Constructive feedback is invaluable. But it’s not always viewed that way by those receiving it – and especially not when it’s thoughtlessly delivered. Whether it’s a hurtful throw-away comment or an informational overload, it’s easy for leaders to come across as anything but helpful. So how can we create a culture where feedback is not only embraced but used to drive development?
Here are three ways to give better feedback, improve your leadership skills, and develop your team.
Imagine that one day, your colleague Drew tells you:
“Try being less needy when talking with Client A, it detracts from your strong argument.”
What was your first response? Was it: “Hey, I’ve got a strong argument”?
Or was it more like: “Hey, I’m needy.”
The human loss-aversion instinct is easy to trigger, and often, it makes us mentally equate feedback with negative criticism. It’s a fascinating survival instinct that our ancestors – over millennia – have honed, and it’s why we frequently gloss over the constructive part of a well-intentioned comment.
To overcome this instinctive defensiveness, trust between leaders and their people is essential. It can be the deciding factor in how others choose to interpret an otherwise neutral comment, tilting the scales toward ‘tuning in’ or ‘taking offense’.
If we want a culture where helpful advice is seen as such, co-workers should be able to understand that constructive criticism is genuine and well-meaning – that it’s given with their best interest in mind. To build trust, we can make our good intentions – their development – as clear as possible.
For example, Drew might have said:
“Your product creates so much value – don’t undersell yourself when talking with Client A.”
Let’s say that the next day, Drew comes over to you again:
“I heard you on the phone with Client B twelve weeks ago, you were so well-spoken and convincing.”
You probably feel more positive toward Drew today, as well as about yourself. But what did you do, specifically, that was so great? How can you do more of it to improve your communication?
The answer is as unclear as Drew’s feedback – and this time it barely matters how constructively he phrased it. Effective feedback is delivered as soon as possible if we’re to make sense of it, learn from it, and grow. If positive reinforcement is to shape our behavior for the better, we need to know precisely what change we want to make. Wait too long, and growth opportunities get missed.
Organizations are busy environments, and we can’t always communicate our thoughts instantly. But while twelve weeks might seem ridiculous, it’s a lot shorter than the average time which passes between performance reviews. To be more punctual about feedback, leaders can make the effort to check in with their teams more frequently – if you can’t schedule more one-on-ones with your staff, try holding back less in the moment with specific compliments.
Twelve weeks ago, for instance, Drew might have said:
“I heard you use great data to convince Client B, but it was also really relevant emotionally.”
Wednesday rolls around and Drew pops over again – this time, he has a list of things he’d like to say. As he would do in a performance review, he is going through some KPIs:
“Your time management is exceptional – you’re on time every time like clockwork.
Some exciting things to continue working on – and I see you being great at these – are your presentation skills, financial analyses, attention to detail, spoken Arabic, written Arabic, non-verbal communication, and coffee-making. Keep up the great time management!”
How good do you feel about your time management now? Are you motivated to keep it up? Do you feel like Drew is a sincere guy with your best interests at heart? Drew may have learned the sandwich technique, but your answer to all three questions is probably negative.
As a leader, you already know that no two employees are the same. But what matters in a feedback-oriented culture is growth, and the effort that goes into that growth. When we praise others for their effort, we build their resilience and encourage them to persevere for the sake of getting better.
– Balancing negative and positive feedback (which Drew did terribly);
– Delivering manageable, actionable feedback; and
– Reinforcing effort as well as outcomes.
Your co-workers are less inclined to feel overwhelmed if you offer realistic amounts of advice, and they will feel more positive about taking action if their hard work is appreciated:
“You manage your time so well, it makes everything flow more smoothly around here. And I’ve noticed you’re working hard on your presentation skills – you’re becoming much more persuasive.”
Or sometimes, it’s as easy as just stopping with the positives.
“All those night classes are really, audibly improving your spoken Arabic. Great accent!”
So, how can we give better feedback? In short:
– Create a trusting environment for development. Give positive feedback which has clear, constructive intentions;
– Give timely, precise feedback to shape behavior; and
– Balance your feedback – try to consider the amount and positive nature of your comments, as well as praising effort.
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