Giving effective feedback, like all skills, needs learning, practice and patience. Feedback is praising good performance and offering corrective suggestions. Focus should be both on what the person did and how it was done. Feedback is for the recipient’s and not the observer’s benefit. In other words, it should be development and its purpose should be made clear and, where possible, the receiver’s consent obtained.
In reality, both the giver and receiver often dread the experience because the perception usually is one of criticism and judgement. The result is that the recipient becomes nervous, self-conscious or defensive and disengages from learning. Perhaps they perceive feedback as control and micromanagement or they engage in a spirit of unhealthy competition. This, however, is often a result of poor and unskilled feedback. The giver is equally on the defensive as they are not sure how the feedback is received. They may lack training in giving feedback or they copy how feedback was given to them, often badly; or they don’t care how it is received or perceived.
Feedback giver and observer
The starting point, then, for the feedback giver is to ask themselves three vital questions:
- Is my feedback true, sincere and fair
- Is it helpful
- Is it necessary?
Effective observers understand the objectives and truly care. They listen first and then evaluate the performance and not the person. They have objectivity and detachment. Through personalising the language and giving positive reinforcement, they instil both motivation and self-esteem.
- Start by asking the recipient to evaluate their own performance
- Be specific, clear and accurate; focus on specific behaviour; your feedback must be measurable and actionable
- Be balanced taking into consideration only observable behaviour and performance
- Consider the benefit of immediate feedback, although there may occasionally be reasons for waiting
- Be sincere, both in intention and manner of giving feedback. Mind the three Vs: verbal, visual and vocal. Very often it is not just what you say but how you say it. Keep your tone neutral
- Allow enough time for a response to your feedback
- Document your conversation and follow up
Things to watch out for:
- Avoid words like “but” or “however” as they negate all that came before. Instead, consider using “and”, “what if”, “how about”, “would you agree”, “don’t you think” as these invite agreement and give the receiver ownership of the agreed future action making them feel empowered and motivated
- Avoid relying too much on the “oreo cookie” feedback where the correctives are sandwiched between positive observations. The recipient may go away thinking they did brilliantly and overlook the areas to work on. Although starting and ending on a positive note is usually recommended, make sure the correctives are understood
- Don’t sound harsh or personal; equally, do not “whitewash” or “soft-pedal” however well-intentioned. It is all about balance
- Don’t give too much information which drowns the receiver and demotivates them. Prioritise and focus on just two or three actionable points with each feedback session
Tips for receiving feedback
Receiving feedback is of value to us all however experienced we may be and we all need to make sure we can accept and learn from constructive feedback.
- Understand the intention and purpose of feedback
- Try not to be defensive; concentrate on how feedback will enable you to perform better
- Learn to listen. You don’t have to accept all feedback but keep an open mind and focus on the future. Ask questions if you want clarity
- Verify accuracy by getting feedback from more than one source if possible. It could be your blind spot that prevents you from seeing accurately and fairly
- Ask for specific advice on how and what to do differently.
- Learn to respond and not react; don’t take feedback personally.
Feedback, when given and received well, is powerful in increasing skills and motivation, and is of immense value both for professional and personal development. It helps us to reflect on our own knowledge and skills and take ownership in improving both. Remember, feedback is about the performance and not the person. It is not about making someone feel better but making them do better.