Effective leaders and managers are not afraid to provide feedback – whether positive or negative – because they know it’s essential for team engagement and productivity.  As a career coach, I give feedback to my clients all the time.  While positive feedback is a pleasure to dispense because the recipient is always happy to hear good things about themselves, negative ones can be a challenge to deliver.  Most people do not like to be criticised no matter how constructive the criticism may be.  The best way to approach it is to deliver it in a way that minimises fight-and-defend reactions.  More on that later. 

Today’s blog is about feedback.  I would like to start by discussing why feedback is important.  To be able to deliver feedback effectively, a person needs some conversational agility. A healthy conversation is a two-way dialogue between the speaker and the listener.  The conversation is based on trust, mutual respect and understanding.  An unhealthy conversation, on the other hand, is based on distrust, accusations, and anger.  It can quickly alienate and cause friction between both parties.  To hire and retain the best talent, leaders need the ability to communicate and feedback effectively.

The importance of feedback

1. Feedback is improvement

Even if you are at the pinnacle of your career, you can still appreciate honest feedback from time to time. Feedback tells you if you are doing things right or if you need to improve.  One of the key responsibilities of a leader is to build and sustain high-performing teams that deliver results.  The leader’s guidance and feedback are critical to ensuring every member of the team are aligned on a common organisational goal.  Feedback keeps the team on track and assures them they are doing things right. 

When giving feedback consider the following:

  • Positive feedback is critical for learning. People are quick to point out the faults of others but less quick to give praise where praise is due.  It is equally important to point out what someone is doing right as a pathway to continuous improvement.
  • Telling someone how to fix something seldom works.  No one likes to be told.  You will get better results if you ask questions that stimulate self-reflection and coach your team into experimentation and learning.
  • Harsh feedback alienates people.  Criticisms are more effective if they are delivered with respect and care.  Frequent or exclusive negative comments targeted at a specific individual will only spark defensive reactions, cloud perceptions, and kill motivation.

2. Feedback avoids mistake

If the team knows they are on the right track, they are less likely to make mistakes as an individual or a collective whole.  Organisational mistakes are expensive both in terms of time and money.  Clear and honest communication saves you time having to correct someone’s work and reduces the errors caused by miscommunication. 

3. Feedback strengthens relationships

How many of us have heard our parents say: ‘I am only telling you this because I care about you…’? Growing up, I used to get annoyed with my father repeating this phrase again and again.  As an adult, I can appreciate that he was really concerned about me and genuinely wanted me to be better.  

Feedback done constructively demonstrates that the leader cares about the individual’s wellbeing.  If you genuinely want a person to improve, you find a way to tell them without hurting their feelings or alienating them.  If they understand the motivations behind your feedback, they are less likely to feel upset or defensive.

4. Feedback is a great motivator

When people feel valued and appreciated, they work harder and faster.  Positive feedback is a wonderful reinforcement of a manager’s appreciation of their staff.  Negative feedback delivered well is a great inducement to staff to strife harder. 

5. Feedback promotes personal and professional growth

Feedback is about listening actively, asking questions, self-reflection, and analysis and problem-solving.  The more you practise giving constructive feedback the more you and your staff will improve in these areas. 

6. Feedback creates a conducive team environment

A work environment that promotes open communication promotes trust and mutual respect. Leaders who give feedback must be open to receiving feedback themselves.  If your team knows that they can trust you to consider their feedback objectively and without bias, they will be more willing to share information and ideas with you. 

Important questions to ask yourself about feedback

When giving feedback, try reflecting on what you – the leader – can do to help your teams do their jobs better.  Here are some questions to reflect:

  1. Do you receive feedback from others? How often do you do that?
  2. Can you listen to feedback without being defensive or retaliatory?
  3. Are you giving the feedback to help the individual improve? Or are you venting?
  4. Have you been avoiding giving negative feedback to a staff or a colleague?
  5. Have you been insincere about your intentions? Is the feedback designed to manipulate a situation or change a perception?
  6. Do you listen to the recipient?  Do you allow them a chance to say what they are thinking or feeling?
  7. Have you taken into consideration how a staff member may react?
  8. Are you bias?

How to give negative feedback

Do you struggle with giving negative feedback? Here are some tips that can help:

1. Throw out the feedback sandwich

A feedback sandwich is the type of feedback that relies on compliment/critique/compliment.  The problem with this style of feedback is that it can easily confuse an employee.  If you disguise the problem between two compliments, it is hard for the employee to see where they have gone wrong.  Typically, people focus on the last thing they hear so if the last thing they hear from you is a compliment, they are going to think everything is gold.

2. Be constructive, not critical

Constructive criticism helps employees understand and see where they need to improve and why these improvements are crucial for the team or department’s success.  Explain clearly what the problem is and the implications that result from these then work together on a plan of action to help the employee.

3. Be honest

Be honest.   If you approach it from the frame of mind of wanting to help them, you are more likely to get their cooperation and buy-in. Frame the discussion as if you want to help them not chastise them. Show them the value of the improvement.

4. Listen

Have time to listen to what they have to say.  Don’t get into an argument with the employee.  If they feel strongly about wanting to argue their case, give them some time to do so before continuing calmly and rationally.

5. Follow up

Once you have delivered the feedback, you have to follow up.  Just telling someone to improve and not helping them with a plan will not work.  If you want the employee to be better, guide and support them through the process.

My four-step approach to giving negative feedback

Here’s a simple four-step approach that can make dispensing negative feedback easier:

Step One: Provide critique.  Critique is not criticism. Be honest, objective, and unbiased.

Step Two: Explain the implications. Show them the implications of not improving or complying.  People are more cooperative if they buy in.

Step Three: Explain how to improve. Help them with an improvement plan.  Don’t just say they need to improve and throw them to the wolves. 

Step Four: Check for understanding and solicit an answer. Make sure the employee understands the feedback and give them the opportunity to ask questions if they have any.  

The ability to give feedback is an integral part of successful leadership.  The next time you have to give feedback consider the following: Telling is transactional. Asking is inquiry. Listening is discovery.  

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