Looking for a conversation starter? Ask people to tell you about their feedback nightmares. I can guarantee you’ll hear some horror stories. Giving feedback to employees is a subject we’re all familiar with.
Doubtless, you’ve received feedback yourself – and with luck, the helpful, well-delivered feedback you received stuck with you more than the poorly-delivered feedback you might have been given.
The need to give feedback is ingrained in modern business life.
Sadly, too many managers are giving clumsy, unhelpful and just plain demotivating feedback. Which is a factor behind Gallup’s finding that
So often, the feedback given isn’t feedback. It’s criticism or praise. Don’t our employees deserve better? Don’t our companies deserve better?
Why is good feedback important?
Good feedback coupled with coaching conversations inspires employees to do better. Mediocre and infrequent feedback turns people off.
As I usually do before I start writing these articles, I get input from experts and professionals. I was overwhelmed with the responses I got on this topic. So many people had stories to share. The message? People LOVE feedback. But only when it’s skilfully delivered.
Caroline Saunders, a marketing consultant, told me
“Good feedback is always appreciated I wish people realised how motivating it is to receive positive feedback and did it more! It only makes us want to work harder and do better 😊”
Developmental feedback is as well-received as good feedback. Susan Walsh, a data specialist, was open with her experiences;
“When I was younger, I didn’t have the confidence in myself to speak up as much as I should have, but now I have no problem in being honest, and I like people being honest with me. It’s the only way we can truly develop and grow or prevent a potential disaster from happening!”
Feedback is essential for a successful company. It creates a basis on which to build strong Learning & Development programmes, is helpful in goal setting and crucial when coaching your employees. Chatting to Sarah Fahy, Vice President at the Global Tax Office at Sony, she told me it’s unfair not to give feedback.
“Everyone’s life is worse if you don’t give honest feedback. Your team will suffer, that person suffers and you will suffer. Even if it’s uncomfortable to have that conversation, realise that it’s just a case of feeling uncomfortable for half an hour and you will see a real long-term benefit”
Here then is a summary of the advice I gathered from experts and employees alike – helping us all get better at giving feedback.
10 x tips to give better feedback
1. Do it. And do it all the time
First up, it’s rookie error number one; forgetting to give feedback outside of appraisals and formal situations. Torie, Skills Lead at Urban and Civic told me she encourages managers to find occasions throughout the year
“it shouldn’t be a formal process, keep it consistent, informal and lighthearted and you’ll see stronger results”.
Paul, Creative Director at Usable Media added his perspective;
“keep it frequent and friendly and you’ll stop issues building up”.
Sound advice indeed.
2. Tailor it to the individual
Torie raised another important point – there isn’t a ‘right way’ to give feedback to your employees. Everybody is different and so will be the way they respond to criticism and praise. Personality isn’t the only factor. Remember that junior employees may have less emotional resilience, affecting their reaction to critical feedback.
There are feedback models a-plenty helping us structure feedback and ensure we leave our employees clear about what they’ve been told and what to do next. But over-reliance on these models can mean we lose touch with the human purpose of giving that feedback. Both Sarah and Torie told me they favoured a less rigid approach to feedback.
“As much as a model is helpful, it needs to be down to the individual manager”
Torie told me. Her more subliminal approach to feedback is helpful to consider;
“relax the process by chipping in with nuggets of helpful feedback at relevant points – it’s less confrontational and more collaborative; people are more likely to take feedback on board when they’re involved in the process”.
It’s an approach that’s supported by studies – Professor Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University says we can only take in one critical comment on board at a time;
“I have stopped people and told them, ‘Let me think about this.’ I’m willing to hear more criticism but not all at one time”.
3. Giving feedback to employees is first of all about listening
There’s so much emphasis on GIVING feedback to employees, that we forget the other half of the equation – the coaching discussion that follows. Instead of being helpful, feedback that’s delivered as a monologue is demotivating. Give employees time to react, to ask questions and ask for advice.
Torie emphasised the importance of listening
“managers need to sit back and take a moment to let direct reports absorb the feedback” she told me. “it’s so important to make enough time for the two-way conversation – and sometimes managers are so nervous to get feedback out of the way that they forget to follow it up with the necessary coaching discussion that should follow”.
