Want to be a better boss, teacher, or overall human being? Learn how to give constructive feedback. Getting this skill right can be the difference between success and failure in your business and personal relationships.
If it were easy, there wouldn’t be an entire body of literature dedicated to the art and science of constructive feedback. A sizeable portion of it, however, focuses on how to handle criticism. That’s a great skill to develop, but I’d like to spend some time thinking about how those of us in positions of authority can better transmit feedback so that the people we manage won’t need to reach for the self-help guides on dealing with criticism.
The next time you’re meant to give constructive advice, consider following these five steps:
1. Ask permission: It may sound strange, but asking the person, “Can I share some observations with you?” is extremely helpful in setting the foundation for a productive conversation.
2. State the observed behavior: Don’t be a mind reader and make assumptions about their intentions. Focus on specific actions that merit scrutiny.
3. Describe the impact: Explain how the specific actions affect the organization, projects, or individuals.
4. Acknowledge before problem-solving: This is crucial. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and convey that you’re on their side before jumping into solutions. This does not mean you have to agree with their opinions; rather, it shows that you’ve listened and understand where they’re coming from.
5. Focus on the Future: At the end, ask if there’s a way of doing things differently the next time. This need not be hashed out immediately. Often, you’ll probably want to give the person time to figure out a path forward on his or her own.
Sounds easy, right? Just five simple steps! Of course, this is easier said than done.
A good place to start is with focusing effective feedback on specifics, rather than generalities. For example, try to not to say, “Good report, I thought it did the trick.” Instead, consider saying something like, “In your report, I really like the way you highlighted the pros and cons and provided clear and simple solutions. On the other hand, I felt like the section on the different social media channels was missing some information, let’s see what we can do.”
Keeping feedback specific is also a good way to prevent you from questioning a person’s intentions. For example, instead of saying, “Your lateness means you don’t value punctuality,” try saying, “Your chronic tardiness is making it difficult for the team and organization to get through the project on deadline.” Feedback like this should always be delivered sincerely and honestly and should have clear action items for the person to take. Concrete metrics such as “I’d like to see you on time for the next 5 meetings.” are especially good. While, “I’d like you to open our team meetings for the next month to ensure you are on time,” lays out the steps that need to be taken for improvement.
Also, effective feedback does not include giving advice. If asked for help in solving a problem, you can certainly weigh in. But your job is to describe the actions or behavior and set goals for it to change. Their job is to create the solution that reflects those goals and then implement the solution. By giving these individuals ownership over this process will allow them to internalize the solutions and behavior changes, which are then more likely to stick.
Finally, here are some useful things to avoid:
• Using labels that are unclear or ambiguous.
• Giving feedback when you’re angry.
• Terms like “unprofessional” and “irresponsible.” They are not descriptive.
• Words like “always,” “never,” and “sometimes” as they are all too likely to be exaggerations.
• Value judgments like “good” and “bad” as they are unlikely to be constructive.
• What is the culture of providing feedback in your organization?
• What keeps you from delivering timely feedback?
• How will you change your communication of constructive feedback?
• Do you know someone who could improve his or her feedback skills? Tell them, constructively!
Learn more about the providing effective feedback through my work in communications training.