When you withhold feedback, you are sabotaging the other person’s ability to succeed.
How’s that for some straightforward feedback?
So, how would you evaluate your feedback skills if you did an honest self-assessment? Do you give frequent feedback to your colleagues? Are you comfortable giving positive feedback? What about negative (constructive) feedback? Do you let people know right away what didn’t work, was ineffective, or that they could do better?
Giving feedback is a little bit like snowboarding. Almost all of us suck at it until we get some formal training. It’s just not something that comes naturally for many people.
Perhaps you are like a lot of us and have spent years avoiding giving feedback and missed those opportunities to practice and improve. Well, it’s not too late. If you put the following guidelines and tips into practice, your feedback ability will begin to improve immediately.
At the Stagen Leadership Academy, we find that offering a simple set of steps or a simple formula is a great way to get people to start practicing it the right way so they develop the right habits.
A Simple, Effective Feedback Formula
There are numerous books, courses and guidance on ways to give feedback. We use a simple, yet effective feedback framework developed at the Center for Creative Leadership called S-B-I. (For more detail, see Sloan Weitzel’s book, Feedback That Works: How to Build and Deliver Your Message published by Center for Creative Leadership.)
Describe the situation and provide the context in terms of why this behavior or aspect of performance is important to you, the team, or the organization. State your purpose and context for the feedback. (This is also known as framing.)
“Tom, I want to give you some feedback about the Drexell proposal you recently completed.”
Name a specific observable behavior you want to call attention to. This should be a statement of fact, not a perception (interpretation or judgment), and it should not use labels (does not characterize the person).
“I understand you worked evenings and weekends to meet the deadline.”
Share what the specific impact of that behavior was on you, on the team, or on the business from your perspective, using “I statements.”
“I want you to know how much I appreciate your effort to go above and beyond what was expected to create such an excellent result. I feel confident Drexell will respond positively.”
Using “I” statements conveys your own experience (and feelings) rather than characterizing the other person. Also, by owning your own experience, you are stating your impression/perspective and are not stating a fact (which promotes defensiveness and/or argumentativeness).
“Jack, your efforts last week with the Smith Account repaired a customer relationship I thought we had lost for good. Your decision to offer an extra site inspection as a ‘make-good’ clearly worked. I was proud of how you handled the situation.”
“Christina, I wanted to acknowledge the way you spoke so calmly with that upset customer. He wasn’t able to see why I couldn’t do what he asked until you explained it. I really felt supported.”
Why You Should Never Use Labels
We are not suggesting that you should avoid labels because it may make the “snowflakes” or “social justice warriors” in your office uncomfortable.
Note that we deliberately used labels there, mainly for humor, but we would never use those to describe an actual person we work with; that would be bad form, indeed.
Using labels not only makes some people uncomfortable, is politically incorrect, and could even be illegal in some states, it is bad for business.
Labels create a whole host of problems.
Harvard Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, did extensive research on this which they write about in their excellent book, “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation”.
Here are some examples of positive feedback using labels:
- “Steve, you are a good communicator.”
- “John is a total rock star at sales.”
Kegan and Lahey explain, “If we characterize people, even if we do so quite positively, we actually engage—however unintentionally—in the rather presumptuous activity of entitling ourselves to say who and how the other is. We dress the other person in a suit of psychological clothes. As much as they might appreciate the fancy quality of the cloth, they are likely to feel, ‘Well, it doesn’t exactly fit.’”
Rather than characterizing the person with a label, just use an “I statement” and share how you feel about their behavior (not their character).
Here are the same examples of positive feedback minus the labels:
- “Steve, I really appreciate how you use stories to illustrate your points. I find it very compelling and helps drive the point home for me.”
- “John, I appreciate how you always prepare thoroughly and answers client objections skillfully.”
Using Labels When Giving Constructive Criticism
If the label is negative (constructive criticism), it’s very likely going to trigger defensiveness, argumentativeness, resentment or even anger.
If the purpose of giving constructive feedback (criticism) is to help the other person improve by internalizing the feedback and changing their behavior, then using a label is self-defeating. People tend to reject negative labels and close down to feedback.
When you use labels in your constructive feedback, the other person doesn’t learn anything beyond the fact that you suck at giving feedback.
Instead of this: “Karen, you are showing up as unprofessional.” or “You are sloppy.”
Say this: “Karen, I’ve noticed that you often have stacks of miscellaneous things on and under your desk. I’m concerned that your workspace could reflect negatively on our department when a customer visits.”
