How do you get comfortable delivering feedback to people? How do you do it in a nice way, so it’s not awkward or demeaning, but not so nice that it gets ignored? Here are some tips.
First, let’s acknowledge that giving feedback can be hard, especially if you don’t know how to do it effectively. That is why so many people avoid it. But giving feedback gets easier with practice and if you follow the tips below. Before getting to the tips, it is also important to recognize that receiving good quality feedback can be vital to a person’s success. Helping someone see what they are doing well and what they can change to be more effective is a gift that can keep giving throughout their career.
Now, what are the keys to giving feedback effectively? Here are three.
Key #1 to Giving Effective Feedback
Be Constructive: Give constructive feedback; don’t criticize the person. Research shows that criticism demotivates people. For example, telling someone that their writing is poor quality is demoralizing. It doesn’t help them learn how to write better or what good quality writing looks like. It doesn’t give them incentive to try to do better. Rather, it suggests to them that there’s no hope.
Constructive feedback focuses on the future, on something the person can do to improve their performance. Constructive feedback looks something like this. “You’re a new manager and you will likely make many mistakes as you figure out how to effectively lead your team. Today’s example of delegating work to someone who’s not ready is a good learning opportunity. You didn’t assess his capability before you gave him the assignment. Before you assign more work to your team, it would be a good idea to assess what their capabilities are and take note of who can do which types of assignments. Then you’ll know who to delegate to and in what ways people need to grow.”
Key #2 to Giving Effective Feedback
Make It Behavioral: Focus on behavior, not the person. Behavior can be changed. Personality is much harder to change, and some personal attributes cannot be changed at all. For example, I once saw a manager burst into tears when someone told her she was an ineffective presenter because she was too short. When I asked her why she was crying, she said it was because her height was something she couldn’t change. She was right. The feedback was useless, and it just made her feel bad.
Behavioral feedback describes the actions or behaviors that a person does or doesn’t do. For example, “We didn’t get to cover the full agenda in today’s meeting. It seemed to get sidetracked when Fritz started challenging the details of Sue’s code. Because this was your meeting, people were looking to you to bring the discussion back to the point. When you didn’t take charge, others got involved in the discussion and we all went down a rabbit hole. To keep the meeting on track, there are several actions you can take, such as interrupting and saying we need to park that discussion to move onto the other agenda items or standing up and making a gesture to get people’s attention to make the point, or assigning someone else ahead of time to be the timekeeper and have them reign people in for you.”
Key #3 to Giving Effective Feedback
Be Specific: Be as specific as possible about the context, the behavior, and the impact of the behavior. Vague feedback isn’t very useful. For example, it’s nice to hear “good job,” but it doesn’t really tell you what you did well and why it worked. It can leave you wondering if you could replicate the “good job” because you don’t really know what was good about it.
An example of specific feedback could be, “You captured the audience’s attention well during your presentation. I could see that no one was on their phones when you talked, and they asked detailed questions during your Q&A that demonstrated they had paid attention to your story.” This describes specific impact. Specific descriptions of the presenter’s behaviors looks like this. “You seemed to speak to each individual person in the audience. I saw you making eye contact with them and because you had a variety of examples, there was something for everyone to relate to.” A specific suggestion for improvement looks like this. “The only time the audience looked a little confused was when you talked about your experiment. You used several technical terms that they didn’t seem to understand because they aren’t scientists. Next time you present, it would be worth checking to see who will be in the audience and tailoring the language to their level of knowledge.”
Additional Tip to Giving Effective Feedback
Many consultants will also tell you that feedback has to be timely, that it is important to give feedback immediately or as soon as possible after observing a behavior. While I agree it is better to give feedback when the behavior is still fresh, I think it’s better to give good quality feedback than to rush into it. If you are angry or frustrated with the person, it is better to wait and calm down before delivering feedback to them. If the person doesn’t seem ready to hear it, wait until a more suitable time to deliver the feedback. If you aren’t sure if it is a “one off” behavior, wait and see if it recurs. But don’t wait because you are afraid of delivering the feedback. Use the tips above to deliver constructive, specific, behaviorally based feedback that will help the person grow and have a positive impact. You will find it to be a rewarding experience for both of you.