Giving Meaningful Feedback

In "Coaches, not Managers", I wrote about the importance of giving feedback. I didn't go into detail on just how to do that, because I felt it was worth its own post.

It's easy to say that you should be giving more feedback, but its dangerous to leave at that. Feedback can easily be done wrong and can end up hurting more than it helps. What follows is a list of actions you can take to provide healthier, meaningful feedback.

Build Trust

Before any feedback can be given, there must be a pre-existing relationship of trust and respect. Because of the natural misperception in our own abilities I mentioned in "Coaches, not Managers", anytime we receive constructive feedback (aka criticism), cognitive dissonance kicks with an unconscious emotional backlash. We feel our behavior is or isn't some way, someone says it's the opposite, and our mind immediately tries to reconcile the difference (usually by blaming the person giving the feedback).

Even if you were the one asking for the advice, you will still likely have the gut reaction of "they're wrong". You must be able to trust in the person giving the feedback to move past the emotion and accept it for what it is.

Building this relationship takes effort and time. If the person doesn't trust you, there's a low likelihood they're going to trust your feedback, especially if it's negative.

This is why mid-year/year-end performance evals are rarely useful and can cause damage if the review is negative. You can't build the type of relationship needed for hard conversations if you only try twice a year at six month intervals.

Provide immediate feedback

Speaking of the corporate performance review cycle, another big issue with it is the time delay between the action and the feedback. If your performance review are in January and July, that means most of the work done in the months between will never receive feedback, especially the smaller items.

This usually gives off the impression that the majority of the work done in between the reviews isn't being noticed. Could you imagine doing a homework assignment in February and not hearing back about it until July? Chances are everyone has forgotten the details of the work and any chance for real improvement has been missed.

Getting better at your job is like trying to pick up a habit. No one would expect you to learn piano if you only practiced twice a year. In the same vein, why limit coaching to two meetings per year? Learning a new skill requires constant work and you'll need a regular feedback loop to keep you from learning the wrong things.

What if a person thinks they've been taking the right actions, when in truth they're really hurting the team? Would you rather correct that immediately or 3-4 months from now after it's a habit they've now formed?

Now, you never want to call someone out in a public setting, as self-defense will quickly kick in. It's worth it to wait until you can pull someone aside for a one on one conversation. But do make sure that conversation happens within a week (or sooner the more important the feedback is).

You don't have to have daily feedback meetings, but do make sure it's a regular part of your coaching. And if you don't know enough about what someone is working on to effectively coach them on a regular basis, maybe you should re-evaluate your position as a leaderr.

Immediate Feedback and "Flow"

The idea of "Flow" gets a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. If you've ever experienced it, you really know it's an entirely different level of creativity. There are specific conditions needed to get into the flow state and one of them is "The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback".

It's the same way with work. If you really want to have engaged employees, you should give them clear and immediate feedback into most of their work. Otherwise (and speaking from personal experience), they're going to start wondering if the work they do today really matters for their evaluation 6 months from now.

Most feedback should be positive

At one point in my career, I went down the path of becoming a high school teacher. I learned so many valuable lessons during my time as an educator including this one: Feedback should have at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments.

Completely anecdotal, but I think this is because it's easy to dismiss positive feedback. We internally focus on our negative aspects, so it really takes a lot of positive feedback for us to accept that it might be right.

Negative feedback however can fit right in with our view of ourselves. If you hear one negative comment on your performance, you're thinking about it for the rest of the day. The high from one positive comment is likely 1/5th of the low from a negative comment.

How do you give five bits of positive feedback for every one of the negative? Be involved. If you only show up to talk about negative outcomes, then that ratio is going to suck. But if you're there day in and day out, it's easy to see all the hard work being done and find positive feedback to give. If you are there and the positive actions aren't being found, then it's time to re-evaluate that person's role.

Don't patronize

While it's important to provide positive feedback, people will easily see through fake compliments. If someone is telling me I'm doing a great job at something they have no clue about, I just shake my head and move on. I don't value their opinion because I know it's not well formed.

The best way to avoid patronizing someone is to actually spend them time learning their craft. Know what the difference between a good job and a mediocre one is. Don't just say they're doing a great job, but be specific about why it's good.

Concepts like the 'complisandwich' need to die a fiery death. Bullshit is easy to see through and usually results in the person spending their time fuming about the fake compliments than thinking about the actual feedback. If you have to hide your negative feedback behind contrived compliments, you need to go back to the "Build Trust" step.

Provide concrete examples of behavior, both bad and good

Vague feedback irks me to no end. Things like "You need to communicate better" or "Be more open to people". What does that even mean? Be specific with your feedback:

  • "The way you reacted to the customer's feedback in our presentation came off as annoyed. I'm not saying you were, but that's the impression you gave."
  • "When people reach out to you, they get the feeling you don't have time for them. I know you like to help others, so what is it that gives that impression?" (I may have recieved feedback like this in the past).

By being specific, you give the feedback more credibility and make it easier to solve the problem. Knowing the details gives the person a chance to defend themselves.

Maybe my "annoyance at the customer" was just me being upset that I missed the mark again? Maybe I want to get to the point with helping others so not to waste their time? "No, I didn't intend to give off that impression, but I can definitely see how it came off that way". By reconciling the feedback with their own personal view of themselves, they're ultimately able to accept the feedback and improve.

Make the feedback accountable

If you tell someone a way they can improve, you should plan to follow up on that some time in the near future. If you're giving feedback but never checking to see if it's being acted on, then what's the point of the feedback? If the person gets used to receiving feedback and it not being followed up on, they'll quickly learn they can just ignore whatever it is you're saying.

Celebrate Successes

If you're telling someone they're going above and beyond, expect them to assume they deserve some sort of reward. You're explicitely telling them they're doing more than they're being paid for, so why would they continue doing that if there is no net benefit to themselves?

It doesn't have to be anything crazy. Take them out for drinks. Buy them some memento that's personal to them. Give Proper Recognition.

Provide time for digestion and allow for a delayed response

I'm an introvert. This means that I like to think through my responses a whole lot before eve opening my mouth. This is part of the reason I love blogging. I really get to finesse the message I'm trying to send.

I'm the same way with feedback. I want to think about what has been said. I want to compare it with my own views. I want to take the time to understand the real point of their message, and then think about the ways I can improve.

If you ask me for my immediate feedback on something, I'll blank. But give me 24 hours to write up a response and I'll return a novel.

When giving someone feedback, especially if they're an introvert, give them time to digest the news. Obviously take time to talk through it in the moment, but follow up with them 24 hours later and ask, "Have you given what we talked about any more thought?". Chances are they have.

Don't blame, just work to fix the problem

It's important this never comes off as something inherent to someone's personality. That just implies that the person can never change. On that note, don't try and make someone something they're not.

If you know someone hates speaking in front of clients, don't focus your feedback on that. Instead, find other ways for them to contribute and have someone else who loves giving a show a shot. I know I'm never going to be a star basketball player, it's just not my passion. Recieving feedback on my shooting form is useless to me.

Focus on the problem. If someone accidentally deleted all the files, don't give them feedback not to accidentally do it in the future. Fix the system that didn't keep backups. Make it okay for screw-ups to happen, because they're going to happen no matter how much feedback is given.

Further Reading

While some of this is personal experience, a lot of it I learned from listening to others. The following books/videos are highly recommended:

Enjoy this content? Check out my upcoming book, The Non-Conformist Leader.