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Providing valuable feedback

As a leader, giving feedback is part of your job and doing it well is a skill you need to develop and exercise regularly. There are many benefits to frequent considerate feedback, whether positive or constructive, that is delivered effectively and with consideration of unconscious biases. These benefits include a boost in team engagement and morale, reinforcement of individual accountability, and improved performance. Furthermore, frequent feedback builds trust and nurtures relationships, improves communication lines, retains top talent, helps leaders lead better, and helps organisations achieve their goals.

Unconscious biases at work

Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, are the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously attribute to another person or group of people. As a result, this can affect how they understand and engage others. Common unconscious biases that are prevalent at work and might affect our feedback to others include:

  • Affinity bias: the tendency to like people who are similar to us, which leads to a monoculture
  • Confirmation bias: when we focus on the details that confirm our own beliefs rather than unbiased merit
  • Recency bias: when we only remember things that happened recently, which can affect the results of an infrequent performance reviews
  • Stereotype threat: being at risk of living up to a negative stereotype of a social group
  • Prescriptive gender norms: for example the preconception that women are not good at math
  • Incongruity of roles: when women and members of under-represented racial and/or ethnic backgrounds are often deemed less suitable for leadership roles

Use the right criteria

To avoid providing subjective (and often biased) critiques, we must understand the most important skills required for the role before delivering feedback. These skills can be defined in a skills matrix or career progression rubric. Standardised criteria helps us avoid personality judgements, which reflect our personal preferences rather than the role’s requirements. In one study across 28 companies, 76% of critical feedback given to women included comments on their personality, eg. a woman was “abrasive”, while only 2% of critical reviews for men included such comments. Women are 20% less likely to receive feedback due to the fear of human emotions. These experiences don't just frustrate women, they keep them from reaching their full potential. When we give women advice for dealing with this problem, it burdens them to fix something that is not their fault, and diverts time and energy from their actual work. We naturally gravitate toward certain personalities at work, but we cannot tie subjective traits like “approachability” or “humour” to job performance. Feedback on personal attributes or style that is not directly linked to performance using specific examples, allows bias to seep in.

Before delivering the feedback, check for biases and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What are the key competencies for this role?
  2. Am I making a statement about who they are or tend to be?
  3. Would I give the same feedback to someone of a different race or gender?

Deliver constructive feedback

Delivering constructive feedback should be specific, clear, descriptive and factual rather than general. It should closely describe a particular behaviour or performance. We use the ASK acronym, which stands for Actionable, Specific and Kind and helps the other person to understand and accept the information communicated. It is also important to make sure that the outcome we want to achieve involves actions and behaviours that the individual has personal control over. There is no point giving someone feedback on something they cannot control or change, as this will only add frustration and distrust. It is more useful to provide feedback that empowers the individual to do something constructive with.

When giving feedback, we follow the following steps:

  1. Observation — sharing observable and indisputable facts about a specific behaviour. This is the who/what/when/where. For example, “in the meeting today, you interrupted Judy three times”.
  2. Impact — describe the impact of this behaviour and in context of the situation. For example, “when you do that, it excludes Judy from the conversation, and makes people feel you do not value their contributions”.
  3. Question or request — finish your feedback by either asking them a question or making a request. For example, “can you please help me understand why?” or “how can I help?” or “could you please be more aware in future meetings to let everyone speak up?”.

Timely and frequent

When managers and team members engage in frequent, honest communication and feedback, it fosters a better relationship between them over time. Frequent feedback helps direct individuals’ attention and energies, and avoid major errors and dead ends. Additional benefits include allowing people to be prepared and reduce emotional responses and defensiveness. Frequent feedback cuts out the guesswork because it provides individuals with consistent assessments, praise, and suggestions on how to improve their work and performance.

Both positive and constructive

We tend to associate ‘feedback’ with ‘negative feedback’. But feedback can be positive and constructive. It is important to practice positive feedback. It facilitates a healthier, more supportive, and cohesive team. It helps people feel confident, appreciated, motivated, and engaged, which in turn helps them to do a better job. Positive feedback leads to better working relationships and higher retention rates. Saying “good job” is not good enough and comes across as vague or insincere. Instead be more specific in what you observed and the impact it had on the situation. Finally, it's a lot easier for people to accept criticism or constructive feedback when things do go wrong if they are used to receiving positive feedback frequently. As a leader, feedback should be a simple part of your tool kit, and we should be encouraging everyone to be more open with each other in giving praise, recognition, and encouragement.

Conclusion

Delivering valuable feedback is about providing a consistent coaching environment to help teams improve performance. When feedback is delivered frequently with honesty, thoughtfulness, integrity and balance, team members, managers and leaders will reap the rewards and achieve organisational goals. The benefits include increased learning and agility, better lines of communication, improved team collaboration and engagement, reinforced accountability, and increased individual and team performance. It will build better relationships, retain high performance employees, improve leadership skills, and create greater alignment with company goals. We should focus on improving our communication efforts to achieve positive outcomes for all, and on developing a high performance environment where respect for each other is the norm by practising actionable, specific, and kind feedback.

Posted on September 14, 2021 by Sarah Tobin

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