Turning tough feedback into actionable advice

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Regardless of whether you’re an experienced team leader or new to managing a project, giving feedback can be scary — especially if you need to deliver something negative. No one wants to be the bad guy, but in order to foster a high-performing team, you need to give feedback openly, honestly, and often.

But it doesn’t have to be daunting. Giving feedback is a learned skill, and as long as you learn to do it well, shifting the emphasis away from personal critiques and towards actions and improvement, both giver and receiver can come away feeling positive — and you’ll start getting the results you want. Here’s everything you need to know to give feedback that your team will actually care about.

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Think of feedback as an ongoing process

Chances are, when your team thinks about feedback, the first thing that comes to mind is their performance reviews. Every six months, they sit down with you, and you talk about all the great work they’ve done before segueing into the “opportunities” the employee has to improve.

These review opportunities are critical. But this isn’t feedback. Feedback is a constant, ongoing process, not an occasional performance evaluation. If a team member missed a deadline, for example, that needs to be discussed immediately, not during the next review cycle. The team needs to improve now, so you have to tell them what went wrong and how to put it right.

The same is true for positive feedback, too. As Peter Bell, Marketo’s Senior Director of Marketing (EMEA), says, “Even positive feedback delivered months after the event sort of loses its charm.” So if a team member has done a great job, be sure to give them a shout out. (Blame technology for rewiring us to crave instant gratification.) So don’t think of feedback as something to be stored up and blurted out twice a year; it’s a process, not an event. And the more regular it becomes, the less scary it becomes, too.

Accept that everyone needs (and wants) to hear negative feedback

Studies show that effective feedback leads to higher workforce engagement, and 65% of employees say they want more feedback. You might think that everyone’s just looking for a little extra pat on the back, but in fact the most highly sought-after feedback is actually corrective (i.e. negative) feedback. And, perhaps less surprisingly, even though everyone wants to receive corrective feedback, no one wants to give it.

Positive feedback isn’t always perceived as positive, either. As the above study suggests, there’s a lingering perception that positive feedback is less helpful than negative feedback, with some people even going so far as to interpret it as disingenuous. (We’ll come back to that in a minute.)

Hesitation to give feedback generally stems from our discomfort with doing anything that might make other people feel bad. So often, when “minor” things happen — when someone forgets to follow up with another team, for example — it often seems easier to just let it slide instead of calling out the employee and correcting the issue. But the result is that employees continue to make the same mistakes, unaware that there’s a problem. They never learn, the issues continue, and efficiency drops because other people are picking up the slack when they shouldn’t be.

And it’s even more counterproductive because the employee likely wants to get that constructive feedback.

It’s a cliché, but think of feedback as a gift. Once you start to reframe the process as something positive for everyone involved — even when the feedback itself as negative — it begins to feel like less of a chore.

Give action-based feedback

Part of the problem with giving feedback is the concern that what you say will come across as a personal attack. But as Leo Widrich, co-founder and COO at Buffer explains, feedback isn’t about the person themselves; rather, it’s about their behavior and actions. That’s why the language used to deliver feedback is so important. Make sure that what you say always links back to actions and facts, not morals or personality traits.

For example, if you’re giving feedback about the recent quality of someone’s work, it’s not helpful to say, “That was sloppy.” Much more productive would be to break down what “sloppy” in this case means specifically and how to avoid it happening again next time. Maybe what you mean is that the finished work was lacking in attention to detail, and the employee needs to be more careful at the proofing or testing stage next time. Or maybe “sloppy” means that they were lax in replying to a client and should be more diligent with their response times and admin. Whatever it means, spell it out in terms of actions, behaviors, and next steps going forward.

Do the same for positive feedback, too. Counteract the idea that positive feedback is disingenuous or flimsy by linking it concretely to behaviors and actions that can be replicated. For example, instead of “You did a great job with that,” you could go one step further and say, “You did a great job with that — you worked really well under pressure and were really flexible in the face of shifting requirements.”

Not only does it make the employee feel good to be recognized for their actions, but it also reinforces the kind of behavior you want to see going forward.

Remember that nothing you say — negative or positive — is a reflection of the employee’s personality, morals, or values. You’re only assessing their performance at work.

Encourage feedback from peers, too

Feedback shouldn’t just come from the top down. Encourage everyone on the team to give feedback as appropriate. Not only does it normalize the process of giving and receiving feedback, which is better for everyone, but it can help employees get a clearer 360 on their own performance, as opposed to just getting feedback from a manager’s perspective. Netflix has built a culture around this principle by training employees to be radically honest with each other. This means that it doesn’t matter who you are; if there’s something that needs to be addressed, it’s addressed constructively right away with the appropriate person or people. There’s no running to managers to complain or talking behind anyone’s back.

Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, found that once employees started giving ongoing, honest, action-based feedback, they became more thoughtful about their actions and behaviors to the rest of the team. Open conversation is encouraged because it not only helps employees grow and excel in the company, it gets people to talk about things that they wouldn’t normally share. Netflixers are taught how to keep emotion out of conversations and stick to the facts and specific examples.

Once team members realize that a constant feedback loop is there to support them, they’ll be more comfortable hearing what you and other team members have to say. They’ll start to understand that feedback doesn’t mean criticism or a personal judgment, it truly is an opening to a greater understanding of their job and expectations.

Start a conversation instead of a monologue

When the time comes to actually sit down and go through your feedback, what’s the most productive way to discuss what you need to go through? Asking questions is one of the best ways to get people thinking and talking, and it opens a feedback session up into being a more collaborative (and less frightening) experience. And as well as encouraging your team to look objectively at the bigger picture beyond just their part in it, it’s also a helpful way for you as a manager to gauge their understanding of the situation so you can address it more productively. Here are a few action- and behavior-based questions you can try to get your team thinking and talking:

  • What do you think went wrong?

  • What was your decision-making process here?

  • In hindsight, what could have been done differently?

Then, as the conversation wraps up, always end with a plan. What are they going to do differently next time? Let them tell you in their own words so you all know you are on the same page. If the feedback was unclear, talking through it helps them make sense of it and understand what’s expected of them going forward.

Ask for feedback

It’s the natural extension of everything we’ve talked about above: as a team lead, you should ask for feedback, too.

If every employee benefits from it, it makes sense that you will, too. So ask your team for feedback and listen to what they have to say.

Do you struggle with giving (or receiving) feedback? Do you have any tips for giving productive, constructive feedback? We’d love to hear your feedback on our thoughts about feedback (even if it’s negative constructive) — let us know in the comments below.

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