Using Labels When Giving Positive Feedback
If the label is positive, the person receiving the feedback may not identify with that label (character trait), may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed by the positive label, and is likely to reject the compliment.
“John is a rockstar salesman.”
“John, you are a world class public speaker.”
John may not feel comfortable being labeled a “rock star” or a “world-class public speaker.” That may not fit his self-concept. Or it may make him feel uncomfortable and want to reject the feedback (Aw, shucks, I just got lucky.)
Here is how it would sound minus the label:
“John, I was so proud of the way that you overcame the client objection using compelling case study data.”
“John, when I know you are on the presentation team, I feel relaxed and confident because you are always prepared to answer client objections so skillfully.
It is difficult for John to refute the factual statement of what happened or your feelings about how his behavior impacted you. Because he doesn’t reject the positive feedback, he hears it and it is more likely to internalize it.
The Problem with Praise (and Why You Should Absolutely Stop Doing It)
“But what if the person being labeled with a positive trait actually likes and internalizes that positive label?” you may ask.
Nope. That’s bad too. Actually, that’s even worse. Not only does it not help the person, it may actually harm them.
Using positive labels (character traits) to describe people is precisely the thing that triggers what Stagen calls a “Knower Mindset” and what Stanford Professor, Carol Dweck causes a “Fixed Mindset.” Her research—which you can read about in her bestselling book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”—shows that using positive labels can lead to a whole host of learning and performance issues both in children and especially in adults. These issues include:
- Becoming a know it all
- Being afraid of making mistakes or feeling like a failure
- Avoiding taking risks
- Rejecting feedback and opportunities to improve
- Even fudging work or downright cheating in a desperate attempt to live up to the internalized label. (We wrote about that in another blog entitled, “Are You a Knower or a Learner”.)
Kegan and Lahey describe the positive feedback seen in most organizations as “praise and prizes.” Although this approach is intended to make people feel good, their research at Harvard, shows that it creates a cultural sense of “winners” and “losers” in the organization and diminishes, rather than increases, energy and morale.
Pro Tips for Giving Feedback
Be Specific and Concrete
Address the person directly and specify the context and behavior. Avoid generalizations such as “great,” “poor,” “inappropriate,” or “outstanding.” The goal is for the person to understand what he should keep doing, start doing, or stop doing.
If you wait too long to give a colleague feedback, it won’t be very useful. The best time to give feedback about a specific event, behavior, or performance is immediately following or as soon as possible (same day or next day).
High-performance teams cultivate a “feedback-rich environment.” People should always know how they are doing, the quality of work they are delivering, and how they are “showing up” (being perceived by others). All workers are entitled to feedback about their job performance. Having said that, you must use your own judgment about how often you can offer feedback without the person feeling overwhelmed or saturated.
Focus on the Future More Than the Past
Rather than fixating on what person did in the past, effective feedback emphasizes what will work better in the future. This is easily accomplished with phrases such as, “What might work better next time…” or “You might consider trying ____ the next time….”
Pro Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback
A leader I was coaching once referred to constructive feedback as an “uncomfortable conversation.” In my experience, it’s only uncomfortable if you aren’t any good at it. When you get good at giving feedback, it’s a positive experience; it’s an opportunity to help someone learn and an opportunity to support someone to have more success.
The keys to constructive, or critical, feedback are essentially the same as positive feedback, but the stakes are much higher. Here are a couple of additional tips specific giving constructive feedback.
Always give constructive feedback in private, never in front of others. People may need to save face in front of their peers and digest what you have to say.
Reflect ahead of time about the potential emotional impact of the feedback. How might the other person feel about it? You are probably familiar with the “sandwich” method. You make a positive statement (bread), then the constructive feedback about what they can improve (the meat), then a second positive statement in the form of reassurance or encouragement of some kind. This can be effective if you incorporate the other tips in this article and if it doesn’t come across as formulaic or cheesy.
Can you think of some ways you can use the guidelines and tips in this article to get better at feedback?
Is there a way to frame the next feedback you give in a way that the other person is more likely to hear and benefit from it?
Can you offer some kind of connection or reassurance that you care and are available for additional support if they need it?
We’ll end this blog by saying, “I know you are a busy professional, and I appreciate you taking the time to read this blog. I believe that the very fact that you read this article tells me that you are genuinely interested in improving how you give feedback. And I’m confident that if you practice, you will get better, and that will make you a better leader.”