Giving feedback is somewhat similar to picking up a beautiful girl at a nerds’ party. Almost no one does it, and those who try don’t really know how to do it.
A survey by Harvard Business Review shows that not many people feel comfortable giving feedback, and we definitely prefer being on the receiving end, even if the message is not positive. Up to 92% of respondents agree that “a negative (corrective) feedback, if given in an appropriate manner, provides effective support for work.”
“Given in an appropriate manner” is key. Phrases such as “Do it differently,” “I don’t like it,” or “How come you messed it up?” rarely motivate employees. However, a manager who knows how to give feedback wisely has an extremely effective tool to manage his or her team.
During my psychology studies at the University of Warsaw, I came across a short and concise list of principles for giving feedback well. I call them the forgotten principles, because of the many courses I’ve taken on communication skills, only one—the one run by UW graduates—covered these principles. Before I explain them, let me briefly explain the reason for giving feedback.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF FEEDBACK?
The purpose of giving feedback is to change the behavior and/or encourage the growth of the person who is receiving it. Therefore, the feedback must be tailored to the recipient.
Even if the goal is only to correct someone’s behavior, our observations must be made in a way that makes the listener want to hear them. Otherwise, the moment the listener sees what is coming, he or she stops listening and starts thinking about possible excuses, or wonders why we’re nitpicking again, and the value of the feedback is lost.
This is especially true for comments that may be regarded as criticism, but I also recommend using the following eight principles when giving positive feedback as they allow the listener to derive long-term benefits that are beyond just a temporary mood improvement.
Of course, the form of our feedback will change depending on the recipient. An over-sensitive perfectionist who repeatedly analyses what others say about him needs a subtle remark. By contrast, a sales representative who is focused on competing against others may need more explicit feedback. The above-mentioned survey by Harvard Business Review clearly shows that people with high self-esteem are particularly happy to receive corrective feedback.
It is also crucial to remember that feedback is not a way to bully others without facing consequences or to vent frustrations. If you use the “feedback” label to hide the fact that you simply want to pick on people, after a time the whole feedback method will lose its power. Forever. Or at least for a very long time.
Feedback must be genuine, constructive, and timed appropriately, or no one will want to hear you out. Of course, we do not live in a world where there is always time for a deep conversation. In many situations, we need to act quickly to correct errors. Weighing words must give way to more directive language. Therefore, the best time for feedback is when strong emotions fade away and we have a moment to stop and reflect. That’s when it is best to take advantage of the following principles; nevertheless some of them (especially points 4, 5, and 6) are also very useful when time is of the essence.
EIGHT PRINCIPLES OF GOOD FEEDBACK
1. Choose the appropriate place and time.
This is the first and most important rule when it comes to giving feedback. Even the best feedback is ineffective if given at the wrong time. In general, corrective feedback should be given face to face and privately. Positive feedback can be given in public.
Why is that? For the same reason that no one likes being corrected publicly by a partner, friend, or family member. Most people in such a situation take comments very personally and don’t focus on the facts. Positive feedback, by contrast, can be given in the presence of other members of the team. Most people react positively to public praise.
2. Focus on the behavior in a particular situation and not on the behavior in general.
It is better to say, “I was under the impression that today you were not really engaged in the meeting” rather than “At every meeting, you just sit and say nothing.” Also, rewards, punishments, and feedback should be given as quickly as possible. The best feedback is about “here and now” and not about “somewhere and some time ago.” The recipient should be able to easily connect the feedback to his or her particular behavior. Something that is long forgotten will be difficult for the listener to relate to.
3. Focus on the benefit the recipient can get from your feedback.
If you have selected the right time and place, think how the recipient can benefit from your comments. This way, you can focus on using words that will make the listener understand (“digest”) your feedback.
4. Limit your feedback to information the recipient can benefit from, rather than trying to pass on all the information.
Think about what part of your feedback is the most important. Which two or three sentences will let the listener make the change here and now?
Flooding someone with information is a common error. Imagine that after giving a presentation you heard the following comment: “It was nice, but you could think more about an eye contact, do more open gestures, make a bit better introduction and a summary, ask more questions and establish contact with the audience, talk a little louder, have a more stable position, and prepare better slides.” Isn’t it hard to remember all that? It would be better if you were told, for example, “More eye contact with the audience would make your talk more personal.” Try to make more eye contact with the audience.” It is better to change one thing rather than to hear and ignore ten suggestions.
5. Describe the behavior as more or less instead of yes or no.
This way, you will avoid black-and-white perceptions of the situation, which is one of the main reasons for senseless conflicts. In addition, your comments will be more objective. If you tell your employee, “You cannot organize your work and you always miss your deadlines,” he may get outraged and reply, “That’s not true at all, I can organize my work; I have just recently had too much to do.” You can avoid further arguments by saying simply, “Recently you have been submitting projects later than usual.”
6. Talk about person’s behavior and not about the person’s character.
Tell someone, “You could have completed this task more efficiently” rather than, “You are lazy.” When people hear that they don’t work effectively enough, they can do something about that. When they hear that they are lazy, the first thought will probably be “No!” They will likely feel insulted and will begin to defend themselves and argue with you. You will lose energy and time arguing, which could easily have been avoided.
7. Give a description rather than an assessment.
In a nutshell, an assessment suggests that something is good or bad, cool or uncool; it calls for a judgment. A description, on the other hand, is about facts. Compare “You do not treat your work seriously”—an assessment of a person’s feelings—and “You have been late for work three times this month”—a description of the facts. Apart from the choice of words, the tone of voice is important. You can give the most beautiful feedback with such a venomous and reproachful tone that the listener will feel under attack. For this reason, you should wait to give feedback until negative emotions fade away.
8. Share ideas and information, but do not give advice.
Let the recipient choose what he or she will do with your feedback. A lot of people are sensitive to receiving advice, because those who give it are rarely familiar with the broader context of the problem. And what seems to an observer to be a great idea may not fit or may not be appropriate given, for example, the procedures of the company, the situation of the team, or the personal restrictions of the person receiving the feedback. Therefore, if no one asks for advice, it is good to give only information, and then go on to end the feedback.
SUMMARY OF THE FEEDBACK
How do you finish your feedback? The best feedback is a dialogue in which the person receiving the feedback can, after hearing it out (not before or during!), comment on it. When you are done talking you can simply ask, “What do you think?”
Feedback has to be tailored to the individual. Some people will wait for a few minutes for a moment of silence in order to throw in their excuses. To prevent this, you should take care to create an open atmosphere during the conversation, and ask a listener to think for a moment before he or she answers. This way, there is a greater chance that even a know-it-all will take a while to think over the feedback before responding.
An additional advantage of a dialogue instead of a monologue is that it provides an opportunity to learn important information about the work environment. The reason for problems may be a bad information flow, archaic procedures, a conflict you do not know about, etc. You can then take this information into account in your plans for possible improvement.
This sounds great, but can it be put into practice? It can, but it requires training. From a practical point of view, I recommend that you choose one or two principles and start from there. When they become natural to you, you can add more until you master all of them.
I strongly recommend practicing feedback-giving skills, because well-given feedback motivates people and contributes to a great atmosphere in the team. And having a boss who is known to give constructive suggestions rather than simply attacking employees in the case of a mistake attracts workers and keeps them in the company for a long time.