Giving Feedback

Feedback is the breakfast of champions

Ken Blanchard

Many years ago, I worked for an organisation where the CEO was rumoured to have the quote “Feedback is the food of champions” on his office wall. I never went into his office, so I am unable to confirm whether the rumour was true. However, this quote became one of my favourites, because I honestly believe that the feedback that we provide to others can have amazing results if delivered appropriately.

Most of us like to hear when we are doing well. However, feedback is more than that. Feedback is about identifying the opportunities for improvement and things that aren’t going so well, in addition to the good, great and awesome stuff. And, in my assessment, not only do we owe it to the people working for, with and around us to give them both negative and positive feedback, but we also owe it to them to give it to them promptly and respectfully.

I think that the majority of us find positive feedback the easiest feedback to give; it is not hard to tell someone that they are awesome, or that that their efforts have made a difference to us. Sometimes, it might even be too easy to provide positive feedback to someone. For this reason, I like to ask myself whether the feedback that I am going to give is genuine. If I don’t think that I am being genuine then I don’t say it. I want people to know that I mean it when I provide feedback; I want to be genuine and authentic. This is important for my own ethics and integrity, but it is also important to me for another reason – I want people to know that they can trust me. I also don’t want to tell someone that they are great at something if it means that I will have to ask them to improve that same thing in future.

When I provide positive feedback, I try to explain what it was about the person’s actions that helped me, what outcome they helped to provide, and why I appreciated their efforts.

Giving negative feedback can be rather scary. However, I believe that providing people with opportunities for development is equally, if not more, important than providing them with positive feedback. It is these opportunities that help people to grow.

When I first became a manager, I remember avoiding providing negative feedback like the plague. I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and was worried about what they might think. I also probably tended to question my judgement – what if I was about to give them negative feedback for something that I had totally misinterpreted? My answer to this question, with the benefit of experience behind me, is to always have the conversation; don’t let it be missing. If you think there is an issue with the way in which someone is behaving or performing, talk to them about it, and do it promptly. Give them a chance to respond, so that you can try to understand it from their point of view, but have the conversation. In my opinion, there is not a lot worse than thinking that we are doing a great job, and finding out that someone is too scared to tell us that we are not. It doesn’t provide us with an opportunity for growth, and it is unfair to everyone involved.

So how do we provide less-than-positive feedback? There is no easy way to do this. Some people like “the feedback sandwich” – some positive feedback, the negative and then another positive. I tend to tailor my approach to suit the situation. I like the feedback sandwich in performance appraisals, but I don’t like it so much if I have a specific issue to deal with. I do, however,  have a few rules that I try to stick to:

  • Remove emotion and ego from the discussion. The discussion is about the outcome that you are trying to achieve and the behaviour that you would like to see improved;
  • Follow up on negative behaviour promptly; don’t hold off on having the conversation;
  • Be very clear about what the issue is, how you would like to see it improved, and what outcome you are after. Provide examples of the behaviour that you are seeing;
  • Try to explain how the behaviour currently impacts you/the organisation/other people/etc, and how the preferred behaviour would improve this. Provide examples of what you would like to see.
  • Ask the person for their thoughts on the issue, and what they need from you in order to achieve the change.
  • Always be respectful. Providing negative feedback is not about accusing, berating or belittling the individual; it is about working with the individual with a view of getting the best outcome for the individual and the organisation.
  • Give the individual the right of reply, and address any of their concerns or questions.

It is important when providing negative feedback that the individual is given something to work with – the aim of providing them with feedback is to set them up for a win. As an example, a colleague once told me that I was “too gentle” with my staff. But what does this mean? What was the impact of me being “too gentle”? Why was it an issue for this colleague? Was it just that he generally had a tougher approach than I did and wanted me to be tough too (in which case, I would probably choose the approach that got the best results for me), or was it that deliverables weren’t being met because of my approach (in which case changing it in some way was probably best)? Without understanding the impact, I didn’t know what to change; I didn’t know what success would be. When given without additional information and examples, the feedback was really nothing more than a throwaway statement. Whilst I may have sought to understand what my colleague was saying so that I could use his feedback constructively, it is fair to assume that most people would just ignore the attempt at feedback and move on if the issue and requirements were not clear. Although this is understandable, it isn’t really what we are aiming for. We want the person to take the feedback on board, and we want them to use that feedback to deliver the best outcome.

I mentioned that respect is important. In my opinion, it is essential. The objective is to achieve the best outcome for the individual and the organisation. Creating an environment where the individual feels disrespected or belittled, is not conducive to that (in my opinion).

How do you provide feedback to others? Is there something that you would like to change about this? Do you have a tried and true method that works for you?