I'm Okay, You're Okay: 5 Tips for Giving Feedback That Works
July 21, 2014 | Business and Careers
If you’ve ever had to give feedback (and who hasn’t?), you probably know the drill: You’re supposed to start with something positive, move on to what needs fixing and then end on a high note. Yet experts have found that constructive feedback isn’t always bad, and positive feedback isn’t always good; the right type of feedback depends on the situation.
The Journal of Consumer Research published a study in 2011 called Tell Me What I Did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback. This research found that the most useful form of feedback directly relates to where a person is on his or her own learning curve. For example, a novice benefits more from positive and supportive feedback, while an expert benefits more from feedback that is critical in nature.
Why is that?
According to adult learning expert Pamela J. Gordon, the answer is simple. “As people gain expertise, the meaning and value of feedback shifts. When you’re learning something new, positive feedback (e.g., here’s what you did really well … ) can provide motivation and boost confidence by reinforcing what you’re doing right,” says Gordon. “As your experience grows, constructive feedback (e.g., here’s what you need to work on … ) also can increase your motivation. However, it does so by providing key information about the behaviors or barriers that may be holding you back from taking your performance to a higher level.”
To understand why, think back to when you learned how to swim. “First time in the pool, it was important for your parent or teacher to be encouraging and supportive as you splashed around, trying to stay afloat,” said Gordon. “By the time you made swim team, however, the type of feedback you received probably shifted. Instead of a pat on the back and a simple ‘Way to go!’ your coach now was calling from poolside for you to extend your arm further on your stroke. That kind of tactical advice helped you to become a stronger and, hopefully, more competitive swimmer.”
Gordon suggests this example is important because it demonstrates how crucial it can be to deliver appropriate feedback at the right time and in the right way. To see how this works, consider the following five tips for giving feedback that actually inspires improvement.
1. Get clear about your intentions. Before you sit down to deliver feedback to a direct report at work, a colleague, friend or loved one, ask yourself: What is the purpose of your feedback? Is it part of a routine performance review? In response to a request for feedback? Do you want to help the other person achieve some goal? Are you trying to get him or her to change a specific behavior? Share the reasons for your feedback with the recipient. The best feedback is sincerely and honestly provided—and it’s always more helpful when it’s put in a larger context.
2. Set the stage. Before you provide feedback of any kind, ask permission first. “A simple ‘Do you have time for some quick feedback?’ can help the person get in the right frame of mind to receive it,” says Gordon. “But whether the feedback is positive or constructive, provide information on a timely basis. That enables the employee to easily connect the feedback with his actions.”
3. Be specific. Where possible, use specific examples of what you liked and didn’t like when giving feedback. “You’re always late to meetings” is not as helpful as “In the meeting with the team yesterday, I noticed that you came in 15 minutes late.” Once you identify the specific behavior you want to discuss, then point out the direct impact that resulted from this behavior, again being as specific as possible. “Because you were late to the meeting, we weren’t able to cover some of the important items on the agenda. I am concerned about what this will do to our schedule.” Similarly, saying something like “You’re a team player” may be nice, but it’s not as helpful as telling someone, “Your contribution to the XYZ project really made a difference in the success of the product launch. Good job.”
4. Make it collaborative. Whenever possible, include one or two actionable steps that the other person might find useful to improve the situation. “Bob, I know it can be tough to pull off, but I try to give myself 30 minutes between meetings. That extra margin of time allows me to be clear-headed and more productive than when I rush from conference room to conference room.”
After you’ve provided your feedback, pause and give the other person a chance to think through what you’ve said and respond to it. If the person hesitates, try asking an open-ended question, such as “What do you think?” or “Is this a fair representation of what happened?” Listen actively to what that person has to say, and try to get him/her to offer some suggestions for improvement. This way, your employee has the opportunity to own the solution and may be much more likely to follow through with it. “The main message should be that you care and want to help the person grow and develop,” says Gordon.
5. Always get feedback on your feedback. Giving feedback isn’t a perfect science. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a disconnect to occur between your impression of the feedback you gave and the other person’s impression of the feedback he or she got. For this reason, it’s important to periodically get a “reality” check.
Gordon has devised a simple technique for making this happen. She suggests that you first think about the last three times you offered feedback to employees. Next, write your answer to the following questions:
- What prompted you to give feedback at that time?
- What was the substance of the feedback?
- Was there any concrete action as a result?
Once you’ve finished, ask those employees to write down their answers to the same questions. Your goal is to find out whether the feedback you’re providing is working. “As you compare your answers and those of your employees, you may find the process makes for interesting reading,” says Gordon.
Feedback can be a powerful means of personal development. The more practice you get giving and receiving it, the better you will become at using it to advance your career and personal goals. The key is delivering it at the right time and in the right way for your employees.