A point that leads us nicely onto the next point.
4. Nerves are normal when giving feedback
Giving bad feedback sucks. Even more so if a personality clash with a direct report or team member means every feedback session ends up feeling defensive and unproductive.
It’s helpful to know however that your employee may already know there’s an issue. A study of nearly 4,000 people receiving negative or redirecting feedback showed that 74% indicated they knew there was a problem.
Thorough preparation and a generous time allowance help you deal with your nerves but if conflict and defensiveness are an ongoing problem, step back to understand if the difficulty is personality-driven. If unprepared, some people respond defensively to even mild criticism.
Personality profiling tools such as Myers-Briggs give us self-awareness we can use to recognise our response to certain situations. It also gives us as managers the opportunity to depersonalise feedback, focusing on behaviours rather than personalities.
5. Be kind (but not soft)
We’re big fans of working compassionately, so you won’t be shocked to hear us saying you need to build kindness into your feedback. However, we’re not suggesting you go soft. The idea of Radical Candor tells us that pointing out the elephant in the room is the kindest thing to do, especially if you’re struggling to get your message across. Your high performers may find that it’s just what they need. I loved the example in this article about the impact of very direct feedback courtesy of Sheryl Sandberg.
Be careful though, a very direct style can backfire if used on more junior employees,
“I could have done with some instances of kinder delivery, especially earlier in my career”
said Lauren, PR, Brand and Partnerships Manager at Biscuiteers. Again, it’s about adapting your approach to the employee you are feeding back to.
6. Find the right environment
The environment in which you give feedback to employees is as important as the feedback itself. Find somewhere quiet and you’ll be rewarded with a less guarded and more helpful dynamic.
It’s not the case that any old office will do however; those glass walls so common in office design give passers-by front-row seats in the feedback drama that’s unfolding; remember that our body language accounts for 53% of all communication.
Give your direct report the respect of privacy and you’re contributing towards a more fruitful feedback session and a better long-term relationship.
Place isn’t the only aspect to consider when giving feedback. The timeframe in which you feedback is critical.
Give feedback as close to the event for best results; leave it too late and feedback loses its edge. What’s more, direct reports might just mistake you for not caring. Who wants to do a good job without recognition? And why bother to behave well if no-one picks you up on it?
7. Be honest
While few of us intend to be deceitful when giving feedback to employees, it can be easy to let misdemeanours slip or to pretend everything’s fine when it’s not.
Be honest at the outset of your relationship by providing clear expectations. Whether that’s through a clear brief, by providing explicit competencies or through a frank discussion, you’ll set boundaries from the start.
Sarah Benstead, a content manager with Saas provider Breathe, manages teams of freelancers and believes strongly in the power of honest feedback;
“If there’s something I’m not quite happy with, I always think it’s worthwhile for both me and them to let them know. That way, they can take it onboard, build on it and better their work going forward. It ensures that communication is maintained and that you’re both on the same page – which is important in any working relationship”.
8. Check your intention
We can become so focused on how we give feedback to employees that we forget to take stock of why we’re giving feedback.
Yvonne Guerineau, a coach and HR professional, eloquently expressed the importance of intention
“if your aim is to improve and/or retain the relationship and to benefit them – rather than get stuff off your chest – it affects your choice of words and approach.”
To Yvonne’s point, your relationship with your team member is a long-term commitment; prepare and choose your words carefully. And double-check your intention. If your intention is to air your frustration but not help your direct report improve, call it quits. Griping gets us nowhere.
9. Do it face to face
Feedback is at its most powerful when delivered face to face because you can control the way you deliver the message and react to your direct report’s response. This cannot happen with an email. It certainly cannot happen on an Instant Messenger. If you can’t deliver feedback in person then do so over the phone or video link – not only does it allow you to tailor your feedback to the conversation flow, but it gives you the opportunity for that most vital element of all – the coaching discussion that follows.
What’s more, that discussion helps you build upon your relationship and develop a stronger bond of trust.
10. Give Future-Focused Feedback
Sarah Fahy sums up my last point with aplomb; “don’t focus on the past, but on what you can achieve”. Feedback is one of your most powerful tools as a manager and can help you coach your teams to greatness. Use it well and you, your employees and your organisation will thrive.