For many of us, giving feedback is a normal part of our personal lives - we're happy to let our family members know what we think of their behavior, or submit online reviews for products and restaurants. At work, however, giving feedback might not come as naturally to everyone. We want to ensure the feedback we provide to coworkers is useful, and we don’t cause anyone to feel upset in the long term.
Some people are more comfortable giving feedback about the things they want people to continue and do more of (reinforcing feedback) than they are about suggesting things they think someone should do less, or stop (corrective feedback), but everyone can get better with practice.
Here are five tips for giving great feedback - both reinforcing and corrective - that can be used whether you're providing feedback in person, or in writing. The more you practice, the better you'll become at giving effective feedback.
5 tips for giving effective feedback
1. Be conscious of timing
Put yourself in the shoes of the person about to be given feedback. Consider whether they are in the best mindset to receive your feedback. Also, consider if you are in an open mindset to give feedback. Giving feedback directly after a heated meeting or disagreement, or when emotions are running high may not be the best time. Strong emotions can cloud a person’s ability to accept feedback, whether it's reinforcing or corrective. Wait for a more neutral time to provide feedback.
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Think about the person you're about to speak with before giving feedback. What is the purpose of your feedback and what do you want the outcome to be - do you see value in the person changing or repeating their behavior? And how do you think they could do so to achieve this outcome? Your feedback needs to give enough information for someone to either continue what they've been doing or change.
For example, telling someone that they need to "be more assertive" is not very specific or actionable. Therefore, it may not be that helpful. Thinking more deeply, what you want might just be for the person to speak up during meetings. You can express that you want their ideas to be heard so that no valuable opportunities are missed.
Consider the desired outcome and impact of your feedback first to make it more effective. You may also want to write down the words you'll use and assess whether they will help the person move forward. Chloe Hamman, an Insights Strategist at Culture Amp, says, “A quick mini-rehearsal in your head about the conversation can be beneficial.”
3. Provide specific examples
Whether providing positive or critical feedback, it's important to be specific. Specific feedback ensures that someone can learn from it. It also serves as a basis for comparison and guides future behavior. If you tell someone they did a good job, it's a nice compliment but they don't have a specific behavior to repeat in the future. Feedback that covers specifics would be, “It's great how you shared your idea around market segments in that meeting, it was something we hadn't considered and has made me realize I need to do more research.”
Also use examples of what you have experienced, not hearsay. Saying something like, “I've heard that you are always late” can put someone on the defensive. They might instinctually ask, “Who said that?” They'll try to reconcile the image they now have of the person who made the comment with the fact that that person talked about them behind their back - which isn't helpful.
4. Make it actionable (and future-focused when possible)
Give feedback on behaviors that the person can actually do something about. Avoiding personal feedback such as “You are X”, is crucial to providing effective feedback. Similarly, shift away from simply reviewing past behavior and instead move towards answering the question “what can they do differently (or keep doing) in the future?”
Brain scan research referenced by Daniel Goleman shows that when we receive criticism for past behavior it does not motivate us to change. Instead, we shut down and become defensive. In contrast, feedback that taps into what we can do to reach our goals leads the brain to respond with a rush of positive mood-enhancing dopamine.
5. Make feedback a regular process
Not every action or scenario requires feedback, but it is important to make feedback a regular process. When positive feedback is given often, it prevents occasional critical or corrective feedback from becoming an ordeal. Jennifer Cullen, another Insights Strategist at Culture Amp, adds that giving feedback regularly and explaining why you are doing so shows people that you care about them personally. She says, “When you offer up constructive feedback then those people are more receptive to hearing you because they are more inclined to feel that you are genuinely trying to help them.”
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