In a previous article we discussed how the ability to seek and receive feedback is an essential trait of a successful leader. We are sometimes not able to see how certain behaviors of ours affect other people, or we need an outside perspective to clearly assess our strengths and weaknesses. Since a leader is continually pursuing growth, seeking feedback is necessary to identify and prioritize our personal growth goals and plans.
An effective leader must also be effective in providing feedback to others. Too often people are guided by the childhood rule of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Appropriate feedback sometimes includes praise and sometimes includes criticism. We aren’t so afraid of giving praise, although even in praise we might not be totally effective. Giving critical feedback is more difficult and, therefore, is often withheld. In fact, critical feedback is the more important of the two, as negative feedback has the greatest impact on positive growth.
The purpose of giving the gift of feedback is to offer guidance that contributes to the development of the recipient. Let’s take a look at some of the guidelines for giving effective or helpful feedback.
Feedback must be appropriate. Before giving feedback, it is best to know the situation. Feedback needs to be correctly addressed. For instance, offering praise to an individual presenting on behalf of a team, can cause resentment within the team.
Feedback must be based on behavior or actions. Feedback should never be personalized, since we should always value the individual and evaluate the activity. For example, “You are so smart” or “You are stupid” are value judgments of the person. Instead, feedback that focuses on the behavior could be “The logic that you presented made reaching a group consensus easy” or “I noticed that there were several math errors in the data that you presented.”
Feedback must be timely. The best time to give feedback is immediately. This might be in the wrap-up to a meeting or as you walk down the hall with the presenter. Feedback has a short shelf life. It loses the opportunity to make an impact as time passes. Of course, the most obvious offense to this rule would be storing up feedback for a performance review. Providing feedback in small doses tied to specific activities or behaviors either reinforces the positive or suggests corrections to the negative.
Feedback must be caring. In her book, Radical Candor, author Kim Scott describes effective leadership as “caring personally” and “challenging directly.” Applying this to the act of providing feedback, guidance is well received when it comes from a person who is known to care about the recipient. Feedback that is given in a critical, uncaring spirit prompts either defensiveness or rejection. But when feedback — even if it is negative — is presented in the spirit of helpfulness, aimed at helping someone grow and develop, it is usually welcomed. Presenting feedback in a spirit of caring requires two elements – a relationship of trust and respect, and the presentation of feedback in a caring tone.
Feedback must be clear and specific. The idea of feedback is to guide the recipient’s development, either by encouraging the continuation of certain behaviors through positive feedback or by suggesting areas for improvement. Therefore, the feedback needs to specifically identify the behaviors or activities that are either valued or demonstrate a need for improvement. For example, “That was a great presentation” is a general statement, but “The way that your slides highlighted the most important information made your presentation easy to follow and compelling” is a specific description of behavior upon which to build.
Feedback must be forward facing. Especially in the case of negative feedback, guidance does not come just from pointing out a shortfall. Following that with a suggestion — or better yet, drawing out from the recipient a better solution for the future — transforms a criticism into a plan of action.
One of the important guidelines for giving feedback is to “praise in public, criticize in private.” This rule is best moderated by the preferences of the recipient. Some people could be embarrassed and uncomfortable with public praise. In other situations, it might be appropriate to discuss a failure in public to use it as a learning tool for others in the organization.
Also important to remember is the nature of negative feedback; it will always land more heavily than positive feedback. A general guideline to help alleviate this inevitability is to make sure the positive feedback you are providing to an individual outnumbers the negative by a factor of 5:1 or more. If we only are providing negative feedback with very little or no positive comments, people can quickly become disheartened.
Short and frequent conversations of 2-3 minutes in which a leader provides guidance regarding both positive and negative feedback can be effective in gently influencing the development of team members. With practice, this level of guidance can be a valuable component in a relationship of trust and respect, enabling an effective leader to help team members to grow.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.