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Great feedback is “EARNed”

The goal of coaching is to help people bring out their own abilities and find solutions that already lie within them. Here's advice on how to do that through feedback.

5 min read




“Make feedback normal. Not a performance review.” ~ Ed Batista

During leadership trainings I will often ask participants to describe what good (and poor) feedback looks and feels like. At one recent talk to midlevel managers, I received the following descriptors about strong feedback:

  • Honest
  • Transparent
  • Predictable
  • Prepared
  • Comfortable
  • Not offensive
  • Constructive
  • Action- and outcome-focused

Added together, these people were saying that feedback is most helpful and motivating when it is provided in a manner that respects the recipient and is intended to guide and correct, rather than put down or label.

But how often do we see and experience the opposite? I know that I have, and it’s not fun. Not fun at all.

Feedback has been famously called “the breakfast of champions.” We all need feedback to optimize performance and make sure that we are doing our jobs correctly. Yet, ask most professionals to play the game of word association with the word “feedback” and you will often hear such negative words as dishonest, fear and anxiety inducing, and evaluative.

For this to change, we need to better appreciate the benefits of feedback. For one, feedback, whether positive or constructive, is motivating. When feedback is regular and well-structured, it has been shown to improve job performance while contributing to increases in worker engagement and decreases in employee turnover.

In order for feedback to be effective, it needs to be conducted as an organic component in how the company operates. The goal of feedback should not be, as Ken Blanchard calls it, “leave alone, zap!” (The leader remains quiet for an extensive period before “zapping” a report with “constructive” comments.) Rather, it should be something that happens regularly and as a natural outgrowth of worker efforts and attitudes. Remind your team that accountability is a vital part of effective management and that feedback of any kind is an opportunity for growth and improvement.

Moreover, the primary goal of feedback should not be assessment (though that is a necessary element in determining whether or not to retain, promote or dismiss personnel). Rather, the focus should be on coaching employees to grow and set new goals. (In fact, the very definition of feedback, a term borrowed from testing of machinery, is: “The furnishing of data… so that subsequent or ongoing operations… can be altered or corrected.”)

When this becomes the focus, all parties become more relaxed and can get into the work of celebrating successes and brainstorming on how to make necessary improvements. Moreover, the value of feedback sharing increases in the boss’ eyes and tends to happen more regularly, not just at scheduled quarterly (or less frequent) intervals.

The goal of coaching is to help people bring out their own abilities and find solutions that already lie within them. The coach achieves this through a series of questions that help the coachee to get beyond their mental blocks and limiting beliefs to achieve things that they may not otherwise have seen as possible.

Let’s say that an employee is doing something that you find troublesome. Instead of leading with an evaluative statement about their behavior, consider stating what you’re observing and then use open-ended questions to foster constructive conversation. Here are some questions that can work well, depending on the situation.

  1. What were you thinking when …?
  2. What caused you to …?
  3. What is running well? Not so well?
  4. What can you improve for next time?

Perhaps the hardest form of feedback to deliver well is situational negative feedback. By that I mean responses to specific instances and actions demand attention and possible correction moving forward. In these cases, we often operate in the moment and fail to carefully consider both the purpose of the feedback as well as how it will be received. In our quest to correct, we often make matters worse.

The following is a feedback method that helps us focus on the action and how best to correct it while reserving personal judgement. It’s called “EARN”, which stands for event, action, result and next steps.

  • Event: What was the situation?
  • Action: What was the observed behavior?
  • Result: What was the impact or consequence?
  • Next Steps: What behaviors need to be continued/changed?

Here is an example of EARN applied.

  • Event (when and where the behavior occurred) – “During yesterday’s weekly team meeting …”
  • Action (on which you’re providing feedback) – “You answered your phone and stepped away …”
  • Result (the behavior created) – “When we have time set aside for meetings, it’s important that you’re present and focused, and by stepping away to take a call you are neither …” 
  • Next Steps (suggestion for the future) – “How would you feel about leaving your phone at your desk during meetings or only answering it in an emergency?”

What’s great about this method is that it keeps the focus squarely on the behavior and moves us away from judging the person. We start to think in terms of how to solve a problem rather than the person being the problem. This allows us to be more thoughtful and creative in finding a solution.

And besides, no one likes to be judged. As soon as we feel personally challenged, we shift from acceptance mode to a defensive one. So, when the right approach to feedback is taken, both parties can better collaborate towards a more harmonious solution.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.” Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new e-book, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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