Six Ways to Give Feedback Effectively

by Chuck Wachendorfer

Several decades ago, I eagerly awaited my first performance review with my boss.  As a newly minted mechanical engineer, I desperately wanted to make a positive impression and validate the company’s decision to hire me straight out of school.  In my supervisor’s office, I sat nervously awaiting his feedback.   My boss, David, had been with the firm for over a decade and had done performance reviews with his direct reports ad nauseam throughout the years.  To him, this was just another discussion he’d have with one of the many snot-nosed kids this top-secret defense program had hired right out of college.

Without much flourish, David jumps into his feedback about my performance over the last year.  Immediately, I can tell that while this was special for me, it was just another day at the office for him.  I listened intently and took notes furiously hoping to catch every nuance in his commentary.  He began, as you’d expect, with the things I’d done well.  Fairly specific, though presenting a few new observations, I had previously heard most of what he was covering during our weekly one on ones.   Not much new, but good “confirming stuff” none-the-less.

Now we move on to my areas of improvement.

I nervously took a quick breath and steeled myself for what I know will be hard for me to hear – where I fell short.  Intellectually, I know it’s a necessary part of the process; but, emotionally, it’s hard for me to hear.  As he shifts in his chair and fidgets with his paperwork, I notice David is also nervous.  Looking across the desk, I can see that he has a fairly long list of issues.  Now I’m really starting to worry.

After what seemed like an eternity, David finally finished reviewing his list of my improvement areas.  I was stunned.   Most of it I’d never heard before – never mentioned, never discussed, it hit me out of the blue.  Without hesitation or thought, I asked him how long he had observed these shortcomings in my performance.  He casually replied, “For about the last six months.”   Stunned by his answer and in a state of disbelief, I shot back, “Then why didn’t you tell me six months ago?”

Clearly, people don’t take a job to fail.  In fact, reality is most people want to succeed.  The problem is, none of us are perfect.  Part of being human is making mistakes, not meeting expectations and sometimes falling short.  It’s because of this human mistakes and shortcoming that the skill of giving feedback is so crucial to the role of a leader and in developing people.  Without feedback, we often repeat the same mistakes over-and-over.  Though we don’t consciously choose to fall short of expectations, sometimes, in a new role, we’re unconsciously incompetent and unknowingly make mistakes.

Giving feedback effectively includes following these 6 rules

  • Focus on the behavior, not the intention.  Never question someone’s intent – assume they wanted to do the job well despite the behavior that may have fallen short.  Usually, people can more objectively deal with changing their behavior.  Attacking someone’s intent to underperform tends to be more personal and difficult to accept.
  • Give feedback frequently.  If you want to help someone modify their behavior, giving them frequent and consistent feedback will help them change faster.  Waiting and allowing more time to pass simply allows bad habits time to solidify and makes the feedback more difficult to deliver without emotion.  Give feedback while the memory is fresh.  Catch it the first time – don’t wait until the fourth or fifth time you’ve observed the behavior.  Procrastination only makes the message that much tougher to deliver.
  • Be fact-based.  Stick with the facts or your personal observations.  Don’t rely on hearsay received secondhand or through other obscure means.
  • Catch people doing things right.  Giving feedback doesn’t have to be negative or merely pointing out where someone went wrong.  In fact, neuroscientists tell us that if we want to reinforce new habits, it’s important we catch people doing things right.  The focus or attention on those things that are done right actually reinforces new neural connections that help us establish new patterns of behavior.
  • Identify the specific task.   Often I observe leaders missing the mark in giving effective feedback because they’re not specific enough for the person to know what has to change.  Talking about the “job” or the “role” isn’t granular enough for people to modify their actions.  Instead, it’s the task details that provide clarity in the action plan for change.  For example, the “job” might be washing the car, but the task the follower needs to improve is cleaning the windows.
  • Clarify what doing it well looks like.  Remind the follower what the end game is.  Chances are they may have forgotten or remember only a part of the goal.  Describe in full detail what has to be accomplished and provide the context for “why” it’s important.
  • Be effective, not efficient.  In this world of email, text messages and Instagram, take the time to deliver the feedback in-person, if possible, by phone if it’s not, and avoid any electronic means of delivering the message.  I heard years ago, “Be efficient with things, be effective with people.”  Delivering the message face-to-face communicates your value in the relationship – it also gives you a chance to read the body language of the person to see how they’re receiving the feedback.

Being an effective leader can be challenging.  Leadership effectiveness is also what we observe in organizations as the biggest differentiator in the overall performance of the firm.  If you’re interested in becoming more effective, contact us at Think2Perform.  We helped thousands of leaders, executives, coaches and individuals tap into more of their leadership potential.

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