What is feedback? Feedback can be defined as information about past behaviour delivered in the present, which may influence future behaviour.
In a work environment we can think of three types:
- Normal feedback to reinforce or change behaviour, which is casual and should be frequent.
- Coaching, to improve a skill. Somewhat formal.
- Performance reviews to evaluate past work in a supervisor and direct report situation. It is very formal at pre-defined times.
Why do we want to have feedback?
Learning is soliciting, receiving and integrating feedback. Toddlers learn by receiving immediate feedback, for example, touch fire, and you will get burned. We operate in the same way. We all learn from feedback. Sometimes we don't behave appropriately in certain situations. And usually it is because of a long feedback loop. For example, things like health or environment, which take a long time to notice the impact of our actions, so that we cannot really moderate our actions well, or fast enough.
When we think about feedback, we usually think about the corrective type, when things are not working well. But it also can be positive, giving constructive feedback when needed is essential to creating a productive work environment. And it does not have to threaten your relationships.
What makes feedback effective?
In order for feedback to be heard and used, it needs to be delivered at the right time and in the right way. It is most effective when it is frequent, and in context. It has an objective to achieve a specific outcome. It is realistic in expectations and expressed as a point of view, rather than an absolute truth. Lastly, it shows respect to the recipient. For example, if something happened six months ago, and you haven't mentioned that for six months, it will not be very effective to bring it up now. To summarise that we can say feedback should be clear, specific timed right, non-judgemental, and speaks only to behaviour.
Feedback should happen not only when performance reviews times comes. It should be an ongoing process. Situations when we should give feedback, for example, are appreciation of good work and outcomes, the likelihood of improvement, when feedback is expected, and when definitely it cannot be ignored.
When positive feedback is given frequently, the constructive feedback seems less threatening and more credible. We can think about it with the ASK acronym: Actionable, Specific, and Kind
A stands for Actionable. Actionable means "I can do something about it". It doesn't mean give me the solution to the problem or the actions to take. For example, saying to someone that, their accent irritates you is not very actionable. Actionable feedback is about some behaviour that we have control over and can change.
Specific means not to be too generic. For example, "good work" is kind, but it is not specific, and it is not useful. The most specific we can be, the more useful the feedback will be.
And Kind is being honest about the impact something has on you, and not project or judge the other person. Basically talking about the impact your actions have on me rather than projecting what it means about you.
Impact vs intent
Intent, the purpose behind the giver's message may not always align with its impact, how the receiver is affected by the message in a conversation. For example, feedback can be: "I think you should work on being more confident". The intent was: when you don't know something, be confident to admit it and ask questions. The impact might have been: "I come across as doubtful or passive. I should give the impression, I know all the answers."
As a manager, you should know, and observe the people on your team. Regularly identify people who deserve a praise. Provide lightweight, regular feedback. And go beyond "Good job". It will help people accept corrective feedback, when the time comes. The goal of a feedback conversation is to reinforce positive behaviour or improve performance. When giving constructive feedback, focus on the future rather than criticising the past or airing grievances.
Preparing for a feedback session
When you prepare the discussion plan, start with a one-line overview, an objective report of the behaviour of what happened, and an objective report of the effect on the team and/or the project. Think about any potential objections. Create a discussion plan, what you wish to talk about and anticipate possible reactions and questions. For example, review facts, listen to their version, and make clear desired behaviour. And define behaviour that is not to be tolerated. Brainstorm ways to work around certain situations, currently, and in the future. Consider possible barriers to feedback. For example, anger or anxiety. And come up with a follow-up question or request. Consider possible questions that you might be asked, and finally consider desired short-term results. And long-term results.
Ask yourself, what would you do if you were the recipient, and prepare to listen, not just talk. Ways to overcome the barriers is to not be judgmental, be attentive and willing to listen if they have feedback for you. A recipient will more likely be open to feedback when you are prepared, relaxed, and communicate well.
Giving constructive feedback
In the session, constructive feedback can be more difficult. So here are some principles that might help:
- Sit without obstacles.
- Avoid interruptions.
- Adapt your communication style to the recipient.
- Assume a neutral tone of voice. Display confidence, but don't patronise or be judgmental.
- Consider their point of view and perspective. Try to understand the recipient and how they wish to grow. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Consider what you would need to hear in order to feel ready for positive change. Don't make them defensive, angry, anxious, or feeling disrespected or unheard.
- Keep the conversations two-sided, so they understand that you aim to work together to find the right solution to the problem.
- Listen actively. Concentrate on the recipient's message and its implications rather than on your next response. Listen to what they describe, what images and metaphors they use. If you don't understand something, ask. Paraphrase what the recipient is saying. By restating the response in different words, you show the other person that you have understood their point. If anything is unclear, ask more questions until both of you are on the same page.
- Notice non verbal cues, take note of body language and tone of voice. Are they tense or uncomfortable? Comment on what you see and ask them to tell you more about it.
- Monitor your own reactions and body language, maintain eye contact to show that you are listening.
- Be sensitive to ways in which gender, race, age, or other differences might affect the response to the feedback.
Next steps to follow up
- Develop an action plan you both agree on together.
- Follow up regularly to ensure the plan is on track. Be explicit about any improvements you notice, and offer praise and reinforcement. Be frank. If progress has been too slow or not happening at all, discuss options for getting the situation on track.
- Assess yourself. You too should be learning from the feedback discussions. Evaluate how the meeting went and monitor follow-up progress.
Building respective culture guidelines
I want to suggest a few guidelines to building a respectful culture in your team. For example, praise effort and not ability. As in, "you have managed the situation very well", as opposed to "you are very smart". Offer some positive feedback. Empower everyone, not just leaders and managers. Encourage everybody to provide feedback. Encourage the team to help each other to solve problems. Do not dwell on what's wrong. Set clear expectations, encourage questions, and make it okay to say no.
A culture of healthy feedback won't appear overnight, no matter how often you deliver feedback. Foster that culture by teaching others how to deliver feedback in a healthy and impactful way.