With their goal of assisting in the growth and achievements of their team members, effective leaders know that valuable feedback is essential for the success of any organization. It’s an important tool in guiding people as they seek to improve their performance and develop new skills or behaviors.
Think of the many standard practices of an effective leader:
- Challenging people to think
- Guiding the development of team members
- Communicating expectations
- Measuring and rewarding performance
- Solving problems
- Encouraging initiative
- Building relationships of trust and respect
All of these are enhanced by and emphasize the need to provide clear and consistent feedback to team members.
There are several reasons why someone might opt not to give feedback. An inability to grasp the benefit that comes from providing positive feedback results in some people shying away from it, even going so far as to deem it unnecessary. What they don’t understand is how positive feedback demonstrates an appreciation for the effort and value of the person. By the same token, providing corrective feedback is sometimes difficult, especially for those who haven’t honed their skills in that area. But corrective feedback, when done well, demonstrates the desire to help the team member grow. Feedback also takes time, so people sometimes don’t give it high enough importance as they prioritize their time. Effective leaders understand that taking the time to liberally provide both positive and corrective feedback is beneficial to the team member as well as to the company.
Here are ten tips for giving effective feedback:
- Focus on performance, not personality. Feedback should always be given in reference to specific actions or behaviors. We are either expressing appreciation for an action and the resulting benefit in positive feedback or we are discussing an action or behavior that we want to see improved. Feedback needs to be specific. “You’re so smart” is not nearly as valuable as “I really appreciated the way that you helped the team come to that conclusion.” With the latter feedback the person understands the action and the benefit to the team. Regarding corrective feedback, a statement such as “The project was not delivered on time, which resulted in a big cost penalty from our customer” can lead to a discussion of reasons and corrective action. “You really messed up that project” is likely to prompt a defensive argument.
- Emphasize facts, not feelings. “We’ve received seven complaints about missed deliveries” has more value than “You really disappoint me.” Facts verify the reality behind the discussion and keep the discussion from becoming a personal matter.
- Focus on the individual effort. Feedback is always focused on behavior and results that are within the control of the recipient. For example, feedback should not be about a delay caused by the weather, but it could be about someone’s failure to foresee potential delays. Often the workplace includes team efforts. If the feedback is about the team’s results, the discussion needs to include the team. If the feedback is for an individual on the team, the discussion needs to focus on that person’s specific actions or contribution to the team’s effort. Unless there is evidence that one person single-handedly impacted the team’s results, it is unfair and disheartening for an individual to be confronted with the team’s performance.
- Feedback is best served warm. In other words, provide feedback as soon as possible after (or even during) the specific activity or behavior. The longer the time gap between the action and the feedback, the harder it will be for the recipient to tie the two together. The impact or benefit of the feedback is much reduced if the person has difficulty in recalling all of the facts regarding the action due to lapsed time.
- Be clear, direct, and specific. A discussion that is focused on a specific action or behavior and the exact results leads to a more productive analysis of the cause and a better definition of the precise action plan required to improve. Speaking in generalities ends with little understanding and minimal impact on the future. Feedback takes time to have value.
- Focus on the fix. The goal of feedback is not to criticize a person or to gather a history. The goal is to help the recipient grow and improve. The discussion of the situation or the past history is just a prelude to developing an action plan for growth or change. Therefore, the discussion should be weighted in favor of the future, with positive expectations for improvement and growth.
- Use your words wisely. Feedback should be a respectful, professional discussion aimed at producing a positive outcome. Language and behavior should be in line with this objective. It’s better to use the word “I” in demonstrating the impact and refrain from using the word “you”, which can come across as judgmental of the person rather than the behavior.
- Provide feedback in digestible doses. If we expect our feedback to have an impact on future performance, it is better for the recipient to walk away with one action plan regarding one issue. Storing up several items for discussion results in a confusing mess for the recipient to sort out after the discussion. Instead, provide a consistent flow of small doses of feedback.
- Make it a two-way conversation. With a goal of developing an action plan for improved performance, the feedback session needs to be a dialogue, not a monologue. People are more likely to implement an action plan that they have developed rather than one that is forced on them. Once the issue has been identified and agreed upon, the feedback discussion works best when the leader moves into a coaching role, helping the recipient to identify and own the cause of the problem and the action plan for improvement. It goes without saying that feedback is best done face-to-face or at least person-to-person; it should never be done via text, email, or letter.
- Balance corrective (negative) feedback with praise (positive) feedback. People respond more strongly to negative statements than to positive statements. That’s why relationships are stronger when positive statements outweigh negative statements by a factor of at least 3:1, but even better at factors of 5:1 or 8:1. Even when giving corrective feedback, the leader should find positive things to say about the other person, such as the part of the process that was correctly done, a belief in their ability to improve, and so on. When a person only hears negative comments or criticism from a boss, they lose heart and look for the door.
When properly given, both positive and corrective feedback can feel like positive interaction that is beneficial to the recipient and results in growth and improved performance. For the recipient, getting both positive and corrective feedback from the leader identifies the behavior that is valued and expected. It also shows the value that the leader places upon the team member and the leader’s desire to assist in building that team member’s future.
Providing effective and consistent feedback builds both the individual team members and the overall organization. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate by example the expectations for the organization’s culture. A climate of effective feedback is thus essential to a strong and positive organization.
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.