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A Leader’s 8-Step Guide to Giving Better Feedback

  1. Face the facts – your colleagues need more feedback from you.

Do you receive enough feedback at work?

Very few people answer this question with a confident “Yes”. We live in feedback-poor cultures. People at workplaces are eager to receive feedback on their performance, but they don’t get enough of it.

This is especially true for millennials – a generation who have grown up in the world of social media and is used to receiving instantaneous feedback. According to a Gallup study  only 19% of millennials report that they receive feedback at work routinely, and even fewer of them – a mere 17% – find the feedback they get meaningful.

In all likelihood, members of your own team are also thirsty for more feedback. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating this need. Go out there and give them some feedback now. You will be amazed how much it can boost motivation and engagement.

  1. Don’t wait for the big occasion – make feedback an ongoing activity

Managers often confuse feedback with performance appraisal. They might sit down with their direct reports once a year to discuss their progress, but for the rest of the year the amount of feedback they share tends to be shockingly low.

In recent years, even big corporates such as GE have recognized this issue and have started moving away from a rigid performance appraisal system in favour of a new approach that encourages leaders to give regular on-the-spot feedback.

So why wait for the next official performance management meeting to give feedback? Get into the habit of talking about how you see your team members’ performances weekly, or even daily.

Does that sound like too much? Don’t have time to have a big discussion every week?

Forget about ‘big discussions’. Keep it small and spontaneous. Follow Mark Zuckenberg’s and Sheryl Sandberg’s example:

“When I joined [Facebook]” – says Sheryl Sandberg – “I asked Mark for a commitment that he would give me feedback every week. […] He didn’t only say yes, but immediately added that he wanted it to be reciprocal. As the years went by, sharing honest reactions became part of our relationship and we now do so in real time rather than waiting for the end of the week.”

  1. Stop over-glorifying ‘developmental feedback’. It is positive feedback that triggers development.

Humans are evolutionally programmed to notice errors and to be alert for anything going wrong around us. This quality was essential for our survival in the wild, as it helped us notice any potential threats quickly.

In the 21st century, however, we experience the drawbacks to this originally helpful function. We have the tendency to spot other people’s negative behaviour and mistakes, while their positive actions we often regard as ‘business as usual’. This is especially true for our professional life.

On the top of this natural asymmetry in our perception, there is a widespread belief suggesting that ‘corrective’ feedback is the key to development. It is thought that bosses should honestly point out their direct reports’ shortcomings in order to help them improve.

However research shows that criticism, even if done constructively, inhibits the brain’s ability to learn by activating our sympathetic nervous system – in other words our ‘fight or flight’ reactions. The brain responds to negative feedback as a threat and narrows its activity. Learning in such a condition is very limited. Without realising, people can process very little feedback in this state of mind, and all the helpful suggestions about how they could or should do better next time are likely to fall on deaf ears because of this high-adrenaline state.

So, you might ask, should I just keep quiet if I see a problem with my direct report’s behaviour or performance?

Of course, you shouldn’t. If you have an issue, do say it – constructively. But don’t regard it as your main development tool.

What works, then, if corrective feedback doesn’t do the trick?

Observe their work closely, spot positive behaviour that leads to excellence, and reinforce it by giving positive feedback. Don’t hunt for mistakes. Hunt for your colleagues’ great moments instead, and point them out quickly.

Aim to give more positive feedback than negative. This will result in not only more learning, but also in a higher level of motivation and a more trusting relationship between you and your team.

  1. Forget the feedback sandwich

Giving more positive feedback than negative is a good long-term rule. But it certainly doesn’t mean you should sugarcoat every piece of negative feedback by mentioning something good about the person at the same time.

This approach is often referred to as the ‘feedback sandwich’, and it is still commonly used by managers. The recipe of the feedback sandwich is the following:

  • Say something positive about the person to warm up the conversation.
  • Say the actual negative feedback you want to give.
  • Say another positive thing to make the person feel better afterwards.

