Feedback: A Recipe for Improvement

I doubt most leaders fully understand the incredible power of giving feedback, or the suffering that can result from withholding it.  I’m talking about situations where a manager has important concerns about a direct report’s performance and doesn’t share them–or doesn’t share them well.

Leaders worry that giving tough feedback will hurt motivation, damage relationships, or create flight-risks. But these fears are usually overblown, and avoiding feedback comes at a huge cost. It can lead to unwelcome “surprises” like bad reviews, missed promotions or unanticipated job transfers.  Other times it simply means ongoing, unresolved problems. Ultimately it slows growth and caps potential. Think about it: if the roles were reversed, what would you want your manager to share with you? For more motivation, see why feedback matters.

Importantly, feedback goes beyond performance concerns.  It includes positive feedback, a powerful force for change, and feedback among peers.  Giving and receiving feedback are essential for healthy, high-performing teams. Done well they build trust, deepen relationships and boost performance.

Here’s a simple model for giving feedback. Simple doesn’t mean easy, but it’s empowering to have a structured framework. I recommend preparing in advance for tough feedback conversations, even rehearsing aloud. This model works well both for critique, and for positive feedback:

Step one: Describe the behavior.  This means selecting specific, preferably recent examples of a behavior you want them to change (or continue). I emphasize behaviors because people can more easily understand and act on behavior-based feedback.  The focus on behavior also helps depersonalize things: it’s not about you, it’s about something you’re doing. Feedback that’s more nebulous or evaluative (eg., “We need you to be more committed…”) is not actionable and can feel more personal.

Suppose you have a team member 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.” Ideally, the behavior should be recent, specific, and clear. The key is breaking things down into the visible behaviors rather than making judgments.

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

Make sure that you think through what the real impact is in a concrete way so that you can share it clearly. This step is essential because it provides leverage–it shows why the behavior is important.

Step three: Share what you would like them to change (or keep doing) in the future.  Following our example, you might say “So my request is that you arrive on time to meetings going forward.”  If you had just given some positive feedback, you might say, “I 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 offer a roadmap to success.  This step is crucial, and is often left out. Also, you can ask for their ideas or offer support: “What are some ways you might work on this?” “How can I help?”

Frame tough feedback in terms of a strength. Sometimes it helps to frame critical feedback in light of someone’s strengths–a strength overused, or used in the wrong place, is often the cause of the problem. For example, “Jenny, you’re a very direct communicator, you say it like it is, and that’s a great help to the team on many occasions. It’s just that in some situations–like yesterday’s meeting with sales–a more diplomatic approach will work better. It’s not that you need to stop being you; you just need an additional tool in your toolbox.” This kind of approach can make your message more welcome, provided you genuinely believe it.

What if they get defensive?  A powerful place to begin is to look at your own motives as you give feedback. Are you angry and trying to show them how wrong they are? Or do you genuinely have their success and well-being in mind. There’s nothing as disarming as authentic caring and a high-trust relationship to help people be more open to feedback.

But even in strong relationships with the best motives, be prepared for some defensiveness or upset when you give difficult feedback. The other person may disagree with you. They may get angry. They may even disagree with you at every one of the three steps. A great way to work with this is to do some active listening all along the way.

For example, if they say, “No, I wasn’t late to any meetings.  I don’t know where you’re getting that idea…” rather than immediately pushing back, listen intently, and prove you’re listening by paraphrasing back. You might say: “So what you’re saying is, from your perspective, you weren’t late at all.”

This will help them relax because it signals that you’ve heard them, and generally people are much more willing to listen when they feel heard. Your listening does not, however, mean that you agree. So after listening, you might reiterate your point, or strengthen it: “Actually I looked at the clock when you joined us…and several people commented to me about this recently….”

That kind of reinforcement gets through better after some good listening. And sometimes they may actually change your mind 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 to help people grow, to reduce stress and optimize performance. I wish I could wave a magic wand and empower leaders everywhere to start giving more frequent and effective feedback. It would help us all reach our full potential.

See also our piece on the art of receiving feedback, and this great HBR post on the importance of psychological safety in feedback.