One of the most difficult things to do is provide feedback to someone. This isn’t something we only experience at work, but with friends and family. We don’t always know how the person on the other end is going to receive it. We inherently either don’t want to hurt people’s feelings or we don’t want to deal with the fallout. Ultimately what ends up happening, through a lack of feedback, is the issue continues to escalate until it explodes. At work employees are allowed to go year after year from review to review without being given feedback that would make a difference to their career trajectory. It’s not just critical feedback either, but good feedback also goes unsaid. Or, the feedback isn’t clear or actionable, which is only marginally better than no feedback. How do you give feedback that is impactful, meaningful, and actionable? Easy, here are five keys to delivering effective feedback effectively.
1. Assess The Person’s Willingness For Feedback
I can tell you right now I don’t give feedback to everyone simply because not everyone wants feedback. So if you’re not responsible for giving a person feedback you need to gauge their ability to hear and integrate it. Let me tell you how I learned this valuable lesson. My summer internship following my freshman year in college was at an investment bank in Chicago. I was so excited to be there but as my first official professional job that wasn’t a friend of my parents I had to navigate fitting in. I dressed wrong, I spoke wrong, I laughed wrong. Now when I say I dressed wrong I mean it wasn’t in the manner of dress for the role you want not the role you have. About halfway through the summer another young black woman started in a full time position. The way she dressed was absolutely inappropriate. She was referred to as a husband-hunter. Women who worked at the exchange for the purpose of snagging themselves a rich suitor. Somehow or other one of the managers got it in their minds I should be the one to deliver the message that her attire was inappropriate. I was 19, she was about three or four years older. Being a dutiful intern I went to talk with her too naive to know that it was highly inappropriate for them to send an intern to speak with this woman simply because we were both black. Also, I didn’t know a thing about her or gauge her capacity for feedback.
You guessed it, she let me have it. I learned in that moment and began a journey to perfect my ability to evaluate someone’s willingness to hear feedback. As a manager you have to give feedback, that’s not opt out. However, you can still gauge someone’s receptiveness in order to refine the message and the delivery. Working on a trading floor my delivery had to be blunt and to the point and not at all personal. For example, when I went down to the trade floor some of the men had posted pictures of mostly-naked women in our booth. I barely noticed them and didn’t care, but the woman supervisor did. When I asked her why she hadn’t made the men remove them, she said they wouldn’t listen to her. I sought out the ring leader of these pictures, quickly assessed him and delivered the message “these photos are inappropriate, you will remove them and destroy them now, while I’m standing here. If I come back and you have posted new photos I will take more formal action. This is not a request.” The photos were removed and didn’t return during the rest of my tenure. What did I see in him at that moment that moved me to deliver that message? I have the advantage of having studied interpersonal and speech communication which included courses in psychology, speech and hearing science and tons of theoretical communication courses.
First and foremost, read a person’s non-verbal queues. His body language told me he was an alpha male and respected authority. So I had that going for me, I had some, not a lot, but some authority in the situation. His speech pattern told me he wasn’t going to debate me on the issue. Meaning he wasn’t going to cite precedent for why this wasn’t considered sexual harassment. His behavior let me know that he likes to push buttons, he likes attention and he found me attractive. So when I delivered the message it needed to be in the most alpha female non-emotional and personal way possible with the air of authority and accountability.
Second, rely on past behaviors to tell you how they will react. If they generally seem sensitive or combative in other situations, they are likely to feel that way during a feedback session. If they are highly adaptable and collaborative that indicates they are open to suggestion and don’t believe there is any one way to skin a cat.
Third, you can always just ask them how they prefer to receive feedback. If you can’t figure it out from non-verbals and general behavior don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes asking if they mind if you share feedback with them if they aren’t your subordinate works very well. If they are your subordinate ask them early on during the process of getting to know them how they like to receive feedback. Take that time also to ask them how they like to be recognized. All feedback isn’t negative or bad. People have preferences for how they like to be recognized and praised too. That’s equally important and often forgotten.
2. Adopt The Proper Feedback Structure
I learned this structure in one of my leadership courses, but I practiced my own structure before. I have now combined the two because I think it’s a great marriage. It’s a two part structure, the first part is spot self evaluation, the second is my evaluation.
In the spot evaluation I ask the person to identify what they did well or what worked well. I allow them to speak without interruption, agreement or dissent. My job is only to listen. Ask clarifying questions only if necessary. Then ask them to identify what didn’t go well. Again, no interruption. Prevent your face from expressing agreement or disagreement. Lastly, ask them what they would do differently next time. Shhhh, let them talk. Resist the urge to interrupt. This is very important. Listen. Shhh.
