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How to give constructive feedback

27 Jun

I recently wrote a post about receiving feedback, because I think this is an important art that many leaders lack.  Even more important for a good leader is to master the art of giving meaningful (A.K.A. constructive) feedback.

Giving honest, meaningful feedback with the goal of helping others to improve will engage their hearts and minds and build your leadership credibility.  Unfortunately, giving constructive feedback is something that many leaders shy away from.  Others use the “seagull” style of feedback.  Here are some of the things I’ve learned about effective feedback. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!

I believe in all forms of feedback, three principles hold true: Feedback must be sincere, specific, and timely.  

Be Sincere. Think about the feedback that you’re giving.  What’s the purpose behind it? How will improvement help them and your business or team?  Is the feedback about something you’ve seen or experienced or is it second-hand (this is never as effective).  It is much more sincere to explain “I noticed you did ____” rather than “I heard that you did ____”.  If you have to use second hand information, make sure you fully understand the situation.  Start the discussion by asking them to tell you about what happened.  Probe for how it went, would they do anything differently, what did they learn.  Often, by simply asking thoughtful questions, you can get them to give themselves their own meaningful feedback.

Be Specific.  There’s nothing worse than getting feedback that your performance is substandard but not knowing what part of your performance is below standard.  Feedback without specifics will simply de-motivate, kill confidence, and lead to further substandard performance.

Be Timely.  Don’t wait until an annual performance review to give feedback for improvement.  Not only have you wasted a year of work that could have been improved, but you are not being fair.  Give feedback when it happens, regularly.  The more often you give feedback, the more comfortable it will be for you and for them.

Some ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s when giving meaningful feedback:

Do make it a two-way conversation.  Don’t practice seagull management (fly in, poop on them and then fly away).  Ask for their perspective, and whether they would do anything differently or whether they learned anything from the situation. Listen and respond with empathy.

Do think about what’s in it for them.  Don’t make it about you.  How will improving this help them develop and grow?  Watch out for turning this into a conversation about how you have improved or done things in the past.  It’s about their behaviour and how improving will help them.

Do maintain their self-esteem.  Don’t make it personal.  The feedback is about their actions or behaviour, not about the overall value they bring to the team.

Do be honest and direct.  Don’t give a “feedback sandwich”.  Managers are often taught to give positive feedback, slide in a little constructive feedback, and finish with more positive feedback.  Please don’t do this.  The outcome is that either they miss the constructive, meaningful piece, or they dismiss any of the positive.  Either way, you convolute the message and lose credibility.  Instead of sandwiching constructive feedback between to pieces of positive feedback, separate the two discussions.  Make the constructive feedback positive on its own by sharing your confidence in their ability to improve and committing to helping them.

Do meet them personally, in private. Don’t give this kind of feedback in public or by email.  Have enough respect for the person to meet face to face to give meaningful feedback.

Finally, don’t forget positive feedback!  Always take the opportunity to build confidence and positivity by recognizing work well done.  What you recognize will get repeated.  My three rules of sincere, specific, and timely feedback also apply to praise.

Pic by sxc user mzacha

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