‘Can I give you some feedback?’

How does that phrase make you feel?  For many it’s a sinking feeling.  ‘Oh no – it’s going to be bad news; I’m not going to like what I’m about to hear.’

So often we have bad experiences of receiving feedback.  It shouldn’t be the case though, should it?  Feedback from a third party gives you information as to what went well, what didn’t and then you can decide what to do with that information.  It’s essential for development and improvement.

So why don’t we always experience it like that? Delivering effective feedback is difficult.  It takes time and effort and sometimes it feels easier and quicker to just move on.  That means that we get out of the habit of offering feedback to others or asking for it ourselves.   So when we do, or others have offered it to us, it feels out of the ordinary and unpractised.

The solution?  Get into the habit of offering and asking for feedback regularly.

Here’s seven guiding principles to think about:

  1. Little and often:  research shows clearly that people can only handle one or two pieces of feedback in a single session.  If you try to give more than this in an effort to “get it all done in one go”, you will overload the individual.  The result will frequently be that none of the messages will be heard or accepted.
  2. Focus on behaviours not beliefs:  our brains are very good at making assumptions based upon limited supporting evidence.  Whilst a very useful attribute in evolutionary terms (that tree moved so there must be a lion behind it – run away!) it is less helpful in terms of developing people .  If you focus on what you believe rather than what you have actually seen or heard, you risk misreading the situation and losing credibility or alienating the other person.
  3. Back up with facts:  the natural reaction of many people is to become defensive when they perceive they are being criticised and it feels personal.  Some people will reject feedback outright and argue against your message.  You should stick to the facts and always speak about your perspective; don’t assume you know what’s in the other person’s mind.
  4. Balance positive and negative:  most people find feedback more acceptable if there is a balance between the positives and negatives.  The traditional approach is the “feedback sandwich” where you start on a “high”, progress to the hard message and finish on another high.  This does not always work, however, as some people tend to filter out selectively either the good or the bad message – dependent on their personality and self-esteem.  In these cases, you need to make a careful judgement as to the best way to balance your message to ensure it is accepted appropriately.
  5. Support rather than threaten:  people will tend to respond far better if they believe that your role is not to sit in judgement but to help them improve by working with them.  This will mainly be created through your day-to-day management style but can be reinforced in an appraisal meeting through your body language, tone of voice, style of questioning and the overall quality of the interaction.
  6. Ask rather than tell:  if you want people to change their behaviour, they need to be motivated to do it.  Motivation comes from within, and you are more likely to achieve “buy-in” to changes if you encourage the person to think for themselves and take ownership of the process.  Feedback should be a process of asking a series of open questions that gradually lead the individual to identify the performance shortfall for themselves and decide what they should do to put it right.
  7. Plan when and where:  don’t underestimate the importance of allowing enough time to work through the feedback until the individual “owns the necessary changes in behaviour”.  On the other hand, a feedback or appraisal session is very mentally tiring for both parties and you might find you need to call a halt and pick up another day.  Clearly you also need to ensure that you give feedback somewhere where you can be assured of privacy and the ability to avoid interruptions.  This is just as important when the session is being conducted remotely.  Check that the person’s remote set up is suitable, allow them time to ask you questions, perhaps schedule a follow up.  Where possible, have both parties visible so that body language cues can be picked up.

Feedback – unlike criticism – should come from a good place, from a desire to support and develop others.  Before you offer feedback, you should check that this is the case – do you have a desire to support and help the other person, or is it just a desire for them to hear how you would have done it?  What are they going to do with the feedback once given; is it something they can act on?  How can you help them to do that?

Join Nicky Clough on 27th May for our session on How to Get the Most from your Team for discussion on feedback, delegation and effective team working.