After becoming a new manager, I will never forget the first time I had to give constructive feedback to a member of my team.
I began with, “I wonder if you would be open to some feedback,” to which this person said defensively, “I definitely would not!” Somewhat taken aback by that response, I paused. As I was deciding what to do next, I noticed that the other person seemed nervous and apprehensive. Not knowing what to say, I didn’t say anything and quickly walked off.
After reflecting on this experience, I decided that sometimes simply the word “feedback” strikes fear into the heart of the receiver, or elicits another negative emotional response.
When giving feedback, either positive or constructively critical, there are only two reasons for doing so: to change or reinforce behavior in order to achieve a desired result. With those purposes in mind, here are 15 tips for providing feedback.
1. Assess the context. In assessing the context, you want to ask and answer three questions before moving forward:
- “Does this issue need to be discussed?” This question forces you to think about the impact of a person’s behavior on the results that are being achieved and to determine if the issue is critical to success.
- “Should I be the one to provide the feedback?” This question will help you focus on your responsibility for the outcome of the task at hand or whether someone else would best address the issue.
- “Is now the time to talk about this?” Timing is important when considering the timeline and goals you are trying to meet.
2. Prepare the conversation. Once you have determined that the issue is critical, that you are responsible, and that the timing is urgent, you need to take a moment to think about what and how you will frame the conversation that you need to have.
3. Identify your intent. Your intent is your purpose or what you want to achieve in holding the conversation. For example, during the past three weeks, you have noticed that one team member has been late in submitting financial reports. This has caused teammates to be late with their analysis and presentation of the team’s weekly financial report. Therefore, your intent for holding this conversation is for your team member to meet the agreed-upon deadline for submitting financials. Identifying your intent will help you to stay focused on the topic of the conversation and not be distracted.
4. Craft an "Attention Check." An "Attention Check" is a respectful way to garner the attention of your listener while engaging them in the conversation. For example, considering the example above, you might say, “I’d like to talk about how you could really have a positive impact on our team. Can we talk about that?”
The "Attention Check" is general enough to gain the curiosity of your listener while also inviting their permission to continue. In all my years of using these checks, I have never had someone say, “No, I don’t want to talk about that.”
5. Identify and gather the data. The data or facts in this conversation should be composed of verifiable evidence you have observed or heard and forms the basis of your thinking. For example, if your team member has been one to two days late with reports for the last three weeks in a row, then those are the facts that you would want to share.
6. Craft a respectful interpretation. Your interpretation should logically arise from the facts that you have identified and is your opinion or judgment of the situation. Wherever possible, give the person the benefit of the doubt so as not to create defensiveness from the recipient.
For example, it would be much better to say, “I’ve noticed that your financial reports have been one to two days late during the last three weeks [data]. I’m wondering if you’re having some kind of a challenge of which I am not aware [interpretation].” Notice that this interpretation expresses concern and a desire to understand the person’s behavior rather that assuming they are lazy or not committed to doing their job.
7. Ask questions. We do far too much telling and not enough asking. Because your interpretation is the meaning that you assign your observations, it is natural to ask questions to try to confirm or disconfirm your thinking. In the example above, it would logically follow that you would want to ask, “What has been happening the last few weeks?” Once that question is answered, you are free to ask other questions that will enhance your understanding of the situation.
8. Agree upon a mutual plan. The whole reason for holding this type of conversation is to achieve the desired results. Taking the time to formulate and agree upon a plan, as well as determining who will do what -- and by when -- is the key to achieving success.
9. Allow time to process. Once you have given feedback to a person, you might ask them if they would like time to process what you have shared. In many instances, it takes time for folks to assimilate information, especially if it may have come as a surprise. Circling back to answer questions or to address other concerns communicates that you are interested in them and their success.
10. Keep it simple. When giving feedback, limit the feedback to only one issue if at all possible, and certainly no more than two. You don’t want to overload the person. They may ask you to provide them with multiple examples of the issue you are discussing. Keeping the feedback limited to one or two specific concerns will allow you to gather needed data before the conversation occurs. You may not be asked for other examples, but if you are, then you will be prepared with supporting specifics.
11. Allow sufficient time. Make sure that you schedule enough time to provide feedback and then to respond to their questions and concerns. Providing critical feedback should not be forced or rushed. The process of engaging in an effective dialogue should run its course without time constraints. Think through how the conversation might go and allow sufficient time for it to go there.
12. Consider proximity. Feedback should be given as close to the time frame in which a situation has occurred as possible. No one likes to receive feedback in a performance review about a concern six months after it has occurred. Remember, until you provide feedback about something that has happened, nothing will change. The sooner you provide feedback, the sooner the person will make appropriate adjustments.
13. Control yourself. If a person has done something that has caused you to react emotionally, you must wait until your emotions subside. If you try to address an issue with someone while emotionally charged, you run the risk of becoming more emotional and possibly irrational. In the process, you may escalate the emotional reaction of the other party. If this happens, the opportunity for an effective interaction is likely lost.
14. Acknowledge great performance. Too often, the only time that managers speak with their people is when they have done something wrong. People are much more willing to accept correction if you are providing positive feedback on a regular basis. Try to catch people doing something right, and then express your appreciation and gratitude for the work they do and how they contribute.
15. One on one. Perhaps this should be common sense, but it is surprising how often managers will provide critically constructive feedback to a person in front of their team. Take the time to meet with the individual alone and make the feedback conversation an event that is respectfully personal.
Feedback is essential to individual growth and development. And yet, sometimes we let our fears or reservations of how best to proceed get the best of us, limiting us in holding effective conversations, or we avoid them all together. Taking a few moments to consider the preceding tips will help you deliver feedback more effectively and successfully.
John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.