feedback and understanding and appreciating its value as a development and learning tool.

Note

Silence is also feedback and can easily be misinterpreted.

Also, don’t save up feedback or wait for a long time to give it. You shouldn’t get into the situation where you have to say something like

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this for ages...

With this approach, you run the risk of the person not remembering the incident that you are talking about. Additionally, if you leave feedback for a long time it means that you probably aren’t getting enough practice and your team will not be as used to dealing with it and understanding its positive value.

As often as needed, not more and not less

In order to know how they are doing, some people need more feedback, some less. Those who need more will feel a bit adrift without it, and those who need less will get annoyed when given too much. So how do you know how much is just right?

Exercise

Consider a task at work and ask yourself the question ‘How do I know when I’ve done a good job?’

What is your answer? Where do you look for information about how well you have done?

  • Is it inside yourself? That is, you just ‘know’ that you have done a good job.
  • Is it outside yourself? That is, you rely on what other people say to understand if the job was done well.
  • Is it a bit of both?

Some people have very strong internal standards against which they judge their actions. They need information to keep these standards up to date, but too much praise will feel stifling. They don’t need it.

Some people rely on feedback from others. Their standards are external, and if they don’t get access to these standards through feedback, they really don’t know whether what they have done was a good job or not. These people need constant access to their standards; that is, constant feedback on how well they are doing.

Some people use a mixture of both internal and external standards.

Solution-focused, not problem-focused

Feedback should always focus on how the person can resolve the problem or issue and how they can handle it better in future. It should not focus heavily on the problem that happened, but instead look at how the person can operate within a supportive environment to change.

This can be done by giving them ideas about how they might deal with the problem, using words such as ‘could,’ or ‘perhaps,’ or ‘an alternative approach might be...’ This provides the person with constructive, positive examples, suggesting how they might work differently in future and assisting the learning process.

Future orientated, not past orientated

Feedback needs to focus on the future, not dwell on the past. Only bring the past into the conversation to set the stage for talking about the future. Use the past as a springboard for future change.