Feedback: A Recipe for Improvement

feedbackI doubt that most leaders fully understand the incredible power of giving feedback, or the great deal of suffering they cause by not giving it.  I am talking about situations where a boss is thinking things about a direct report’s job performance, but doesn’t have the skill (or tools or courage) to give them the feedback in a helpful way. In some cases, this can lead to “surprises” like demotions, transfers or other job changes where the employee didn’t see it coming.  Other times it simply means ongoing, unresolved problems, anxiety and lost productivity.

But feedback also goes beyond that.  It includes giving positive feedback, and giving feedback to peers and others beyond your own direct reports.  I think of feedback as part of the life-blood of healthy organizations.

I want to share a simple three-step process for giving feedback. Simple doesn’t mean easy, and it takes practice. I recommend you prepare in advance, especially with difficult feedback, and if possible rehearse with someone so that you can hear what it sounds like and hone your approach.

Step one: Describe the behavior.  This means selecting specific, recent examples of a behavior you want them to change. I emphasize behaviors because people can more easily understand and act on your feedback if you are very clear about the behaviors involved.  Feedback about more nebulous issues (eg., “We need you to be more committed…”) is usually less helpful.

A simple example I give when I work with leaders on giving feedback is of an employee who is consistently late to meetings. Step one might sound like this:  “Bob, in the last three weeks you’ve been late to four meetings. You were late twice for the team meeting, you were late to our one-on-one by 10 minutes, and you were late for the meeting with HR by 15 minutes.” Ideally, the behavior should be recent, specific, and clear.

Step two: Describe the impact of the behavior.  There may be several different impacts as a result of the behavior, so select the ones that are most important. Continuing the above example, you might say, “There are several effects to your being late. One is that the team gets frustrated and loses productivity because they’re waiting for you to arrive. Another impact is that they see you as less engaged and less a part of the group.  It’s also impacting your reputation in the broader company–people think you are disorganized.”

Make sure that you think through what the real impact is in a concrete way so that you can share it.

Step three: Share what you would like them to change (or keep doing) in the future.  Following our example, you might say “So I would like to ask you in the future to arrive on time to meetings, to make sure that you’re in the room and ready to go when the meeting starts.”  If you just gave them positive feedback you might say, “I just really appreciate it and I hope you’ll continue doing it!”

By providing very specific guidance about what you would like to be different, or what you are happy about, you’re giving them a road map to success.  This step is crucial, and it is sometimes left out.

What if they get defensive?  Be prepared for some defensiveness on the part of the person to whom you’re giving feedback. They may disagree with you. They may disagree with you at every one of the three steps. They may even disagree with you about the facts about their behavior. The best way to deal with this is to be prepared to do some active listening after each step.

For example, when they say, “No, I wasn’t late to any meetings.  I don’t know where you are getting that idea…” rather than immediately disagreeing with them, listen to their point of view and prove that you’re listening by paraphrasing back. You might say: “So from your perspective, you don’t think that you were late at all. Is that right?”

When you do that, they will relax because they know that you’ve heard them. Just the mere act of paraphrasing back shows that you were listening. It does not, however, mean that you agree with them. So after you have listened, you can go back to your original point, or strengthen it: “Actually, I was present in all of those meetings, and I looked at the clock when you walked in. I also double-checked with several of your colleagues, and everyone noticed that you were late.”

That kind of reinforcement will get through much more successfully if you have first taken the time to actively listen to the objections that they raised. You need to be prepared to listen at every step of the process. And sometimes they may actually change your point of view by raising things you didn’t know.  “I’m always late because my job requires me to attend  back-to-back meetings across campus every day.”  Then you can partner with them to work towards solutions.

Giving feedback is an incredibly powerful tool in organizations to help people grow, to reduce stress and to optimize performance. I wish that I could wave a magic wand and empower leaders throughout organizations to start giving more frequent and more effective feedback. It would reduce the pain in our organizations and help them better achieve their goals.

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