The Secrets To Giving Feedback That Reinforces Relationships and Inspires Change
Updated: Jul 16, 2020
“Constructive feedback” is often thought to be just the unsuccessful rebranding of “negative feedback”. Managers are infamously terrible at giving it. Some managers go ahead and trailblaze their defenseless employees with it anyway. Others are so afraid of ruining relationships within their team that they avoid giving the feedback - but this avoidance promotes repeated issues, more work, and mounting stress.
I know this problem well: I used to be shy about giving feedback, as I was too afraid of becoming unpopular with my team. Until one day 7 years ago, my own manager taught me why giving feedback is necessary and virtuous. Here’s everything I learned since then on how to give great feedback that makes everybody around you feel inspired, encouraged, and grateful.
Why Feedback is necessary
What did my wise manager Maria tell me 7 years ago, completely changing my approach to feedback moving forward? Two things:
(a) When you DON’T give feedback, you’re denying everyone who works with you the opportunity to fix a problem. This means that either you or your employees will have to shoulder the burden of underperforming team members. Longer hours, more firefighting, mounting stress, brewing resentment.
(b) When you DON’T give feedback, you’re also denying the recipient the opportunity to learn, to become a more valued professional and a celebrated member of the team.
So when you don’t deliver feedback, you let everybody down.
Different types of feedback
We’ve all experienced what it feels like to receive bad feedback. Bad feedback is all too common and feels like this:
A manager praising you in a way that felt condescending
A manager giving you criticism that you completely disagreed with
Good feedback, conversely, feels like this:
You give praise and the recipient feels empowered and grateful that you appreciate them
You give criticism and the recipient understands what you specifically refer to and what steps he/she can take to improve
As you can see, feedback needn’t necessarily be negative: positive feedback is also a powerful, albeit underutilised and misused instrument of personal development. Let me show you why and how…
Why and how to give praise
Strength-based practice is a social work practice theory that emphasizes people's self-determination and strengths. It was formally developed by a team from the University of Kansas and has subsequently been popularised in the business world since 1995.
I am a strength-based coach: I prefer to focus on what people do well, rather than criticise what they do badly. The corporate zeitgeist nowadays is pervaded by the false myth that we can improve ourselves indefinitely and in every skill. But I believe that no matter how hard we try, you and I will never be good at everything. Since we were little, some things came easier to us than others. Maths, persuasion, running, comedy, writing, powerlifting. While maybe we sucked at something else and we tried, and tried, and tried to get better, to no avail.
Naturally, in some activities we deliver A’s, while in some others we deliver B’s or C’s. And the best way to leverage this awareness is to capitalise on our A’s, and simply manage the consequences of our B’s and our C’s. Our A’s are what allows us to fulfil our true potential.
Negative feedback is not as much about turning our employees’ weaknesses into strengths, but about helping them understand their weaknesses and manage their consequences. So to turn your employees into superstars, what you need is positive feedback.
Here are my top tips for giving great praise:
You may give it publicly and somewhat casually and/or as part of a 1:1 session, for which you may want to prepare ahead
Make it specific
Give it only when the employee does something genuinely great: don’t encourage them every time they do an OK job, or praise will lose its value
Give it immediately (optional: timeliness is not as crucial as with criticism, as we’ll see below)
Your praise will enable the recipient to:
Identify and repeat positive behaviour: when people gain a reputation, they’re likely to want to live up to that reputation - this is what Dale Carnegie means in his legendary book How To Win Friends And Influence People, when he suggests to “give a dog a good name”
Feel more confident: confident employees tend to step up and give even bigger contributions to the company
Feel appreciated and happier in their job: this will boost employee productivity and overall retention
Why and how to give criticism
As stated above, criticism is necessary to make the recipient aware of the negative consequences that their actions or omissions are having on the rest of their team.
It gives the recipient the opportunity to learn and to become a more valued, even beloved member of the team. According to Carnegie again - like the rest of us, the “offending employee” deeply wants to feel valued and important, so you’re doing him / her a favour by giving criticism. Remember that.
Giving criticism can however be a sensitive operation. So you must learn how to do it well - I’ve got you covered, no pressure :)
Here is my list of top tips for giving great criticism (I know it’s a long list, but you can review it as often as you like, and practice will make all of this second nature!):
You should ALWAYS give it privately as part of a 1:1 session (it’s unpleasant and unnecessary to shame your employees in public), for which you should prepare ahead to ensure that your feedback is on point
Prepare specific examples ahead
Give it only when a Quality Problem (as explained in this article) occurs: it’s ok to let small mishaps slide, but careful not to use it as an excuse. When in doubt, SAY SOMETHING
Give it as soon as possible after the “offense”: timeliness is key. If you walk past a quality problem for too long, you’re signalling to the other employees that it’s ok, and that perception will be hard to unlodge
Make it safe: do NOT criticise the individual, don’t focus on the fault but on the consequences of their actions. State that you appreciate them, and that your goal is solely to make things better for them and for the business: you’re on the same team (“making it safe” is a central theme in a book that personally changed my life and relationships, Crucial Conversations - highly recommended for further reading!)
Don’t characterise their actions or omissions as wrong in absolute terms, it might just create unproductive resistance. Instead clarify the impact they had on the company and on others. Say, “a different behavior will help us coordinate better as a team”, or ask “do you think that the clients will be more or less happy if we adopted a different approach?”, etc.
Don’t mandate a solution, adopt the coaching approach instead. In relation to your specific example, ask them (1) what they think they did well, (2) what they think they can improve, (3) how they propose to improve moving forward. Be open and listen to their point of view - don’t let them bend the truth, but let them come up with the solution. Encourage them to use the S.M.A.R.T. framework as they state their solution (if you’re not familiar with the SMART framework, just Google it :)
Validate: ensure they ultimately agree with the feedback and explicitly “contract” on the proposed SMART solution
Conclude the session: gather feedback on how you give feedback by asking what your employee thought of the conversation and how you can be more helpful. I first read this suggestion on HBR and found it excellent, both because it helps you become better at this, and because like all great educators know, the real learning happens not when the learner learns, but when the learner gets to reflect on the learning (knowledge bomb alert :)
Follow up: you’re almost done, but not just yet :) Like with every “contract” with a colleague, follow up on the implementation of the SMART solution. There is a big difference between understanding and changing - help them through!
Phew! We’re done, it was long but not too complicated, right? Just a few things to keep in mind, but they should be easy to execute and you can always bookmark this list to refer back to!
Hopefully you can now see that giving Feedback needn’t be a traumatic experience, if handled with the appropriate awareness and tact. You don’t necessarily need to limit your feedback to your reportees, either: when you master this skill, you can use it to improve your working relationships with your peers and superiors, too!
Finally, remember that all Feedback is a gift: you can accept it or reject it, but cherish it. It’s the only way we can help each other grow.