By: Catherine Saar 

When we give feedback, we generally want something or someone to change. Giving good feedback can be tricky business. If it is delivered in a critical or an unclear way, it can be demotivating and downright confusing. In my former life as a marketing executive, it seemed everyone had an opinion about advertising, and the feedback I got was not always helpful or productive. An example that is hard to forget is the day one of my previous supervisors was reviewing an upcoming ad layout, looked me in the eyes, and spat out, “I hate it.”

This feedback was not helpful in determining next steps. Clearly, he wanted something different in that layout, but what? To get more information, I first acknowledged his perspective, so he felt heard, and then began a line of inquiry. The conversation went like this:

“It’s clear that you would like to see something different for this ad before it goes to press, so I’d like to check if you are okay with the message and the copy?”

“Yes.”

“How do you like the photography?”

“The food looks good.”

“How do you like the color?”

“I don’t, it’s not a food color to me.”

“Ah, would green be better?”

“Yup, that would be better.”

“If we change the color to green, would that solve the issue for you?”

“That would be much better, yes.”

Now I had something to work with. Had I not probed for specificity, I might have gone back to the creative team and asked them to start all over again from scratch! What a waste of time and resources that would have been!

Luckily, I was experienced enough at the time to be able to keep my composure. Had that not been the case, I might have been triggered by my supervisor’s strong reaction and could have been stopped dead in my tracks with a fight, flight or freeze response.

This experience, and many others illustrated for me the importance of giving productive feedback that actually helps move things forward. This is especially important when doing performance reviews and/or coaching team members. Having spent time studying what the elements of good feedback are to me, I’ve compiled my top ten list:

1)    Lead with kindness. As much as possible, be compassionate with your feedback. Realize that you are about to ask someone to do something differently, and that can be hard to hear. Making a connection and giving a reason for your request can be helpful: “I’d like to talk with you about your last five late arrivals to the staff meeting because it is causing challenges with the rest of the team and the meetings are starting to run over,” is an example. Consider that when done with care, feedback can be a gift.

2)    Do it now. Give feedback as soon as there is a need to do so: share both praise and observables that are present in the moment. If you wait six months to share, both of you may forget the context of the situation. A cardinal rule to remember regarding annual reviews: no surprises!

3)    Be specific. Share OBSERVABLES with your feedback. Saying to someone, I want you to be more professional is not that helpful. For different people, “more professional” can mean many different things. When I’m asked to make a change, I want to know what specific action I am being asked to undertake and what I need to do differently. To that end, as a coach, focusing on BEHAVIORS or ACTIONS that you would like to see changed is way more instructive and doable. So perhaps,” I would like to request that you don’t shout when you disagree with others in the meeting,” gives more actionable information.

4)    Words matter. Framing opportunities for improvement and choosing your words wisely is key. Three key tips regarding this notion:

  1. Avoid using superlatives like “always” and “never” as they are rarely accurate and frequently provoke defensiveness. As mentioned above, “be specific.”
  2. Reframe “negatives” into opportunities, and
  3. Replace “but” with “and.” Whenever you use the word “but,” it often negates the first part of your comment to the listener, such that the person only hears what comes after “but” …

An example of reframing that uses all three of these tips; instead of:

“You are doing good work, but you are always late to the meetings.”

Try:

“You are doing good work on the implementation team, and it would be even better if you could get to the meetings on time.”

5)    Listen. Feedback is most effective when it is part of a dialogue. Leave your assumptions at the door and replace them with curiosity! Be open to hearing what the other person has to say. There is often a good reason that a person is behaving in a certain way. If you can understand their perspective, it can open the opportunity for you to co-create a solution, or to lend support that may be needed.

6)    Make it useful. “Nice job” is sweet to hear, but how does it help the person’s performance?  What about, “When you used specific examples in your presentation, I really understood what you were getting at.” Compared to “Nice job,” the second approach gives the team member way more information that is usable in the future.

7)    Check in. Feedback can be hard to hear. When you are asking someone to make a change, it is helpful to check in with them to hear how they are taking it and how well they understand what is being said. Open ended questions like, “How is that for you to hear?” or “What questions do you have?” can give the team member an opening to clarify their understanding.

8)    Offer support. As a supervisor, the best question you can ask a team member is: “What support do you need?”

9)    Foster ownership. Invite the team member to be part of the solution. Simply being directive does not engender ownership or allow for the most creative solutions. Participating in the solution to an issue offers the opportunity for ownership and accountability.

10) Make agreements. Don’t give feedback and let it hang there. What is the follow-up to your discussion? What would you like to see as a next step and when? Making agreements results in more clarity for everyone about what will get done and how.

How does this land for you? What are your favorite tips or horror stories about feedback? Although giving valuable feedback may seem like a lot of work, I’ve found that you get out what you put in. Afterall, what greater investment can you make than growing the people on your team?