How to Give Feedback That Makes a Difference
We are all living in a time right now where many of us are under significant stress. If you are fortunate enough to be still working, you and your colleagues may be scrambling to adapt to new ways of working. Breakdowns may occur, perhaps more so than ever.
Someone you care about may not even realize their behavior or performance needs a tune-up, and you might be thinking, I don’t want to give them any feedback now, there’s too much going on.
Counter argument: There’s always a lot going on. If someone needs feedback that can help them perform better, do it now, in a timely way, not six months after the incident!
And let’s not minimize the issue: Giving honest feedback to someone in the workplace or at home can be a real challenge. There is a lot at stake. If it goes badly, relationships may be damaged, jeopardizing the ability to work well together in the future.
Emotions may run high and be challenging to manage. You may worry about the person’s reaction and your ability to handle it. As a result, many people shy away from giving honest feedback and opt to “sugar coat” or minimize it. Others simply don’t give it at all and just put up with behavior that is less than desirable.
On the other hand, some people pride themselves on “telling it like it is” and being “brutally honest.” The problem here is that the bravado has the impact of being hurtful and tends to do more harm than good.
The solution is to integrate being both honest and respectful.
Sound impossible? No, it’s not.
Here are seven steps that can help you deliver effective, honest, and respectful feedback that will build stronger relationships, get work done more effectively, and leave you feeling proud of what you have done.
1. Get yourself in the right mindset.
Our mindset — our beliefs, attitudes, and values — influence everything we do in life. Getting yourself in the right mindset means thoroughly clarifying your intention and desired outcome for the conversation. To do that, you can ask yourself the following questions:
- What would I like to have happen, for them, and me as a result of this conversation? What impact do I want this to have on our relationship?
- What is my overall intention in delivering this feedback? Is it to help them go forward? Is it something else? If so, what?
- What facts do I know about the situation? What has the person done or said? What don’t I know?
- Am I satisfied overall with their performance? Or is what I see an indication of deeper concerns that I have?
In this way, you can get a mental picture of what you want to communicate before you even enter into the conversation. Gaining this clarity can be difficult when your emotions are flaring, and you find yourself in a situation where you believe you must give immediate feedback.
For example, if you approach a feedback conversation feeling anger and frustration, it is highly likely that what you do or say, driven by those fiery emotions, will not be constructive, even though it will honestly reflect how you feel.
And chances are, it may harm the relationship. On the other hand, suppose you are feeling positive and want to help the other person improve? Your approach will be quite different and likely to be much more effective.
So, if you are feeling agitated, pull yourself together and find a way to get calm first and foremost. Take a break, take a few deep breaths, go for a walk, or let the other person know that you want to give feedback but are feeling upset and would like to meet in a short while.
2. Choose the right time and place.
The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation.
Make sure that you have chosen a setting that is appropriate for the discussion. A few years ago, when I was the head of a sales team, I bumped into one of my salespeople in the office hallway, and we started a conversation.
Before I knew it, I was giving him feedback about a joint sales presentation we had just done and how he could have done better. Later, I found out he was quite upset that I had delivered this feedback in a public place where other people could overhear our conversation. I was pretty embarrassed.
Recommendation: Confirm that the person to whom you are speaking is in a private location and check to see if they are in a state of mind where they can receive feedback.
If they are too stressed out, distracted, or tired, it’s not the time.
3. Provide the context for the feedback.
Assuming you are satisfied with the person’s overall performance and this isn’t a disciplinary or termination discussion (another subject), the first step in the meeting is to create the context for the discussion.
“Sean, I want to have a conversation with you today about your performance. Overall, I am delighted with how you are carrying out your responsibilities, particularly in areas A, B, and C. I have one concern that I want to talk with you about today.”
Context is the framework for the conversation rather than the details of the feedback. Think of it as a nose cone- it sets the stage and creates a positive environment.
4. Express your concern.
If you are delivering feedback with the intent of helping the other person, it is essential that you focus on the issue, the situation, the facts, and/or the behavior of the person in question. It’s easy and natural to make judgments or assumptions first, and this is not the time for those. This is the time to be clear on what you have observed and what the known facts are.
Here are some examples of judgments and assumptions and facts.
Judgment/assumption: you are lazy, or you are troublesome
Facts: you delivered the report two days late, or I overheard you raising your voice with a client
Here’s an example of how to voice a concern. “The concern I have is that you have turned in the month-end report two days late. Correct me if I am wrong. I recall that you promised several weeks ago to send it to me this past Monday, and you delivered it to me after hours on Wednesday.”
When you focus on the facts, both parties can start the conversation from a shared understanding. When you make value judgments or assumptions, people see these as an attack upon their value or dignity, which triggers defensiveness, and that will block the ability to have a productive conversation.
5. Share the impact on you and/or others.
Doing this helps the other person see that their behavior has an emotional impact on you or others, how it affects relationships, and how poor performance impacts the business.
“The impact on me is that I am disappointed personally, I am losing trust in what you tell me, and for me to roll up all the reports, I need to ask already stretched support staff to work overtime.”
6. Ask the other person to respond, and listen, seeking to understand.
At this point pause and ask the other person to respond. In our example, one person believes there was a commitment to deliver the report on Monday. If that fact is disputed, then a different conversation needs to occur.
Let’s continue with the assumption that a commitment was made. We need to hear the other person’s side of the story and what their thinking is. There may be information that you don’t know. If you keep talking, believing that your perception is the only possible reality, you may be missing important data points.
“So, what is going on, Sean? How do you see it?”
The key to effective listening is to suspend judgment and listen with curiosity and openness. Just going through the motions and pretending to listen isn’t going to contribute to a positive outcome. Body language, voice tone, and appropriate questions that draw out the full story are all critical ingredients that help create a mutual understanding regarding what occurred.
7. Mutually address the concern and agree on the next steps.
Several things can happen here. You might:
- Respond to any concerns or questions the other person has brought up.
- Ask what the person can do to address the performance gap.
- Make your suggestion, ask the person what he/she thinks, and seek a commitment to your request.
The underlying principle is to elicit a commitment. A commitment is not imposed on another but is an agreement based upon a request and a promise. It is specific and includes action steps and time frames.
If you make a suggestion and they disagree, then the conversation continues until you reach a mutual agreement. If they make a suggestion, you can help them make it specific and actionable if they have not. The conversation concludes when you and the other party are in agreement regarding who does what by when.
The Key is Integration.
When it comes to giving feedback, there is a way, to be honest, and respectful. If you follow these steps, you can deliver feedback that not only improves the overall situation but enhances your rapport with others and leaves you feeling proud as well.
Most people want to improve their performance and giving them honest feedback is an art we can all master.