Give the Gift of Useful Feedback

Last weekend I wrote a post about the importance of receiving feedback openly and without falling into defensiveness. A colleague kindly reminded me that receiving feedback is only half of the equation. As managers, leaders and human beings, we all have the ability to give feedback to help improve others. Honest, sometimes brutal, feedback is a gift – here’s why it’s important to give it, and some suggestions on how to give it well.

Before we even start a conversation where we may give feedback, we should understand our motivations and intent. Are we genuinely looking to help the other person improve at something, or are we just annoyed with them and looking to vent? The reason intent is important is that it shapes how we approach the conversation. If we are truly interested in what the other person needs, we are thinking about delivering feedback to have the best chance of being heard. This requires us to prepare for these conversations, whether they be as part of a performance cycle with a staff member or a discussion with a loved one.

We have to understand where the other person may become defensive, which could shut down the conversation. This can be difficult to avoid, but if there is a basis of trust and the other party understands our intent, we have a higher chance of a successful outcome. That said, honest, useful feedback can be painful, but being told we’re great all the time doesn’t help us improve. When we receive difficult feedback openly, it can cause us to re-examine our behaviours, approaches, and thought processes.

I have been through many performance reviews in my working life and have also received a lot of personal feedback. The best kind of feedback has been direct and not couched in “softening” words. The worst feedback has either been completely anodyne, wrapped in the “sh*t sandwich” format or obviously intended to hurt.

When we’re giving developmental feedback, it must address the issue that needs to be corrected. Being afraid to hurt someone’s feelings can often cause us to reduce the clarity of the message. For that reason, it is important to be able to separate the behaviour (temporary and changeable) from the person’s identity (less malleable and potentially emotionally reactive).

Depending on the seniority of the individual, and their relationship to us, it can also be helpful to use questions to help people arrive at a feedback point. I spoke recently with an experienced executive coach who likes to take a non-directive approach in her coaching practice. She uses questions to help her clients understand their own focus areas and help with decision-making.

In a work context with more junior staff, feedback may need to be much more directive. The person receiving feedback should be clear about what the issue is that is being addressed and how you would like to see them address it.

feedback - not platitudes

With all kinds of feedback, it is important to acknowledge when the revised behaviour or outcome has been observed, not just the first time it happens.

My preference for giving corrective feedback is to do it in a one-to-one setting. I subscribe to the “praise in public, correct in private” school of thinking, which not everyone agrees with. I have had colleagues who suggest that it is better to “execute one in public to discourage the others”. This may work for you in your organisational culture, but it doesn’t align with my leadership style. This may also be a function of where I sit on the agreeableness spectrum – which doesn’t stop me from delivering sometimes painful feedback in private.

Good feedback helps us rethink our positions, our capabilities and our blind spots. Giving useful, sometimes blunt suggestions for improvement is actually a kindness. Be kind – give the gift that helps people grow, even if it causes a temporary sting. The alternative can be stymied growth and underperformance. Oh, and when you find people who are willing to “cross the chasm of discomfort” and give you direct input on performance, treasure them. They are hard to find and worth their weight in gold.

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