Please don’t follow this recipe.

The feedback sandwich rarely results in the kind of happy ending you might be hoping for. Instead it leaves the recipient confused and wondering what your point is exactly. Or worse, it marks you as dishonest.

My advice is, when you have concerns about your colleague’s behaviour or performance, just say so.

And if you want to avoid hurting their feelings, apply this next point instead.

  1. Your feedback is not the ultimate truth, only a perception. Present it accordingly.

Is your colleague a good communicator? A team player? Is he reliable?

You might think you know the answer. Well really you might not. A large body of research indicates that humans are very unreliable evaluators of other people’s qualities.

You don’t have a monopoly of the truth. You have your subjective opinion, that is all.

Of course, the subjective opinion of one’s manager is still highly relevant – as long as it is presented as a subjective opinion rather than the ultimate truth.

There is a huge difference between saying “You are not a team player”, as opposed to “I don’t see you as a team player.”

It might seem like a simple play on words. But there is much more to it. The real difference in the mindset: arrogance versus humility. With the second sentence you don’t judge the other person. You simply express your observation, fully aware that it is highly subjective, but still relevant.

Naturally, at this point your colleague will probably be curious as to how you formed this particular opinion. Based on what data? Which leads us to the next topic.

  1. Do your homework – collect data.

We often form our opinions of other people without knowing exactly what gave us that particular impression.

Let’s take an example of a direct report of yours who seems unwilling to take responsibility. You sense this. Great! Listen to your instincts – they are a good guide.

But don’t stop there. Do your homework and collect data: what is the actual behaviour that gives you this (subjective!) impression? What happened (or didn’t happen)? When? How?

These hard facts – the objective description of the actual behaviour – should also be part of your feedback. Without these, your direct report will struggle to understand what you expect of her.

In summary, when giving feedback – either positive or negative – present your subjective impressions, but complement these with objective data.

  1. People who are struggling are usually aware of the fact. Don’t rub it in – ask some questions instead.

In their research Zenger and Folkman asked 3,875 people who had received negative feedback whether they were surprised at what they had heard. 74% of them reported that they had known about the problem, and the feedback didn’t surprise them at all.

So, most people who are struggling usually know about the problem.

Does this mean their boss shouldn’t raise the issue? Not at all.

Having a conversation about those performance (or behavioural) issues is absolutely necessary. But rather than you taking a deep breath and – in the spirit of honesty – giving them a detailed summary of their weak points, you should first invite your colleague to reflect on these himself. If you just ask and listen, your direct report will probably share his struggles with you, and then you can have a constructive discussion about how to resolve the problems.

Naturally, all this works only if you have a trusting relationship with your direct report. If not, you have got some serious work to do before you can hope for any of your feedback to be effective.

  1. Feedback works much better when it is asked for. Act as a role model for requesting feedback.

“Can I give you some feedback?” This might be one of the scariest questions of all.

As I discussed earlier, receiving feedback – especially if negative feedback is on the cards – triggers our sympathetic nervous system, causing an adrenaline peak, which results in increased muscle tone, increased heart rate, and a serious decrease of certain mental functions such as memory retention. In short, receiving feedback is generally stressful.

In their research David Rock and co-workers investigated neurological reactions in people who received unsolicited feedback compared to those who had asked for it. They found that people who asked for feedback experience significantly reduced stress symptoms than those who were exposed to feedback without requesting it.

It seems that the act of asking for feedback makes receiving it less stressful. With fewer defensive reactions, more learning becomes possible.

Therefore, if you want to make your feedback more effective, you should create a culture where people actively ask you for feedback. This will ensure that they are more at ease and more open when you share your insights with them.

How can you create such a culture in your team?

Be the first to ask for feedback from them. Set an example. People will gradually follow suit. Build a team culture in which asking each other for feedback is a part of everyday life.