How to Give Feedback Effectively

How to Give FeedbackGiving feedback is rarely something that we look forward to, but rather something we often avoid or mildly dread. Unfortunately, the word itself has become loaded with baggage. When we hear the word feedback, most of us think of it as a lightly-veiled, corporate euphemism for criticism.

Despite the negative connotations, it’s undeniable that feedback is a valuable tool for improving employee and management team performance. And part of the reason that we dread it so much is that we’re doing it wrong. Here are some helpful tips that will assure that you provide feedback effectively.

Create a Safe Environment

Unless you’re close friends with the person you’re giving feedback to, then it’s best to ease into your session. Realize that receiving feedback can be nerve-wracking for the recipient and act accordingly. Don’t be harsh with your words just for the sake of punishment, this can make someone feel cornered, embarrassed, and defensive. We are much more receptive to feedback when we feel comfortable and safe. It’s also better to foster an environment where feedback isn’t associated with punishment, but rather as a corrective tool that leads to the best outcome for the company and it’s employees.

Timely, On-the-fly Feedback is Best

Imagine coming home from work to find out your labrador-mix has raided your sock drawer and left you a giant mess to clean up. You thoroughly scold the dog for his actions only to come home to the same mess the next day. Why didn’t the dog learn? Because you weren’t able to give him feedback in the moment, so your behavioral critiques were lost on him. He had no context.

The same is true for your employees. Don’t wait until someone’s quarterly review to give feedback and constructive criticism, months after an event has taken place. Instead, do it in the moment, or shortly thereafter if it’s more appropriate. That way the feedback has context and your suggested fixes will have more impact.

Ask for the Recipient’s Perspective

Instead of launching into a diatribe about someone’s poor performance, try asking the person’s perspective first. If someone has made an obvious gaff, they likely realize it. Allow the person to explain what happened and talk through ways to prevent future errors. This approach is less abrasive and when the critique and solution come from the employee herself, she’s more likely to take the feedback to heart.

Offer Feedback that is Forward Thinking

Pointing out and focusing on errors should not be the agenda for a feedback session. Instead, you should think of it as an opportunity to concentrate on the future and create strategies to improve upon an employee’s performance. Offer advice and guidance for growth, don’t just dwell on the negative, otherwise you could seriously undermine your employee’s confidence which is counterproductive.

Be Specific, Don’t Talk in Generalities

Being vague with your feedback may feel like it is less abrasive or harsh, but it actually has two negative consequences. Firstly, vague feedback can feel like a blanket critique of someone’s work or behavior. Imagine someone on your support team wrote an overly flippant response to a customer and you pull him aside to say, “You know, it’s important to watch our tone when we write our emails. Someone might be offended at what you’ve written.” This support person might normally do great work, but now they’re thinking you have an issue with how they’re composing their customer emails in general. What would have been more effective is something like, “In that email you wrote to John Smith, the last paragraph had some sarcastic language that might be a bit off-putting. Let’s try to keep our customer correspondence more positive.”

The second downside of vague feedback is that you may not get the corrective action you wanted. If you have a sales team member who isn’t following up with new leads within an agreed-upon time period, tell them that it’s company policy is to follow up with leads within two hours — not something unspecific like, it’s best to follow up with leads quickly. That way your employee isn’t guessing at your meaning and you get the desired outcome.

Don’t Make It Personal, Make It About The Action

Give feedback on the the action taken, not the person. If you had an employee make an off-color remark, don’t criticize the employee’s sense of humor, address the remark itself. This is much less personal and more concrete. Moreover, watch your use of language. It’s best to use “I” statements, instead of “you”. For instance, if you have an employee who is not paying attention in meetings, it’s best to say, “I don’t feel like I’m being heard when we’re in meetings and you’re looking at your iPhone.” Versus, “You’re not listening to me in our meetings. Stop looking at your phone.”

Avoid the Feedback Sandwich

Praise, criticism, praise is the feedback “sandwich” that has been espoused for years as a way to soften the blow of negative feedback. Unfortunately, it’s not as effective of a technique as you might have thought. On the one hand, some employees will see right through your attempt to cloak negative feedback and be frustrated with your lack of directness. On the other hand, when you use this feedback template employees will sometimes walk away only hearing the good things. This fact could be explained by the serial position effect, which is the phenomenon wherein we have a tendency to remember the first and last things best. Don’t undermine your feedback efforts by using this outmoded and indirect technique.

Don’t Overwhelm

Try to keep your feedback sessions to one or two points. Any more than this and the recipient might feel like you’re mounting an attack. If you’re following the rule of providing feedback quickly, then this shouldn’t be an issue.

Give Feedback in Private

Feedback produces enough anxiety on it’s own, so it’s best done without an audience. It should go without saying, but do your best to provide feedback in a private setting so you don’t embarass your employees — they will appreciate your discretion.

People Can Grow to Appreciate Feedback

Giving feedback is incredibly helpful and effective when done correctly. If you follow the tips above, you can create a helpful and nurturing environment where employees learn from their mistakes and absorb the wisdom of their peers and managers. Once you learn to properly give feedback, you’ll also grow to appreciate it more as a mechanism for personal and professional growth — not something to fear. Additionally, feedback is a great way to emphasize someone’s impact on the organization as a whole. Feeling important and valuable is a great motivator for change.

Doug Ramsay

Doug Ramsay

Doug handles the marketing and web presence for Adventure Associates. If he's not geeking-out with the latest, greatest web marketing tools, then you'll find him swirling and sipping his way through wine country.
Doug Ramsay

Doug handles the marketing and web presence for Adventure Associates. If he's not geeking-out with the latest, greatest web marketing tools, then you'll find him swirling and sipping his way through wine country.

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