In the next part, your evaluation, you follow the exact same process. You say what you thought went well, what didn’t go well, and what you would like to see different in the future. You say your complete thoughts even if it is the exact same thing they said. This is important to how the brain processes information (e.g. speech and hearing science). You might use the exact same words but they may different things to each of you. That is why the next key is critical. Also, don’t allow the recipient to justify the choice or behavior until you ask for it. Just like your job was to listen to them, theirs is now to listen to you. Where you ask for their response is up to you. But insist that you be allowed to finish your thoughts first.
3. Feedback Should Be Specific And Actionable
When delivering feedback be as clear as possible using examples, even if the feedback is good. If your manager said to you “you did a great job on that report” what would you repeat for the next report? Everything probably. What if your manager said “you did a great job highlighting the advantages of the vendor in your report. It clearly and simply communicated that the vendor will meet our goals and expectations. That analysis was spot on.”? In your next report you will make sure your analysis is just as thorough. In other words what behavior do you want them to keep doing and why. This message should be delivered as upbeat and passionately as possible.
When you move to the what didn’t work well, be just as thorough. What do you want them to stop doing and why. Be specific. No one, no one at all likes vague feedback. Frankly, there really isn’t a good reason not to give someone specific and actionable feedback. While you should display positiveness while delivering the good, you should deliver the critique in a dispassionate matter of fact way. Why? Because the brain is designed to focus on the negative. The brain will use the tone of voice to amplify the negativity of the message. No matter how small or minor the feedback, the brain will interpret it as “danger”.
Lastly, what you would like to see done differently is the actionable part of the feedback. Provide them with suggestions. If they already said something you want to see, say you agree with what they said and say it again. This lets them know you heard them when they suggested it themselves, that this wasn’t your brilliant idea. Saying it again reinforces it in their mind. This also builds agreement that this is something they will work on and you both expect to see progress. It assures them that you are a partner in their success and that you believe in them enough to identify and solve their own problems. Too often people give feedback before they even know what the person thinks. This puts them on the defensive. Asking them first to evaluate themselves says you value their ability to be introspective and self aware.
4. Feedback Should Be Ongoing
Feedback isn’t a once a year sort of thing. It should be ongoing. I once had a manager who was so good at quick feedback sessions after a meeting or presentation. He would pull me aside either right then or within a day or two. He wouldn’t necessarily ask me to evaluate myself first. If there was a conflict or someone came to him with something he would ask my side of the story. Remember when I said don’t allow them to justify their actions before you finish delivering the feedback. Here is an exception. If you were’t the observer of the behavior always always always get their understanding of events first, then go to self evaluation, then deliver your evaluation. You will build trust this way.
The same manager did this with me when a high profile VP came to him about my “defensiveness”. What the VP left out of the story was that I was reacting to him making me the butt of his jokes to other senior leaders. These were demeaning jokes. I lashed out. When my manager, a senior vice president, asked me about it I explained my version of events. He gave me his evaluation of the situation along with his thoughts on what I could have done differently. He summed it up by saying his feedback to that VP in the moment was he had observed him making these jokes, and as my manger he didn’t find them funny at all. The only reason he hadn’t said anything is because I hadn’t reacted so he thought it didn’t bother me. His learning was to ask me in the future, my learning was to speak up. Our bond of trust strengthened.
If you see something in the moment, say something. If it’s not someone who works for you evaluate their willingness to get feedback, their willingness to get it from you, and ask them if they mind you sharing it.
5. Let It Go
Once feedback has been delivered and agreed to, allow the person the leeway to achieve it. Keep it fresh during your meetings to understand their progress but don’t beat them up over it. If you are still bringing up feedback from two, three, ten years ago and the person addressed it and moved on, the issue is you not them. Feedback is a gift, not a weapon. This also means don’t put every single piece of feedback in someone’s performance review, especially if it’s one off. That same manager I had was good for that as well. If he brought it up and I addressed it, I never heard about it again. Ever. Not in my review. Not during lunch three years later. Done is done. If the person isn’t displaying the behavior anymore what is the benefit of punishing them? You will simply just drive them away.
Another point about giving feedback is that it is largely based on perception. Our perceptions of the world and people says more about us than it does about others. This is another reason to let go of feedback. Consider the fact that the criticism or the recognition you are giving may be more about your internal values, virtues and construct of right and wrong. Given this, it is the recipient’s right to reject your feedback. They can gracefully reject it right then or just simply not implement your suggestions. Either way you should take into account how much your own bias played in the feedback itself. This isn’t true in every case of course. Use your best judgment for when not accepting your feedback is truly causing career- or relationship-damage and act accordingly. Read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell to better understand how our biases impact how we evaluate others.
I spoke a lot about feedback in relation to work, but this exact format will work in your personal life as well. A human being is a human being whether they are at work or at home. I know it might seem weird to say to your husband “honey, what worked for me is this, what didn’t work for me is this, and this is what I would like to see in the future”. I assure you it will work because the male brain likes headlines, problem solving, and clear direction. Female brains like the structure because it’s collaborative, non-judgmental and allows them to solve their own problems.
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