How to Give Feedback

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Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

Published 3/14/2015

Feedback can be one of the most powerful ways to develop employees and improve performance. It doesn't cost anything. Most employees say they want it, and yet they don't get enough of it. So why are many managers so hesitant to give it?

There's two reasons for this.

First of all, although most people will say they want feedback, most of us really don't respond very well to it. It's just human nature.

What we really want is positive feedback.

When we hear about something that challenges our self-perception of who we are, a basic psychological "fight or flight" survival mechanism kicks in. In many cases, once we have a chance to process it, we may benefit from it in the long run. It's usually not our immediate reaction to fully embrace it.

When it comes to how we come across to others, most people have pretty low self-awareness. We spend most of our lives walking around with huge “blind spots,” and will never know otherwise unless we get some kind of eye-opening feedback.

The second reason employees don’t get enough feedback is that most managers don't like to give feedback and are not very good at it. Again, it's basic behavioral modification. When we do something and get a negative response (like touching a hot stove, or a defensive employee), we tend to avoid those things.

Of all of the basic leadership and management skills, giving feedback consistently ranks as one of the lowest scores in leadership development 360 degree assessments.

We sometimes spend a lot of time over-teaching managers how to give feedback. We make it way too complicated! By the time we finish training managers on all of the do's and don’ts of giving performance feedback, they become so paralyzed with fear that they would rather just avoid it.

It doesn’t have to be so complicated, and with practice and patience, managers can improve the way they provide feedback so that employees will be more receptive to it.

Here’s how:

1. Start with examining your intentions. What’s the purpose of the feedback? Is it to punish the employee, get it off your chest to make you feel better, or is it truly help the employee improve because you care about them? Feedback is personal, and your intention will affect the way your message is delivered and received.

2. Make giving positive and critical feedback a frequent event. Instead of saving feedback for a big event, like the annual performance review, build giving feedback a regular part of your day-to-day conversations and regular meetings.

3. Ask for feedback. When a manager asks for feedback, it helps establish a foundation of mutual respect and partnership. Role modeling receiving feedback non-defensively will help the employee learn to do the same.

4. Immediate and timely. Make sure the feedback is as closely connected to the behavior as possible, otherwise it will lose its impact.

5. Ask for permission. Before giving feedback, ask, “Do mind if I share some feedback with you that I think will help you be more effective?”

6. Focus on a specific behavior, not the person. In other words, make the feedback about the what, and not the “who.”

7. Explain the impact of the behavior – on you, and/or others.

“Susan, when you cut Jamie off in the meeting, I noticed she looked irritated and clammed up for the rest of the meeting. When you don’t hear a person out and interrupt them, they will probably feel disrespected and no longer want to contribute. When the entire team doesn’t feel safe to contribute, our performance will suffer.”

8. Allow the feedback to sink in. Let the person process the feedback. Listen empathetically.

9. If the person doesn’t know a more effective behavior, ask if they would like advice. Once the behavior is pointed out, and they understand the impact, it’s often just a matter of stopping the behavior. Or, it’s obvious what they need to do differently. If they truly need help in coming up with alternative behaviors, give them specific examples. Offer to role play if that would help. Coaching, using effective questions is an even better way than giving advice.

10. Feedback sandwich? Some will say the best way to give critical feedback is to “sandwich” it between two pieces of positive feedback. Personally, I think most people will see through that technique and see it as manipulative. They may also just remember the positive, and forget all about the critical. Again, it is human nature; we all tend to do that.

If you are going to give positive feedback, by all means, do so, and do it often. Use the same technique – timely, sincere, specific, and positive impact. Try to give positive feedback four to five times more often that critical – just don’t do as a way to sugar coat the negative.

Follow these ten guidelines and you will get more comfortable in giving feedback, and your employees will be more receptive to receiving it.

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