8 Ways to Give Feedback Effectively

All of us, at one point in time, have received feedback that made a significant difference in our behavior or outlook on life.  But what is the difference between feedback that causes change and feedback that goes unnoticed?  Effectively giving feedback is a disruptor – it makes us think differently about our behavior.  Most times, we have gained something from feedback even if it was painful to hear at first. Some of your experiences with feedback may have even changed the direction of your career.

Receiving feedback is tough, but giving feedback makes most of us even more uncomfortable.  This article will help you learn how to give feedback effectively – in a way that encourages positive change and minimizes discomfort.

 Which Would You Prefer? (Select One)

  • Tell your boss that she needs to be less of a micromanager?
  • Tell a coworker that his jokes are offensive?
  • Tell your direct report at work that they have a “noticeable aroma?”
  • Get a root canal?

Did you choose the root canal? Giving feedback is hard for most people. As a manager, it can be difficult to call out poor performance with a direct report. And our survey data shows that most managers even struggle to recognize employees for good performance on a regular basis.

Why is Giving Feedback So Hard?

There are several reasons why giving feedback can go wrong. A common problem is that we mistakenly assume poor intent, known as the Fundamental Attribution Error in social psychology. This is when we attribute a mistake to someone’s attitude or disposition. For example, “Craig didn’t get his project done because he is lazy.”

There could be several reasons for Craig’s delay. But if we begin the conversation with an assumption that he is lazy, the feedback will be tainted and probably make Craig defensive.  Instead, effective feedback givers assume people have a good reason, and they work with them to overcome the obstacles.  They assume people are doing the best, but they know there is always room for improvement.

Fallout from the Fundamental Attribution Error is also compounded when we think in binary terms (black and white, right and wrong). This bias also increases when we are under pressure and do not take time to pause and think about the most productive way to interact. By starting with a conclusion (Craig is lazy), we look for evidence to support our assumption instead of trying to gain more understanding and create the best outcome.

Role of a Feedback Giver

Think of your role in giving feedback as a motivator and a guide. People are more receptive of your feedback when they feel like you are standing by their side and describing a better way forward. You want to create a safe space to have a conversation where the person receiving feedback does not feel attacked and values your advice. Remember that you are trying to reach a better outcome and not just vent your frustrations. This is not necessarily about you. It is about influencing someone to act or change for their benefit.

Reaffirming and Redirection Feedback

We normally talk about feedback as either being positive or negative. I prefer to describe giving feedback as reaffirming or redirecting. Reaffirming feedback recognizes good behaviors and outcomes. We want to acknowledge and reinforce the positive behaviors and contributions that people make so they will be more committed to doing the same.

Redirecting feedback describes the intent to nudge the person in a better direction. Think of how spacecraft reach their destination. Rocket systems are designed to continually provide redirecting feedback to spacecraft to keep them from veering off course.

8 Best Practices for Giving Feedback

Here are eight ideas that will make giving both redirecting and reaffirming feedback easier and create better outcomes:

  1. Do it Quickly: The sooner you can provide feedback after the event the better. Waiting a week or even a day can dilute the message and make it harder to remember the experience. Also, people appreciate hearing about something soon after it happens.
  2. Do it Privately: Find a safe private space where you can talk. No one likes to get redirecting feedback in front of their peers and the others in the room probably do not want to hear it either.
  3. Meet Face-to-Face: If possible, try to talk in person. Video or voice calls also work but it can be harder to read faces and check emotions. If you need to communicate in text format, describe the issue and schedule a time to talk.
  4. Give the Context: Describe specifically and factually what you observed.  Try not to rely on the opinions or observations of others. Focus on the behavior (missed deadline) rather than a character trait (laziness).  Do not say things like, “You really blew it with the customer.”  Instead, say, “You were late in meeting the client’s deadline, and you rushed to fix the problem, which created confusion for the client.”
  5. Express Good Intentions: This can be hard to express if you are disappointed in the person’s behavior. Determine why giving this feedback is in their best interest. Share that you are trying to help them succeed.
  6. Share Your Perspective, but Do Not Pass Judgment: This is the subjective part. You observed a behavior that had an impact. Share how that behavior impacted you, your team, or the organization. But stop there! Don’t add a value judgment to your feedback.  Let the receiver process the impact. 
  7. Ask for Their Perspective: Ask about the behavior and listen. Ask for clarification. Repeat what you have heard.
  8. Decide What to Do: Together, decide a plan forward to mitigate problems in the future.
  9. Follow Up: Check to see if they are sticking to the plan. Changing behaviors can take time and sometimes there are setbacks. Be patient and recognize progress. Help to remove any barriers.

Practice Makes Better

I don’t know if there is a perfect way to deliver feedback, but we can all get better at it. As we practice these principles, we will find that it is not as scary as we thought it once was. We learn that giving feedback helps to strengthen relationships and creates better outcomes.

Understand that feedback is disruptive, and some people will need time to process the information and their emotions. You may need to reconnect later to decide next steps if the individual reacts negatively or shuts down. That’s okay. Give them time. By offering feedback you are also committing to help and follow through with them.

Ideas for Managers to Give Feedback

Think About

  • How often do you provide feedback to help employees better meet expectations?
  • Does your company have a formal feedback structure? If so, are you using it?
  • How do each of your employees prefer to be recognized?
  • How do members of your team react when you give them critical or redirecting feedback?

Ideas for Action

  • Hold frequent and regular one-on-one meetings with employees to discuss current workload, provide feedback, and offer support.
  • Identify appropriate opportunities to provide in-the-moment feedback on performance and recognition.
  • Consider informal feedback opportunities, such as giving feedback while taking a walk or getting coffee.
  • Set clear expectations for performance.

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