Feedback - The dreaded "F" word it doesn't have to be

One of the distinct memories I have of the early days of my career is how much I hated to get feedback. The mere mention of the word sent chills down my spine and made me tense up. I knew I had to brace myself for a message I probably didn’t want to hear, even though it was likely going to be sandwiched between two pieces of praise and worded with tact and all of those old tricks to make negative feedback more palatable for the poor soul that is about to get blindsided by it.   

I admit, my anxiety and my inability to take feedback well was primarily due to my defensiveness and my insecurities. There is no denying that, but I can think of a few things that, if done differently, would have made a huge difference in how I received and processed feedback. 

Understanding the value of feedback, and having the ability to give and receive it effectively is probably one of the most critical skills that a leader must possess. No process or strategy can ever succeed without a feedback loop to inform us of the course corrections we need to make to improve the outcome. Most people say they would prefer to receive straight and honest feedback, yet everyday in organizations everywhere, leaders hesitate to provide helpful feedback, or they deliver it in a way that is not productive. I believe this is partly due to lack of skill, but also because of the context we create for feedback.

 

Characteristics of Effective Feedback:

For feedback to be effective, it must be: Genuine, timely, relevant, specific, fact-based, detailed, accurate, goal-oriented, focused on the future, focused on behavior versus attitude, actionable, supportive, continual, and inquiring. We all have opportunities to improve the quality of the content and/or delivery of feedback in one or more of these areas. Considering that none of these characteristics are surprising or revolutionary, the question is, “Why don’t we put these into practice more often?” While it is important that we, as leaders, continue to develop our skills in this area, it is even more important to make sure that we examine and adjust our mindset about feedback.

 

The Value of Role-Modeling Feedback Exchanges:

Before we discuss how one could go about giving feedback effectively, I’d like to emphasize that no technique can be more impactful than you actively seeking feedback and demonstrating your willingness to seek, listen to, and act on feedback yourself. Role-modeling this behavior will cause others to do the same and give and receive informal feedback on a regular basis. I recently saw a quote from Andy Stanley, the Lead Pastor of Northpoint Church in Atlanta, GA that said “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”   This simple, yet profound point speaks to how leaders either cultivate a culture of open sharing of feedback or one of silence. Reflect on how intentional you are about asking for feedback. Do you stop at making general announcements about having an open door policy or do you actively ask specific questions like, “What do you think we could have done better?” or, “What would you do differently, going forward, if you were in my position?”  These types of questions, if asked with genuine intent, not only make a great deal of insight available to the leader, they also serve to create a safe space for others do the same.

 

10 Approaches to giving effective feedback

Now, I would like to share a few considerations that could make a difference in how effective you are at giving feedback. As I often mention in all of my writing, I don’t believe in one size fits all prescriptions, everything I’m about to tell you has been said thousands of times, the only way this post will provide any benefit to you at all is if you go over these points with a fresh perspective and look for what resonates with you at this particular point in your journey: 

1.    Giving timely and complete feedback is a matter of respect for the person who receives it. Withholding feedback indicates that you either doubt the person’s genuine desire to do well or you don’t think they can handle it.

2.    Giving someone constructive feedback serves the purpose of having them preserve their integrity. Withholding feedback robs the other person of the opportunity, which may be hidden from their view, to align their behavior up with their stated intentions.

3.    Provide an abundance of positive reinforcement. Be generous with on-going, genuine, positive feedback so you can be straight about constructive feedback and not have to resort to using “techniques” like sandwiching negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback.  

4.    The pre-requisite to providing constructive feedback is to stop making the other person wrong for their actions. No matter how great the infraction or the damage, no matter how passionate or stern you are about confronting the issue, you will always be more effective if you treat the person with dignity and without personal condemnation.  

5.    Always assume good intent. We tend to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior. Rather than assuming that someone’s behavior is indicative of their intent, focus the feedback on the behavior itself.  

6.    Keep a balance of courage and consideration. Have the courage to deliver the message the person needs to hear and do it in a way that reassures them of your positive intent to make a difference for them and the team.

7.    When sharing potential consequences of the behavior, always start with the consequences on the broader team. Most people respond to feedback when they recognize the negative impact of their behavior on the team. Only discuss individual consequences if the person has failed to respond to the broader need for change.

8.    Take the time to reflect on the receiver’s communication style preferences.  Communicate the message in the way the person prefers to receive it, rather than the way you’d prefer to give it.  

9.    Do your homework, but don’t talk from a script. Be present, listen, and be willing to adjust your approach to better meet your objective of delivering the message effectively.

10.    Treat every interface as an opportunity to build trust. This is especially important when things are not going well. Focus on effectiveness, not efficiency, in building and preserving relationships rather than the short term effect you are after. 

This week, be intentional about focusing on one or two of the points that are applicable to you and begin the process of shifting your mindset and behavior in the direction that makes a difference for you and your team.


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