Knowing how to give and receive feedback well is an underappreciated and underdeveloped skill, especially in the tech industry. So much so that I consider it a superpower and a game changer for managers. Luckily, this skill is one that can be practiced and improved over time. In this post, I will focus on how to give feedback. In a follow-up post, I’ll dig into receiving feedback.
The context in which you’re giving or receiving feedback can change things. For this article, we’ll assume you’re in a manager or mentor relationship with the person to whom you’re giving feedback. If you’re not their manager it’s important to find out if the other person is open to receiving feedback before giving it.
I will be covering giving feedback in general and not specifically getting into the particulars of performance reviews or regular 1-on-1s, though the advice given here should be used in both of those situations.
Importance of feedback
As a leader, giving feedback to your teammates is a key part of how you help your team improve, even when it doesn’t feel very good. Effective positive feedback can be used to motivate and inspire. Effective negative feedback is essential to growing both professionally and personally. Quite simply, feedback is a gift in either form.
Though feedback comes in all shapes and sizes, many of us associate feedback with being critical or having to cover a tough topic. I think it’s important to point out that no one wins when we avoid having a difficult conversation over an important matter. It can do more harm to the team if you put off critical feedback.
Following the tips below, you may be surprised how well it can go and how healthy it’ll be for you, the team, and the individual receiving feedback.
Consider your motives
Feedback should always be constructive. Otherwise, there is no reason to offer it. You won’t accomplish anything positive by being harsh, critical or offensive. You will get much more from your team when you are positive and focused on improvement.
Criticize in private
While public recognition is appreciated, criticizing someone in public is not. Simply avoid doing this. Establish a private place to talk where you won’t be interrupted or overheard.
The sooner you can address the issue after the event the better. A good rule of thumb is within a day of the situation. We want the situation to still be fresh in our minds. The more time passes, the more selective our memory will be about the details. Additionally, giving feedback isn’t about springing criticism on someone out of the blue.
One caveat is if emotions are still running high. In that case, you want to wait until everyone has calmed down. This way you’ll be able to more effectively discuss the situation and they will be in a better place to receive the feedback.
I’ve seen the acronym ASK used to describe the best kind of feedback and I think it’s a good model to start with. Actionable, Specific, Kind. This post at HazelHQ is a great overview of this technique, which is worth reading through their scenarios. Though I love a great acronym when it fits, I prefer to think of them in reverse order.
Very likely you’ll be delivering some criticism that may be hard for them to take. Being kind in how to deliver feedback is important. That’s not to be confused with being dishonest, sugarcoating anything, or avoiding addressing the matter.
Consider your tone, your body language, your choice of words. Look at the situation from their point of view. Center yourself and approach the meeting with compassion.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
I’ve seen many variations of this quote but it’s so important to take to heart. When people are struggling to perform well at work, the root cause may not be work-related. I prefer to approach the situation with curiosity to understand what might be going on. I remind myself to avoid jumping to conclusions and assume that they’re not incompetent or a terrible person.
When the session is done, they should walk away knowing that you care and want to help them grow and develop.
Deal with specifics, not generalities. Be clear and use concrete examples to demonstrate the behavior or actions in question.
Start by stating what was observed and explain the impact.
An example of too general feedback would be, “you haven’t seemed very engaged lately.” What does that mean exactly? How would they address this without more specifics?
A more specific example would be, “During the planning meeting, you seemed distracted and didn’t discuss the acceptance criteria on your task as you normally do.”
A few more things to consider. Avoid being judgmental or making it personal. Let the behavior speak for itself. Try not to exaggerate to make a point and avoid absolutes such as “never” or “always”. Consider using I/me statements as they are difficult to discredit such as “it made me feel” or “I noticed you”.
There’s a simple formula I like that you can follow for giving positive feedback. Be specific, discuss the impact of their behavior, and show your gratitude. For instance, “In yesterday’s planning meeting, I noticed you were willing to question the value of the stakeholder’s acceptance criteria for the audit log. I really appreciate your candor.”
What is your purpose in giving this feedback? How will it help them improve? Only deal with behavior that can be changed or influenced. What good is criticizing something that they can’t help?
You should have a sense of the outcome you are seeking. I like to give them the opportunity to come up with potential solutions and action items. Be prepared to help them with this so they can leave your session feeling clear about what to do next. Set goals and make plans to follow up on their progress.
Do not overwhelm them with a laundry list of things to improve. We simply don’t do well with a barrage of things to improve on as it’ll be overwhelming. Keep it to three things or less. Too much criticism will feel like an attack and they will either shut down, get defensive or feel demoralized. Either way, you’re no longer helping them by piling it on. Save it for another time.
Make it a conversation
Feedback shouldn’t be a lecture. My kids don’t like it when I go into ‘Dad lecture mode’ and your team won’t either. Feedback is best when it’s a two-way conversation. Strive for an equal mix of statements and questions. Invite them to add their take on matters. Repeat back what you hear to make sure you understood them correctly. Have them do the same by rephrasing what you said to see how they understood you.
Consider the balance
I’ve seen varying advice on how you should mix positive and negative feedback. There’s the classic ‘sandwich’ where you surround the negative ‘meat’ of the feedback with two positive ‘slices’. I’d rather be authentic than try and force some structure like this. I do like to try to highlight the positives so they don’t leave feeling down and that they have a sense of how to make things better.
People have a habit of becoming what you encourage them to be, not what you nag them to be.
Make it your superpower
When done right, feedback need not be painful or demoralizing. The more practice you get, the better you will become at it. Take notes from this post and adapt them to a cheat sheet that you can use in the future. Make this your superpower and watch how your workplace transforms into a more productive and harmonious place.