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Eight Ways to Make Feedback Useful

When I first started managing people, I knew I was going to have to give feedback. I was nervous because the only real first-hand experience I had with giving feedback was telling my boyfriend not to leave his shoes in the hallway for me to trip over, and that didn't go so well. (He got defensive and then I unloaded on him everything that was wrong in our relationship and we broke up. Oops.)

Since then, I've been teaching feedback for almost a decade and I've boiled it down to eight distinct characteristics of useful feedback.

1. Useful feedback focuses on behavior

When giving feedback, you want to focus on things the employee can change, not things they can't. Your feedback should be centered on observable behaviors or actions. So instead of saying "you're lazy," you have to identify the behaviors the employee is doing that make you think they're lazy. As a result, you might give feedback on lateness, attention to detail, level of completion, or a pattern you see in performance.

2. Useful feedback gets delivered

Just because you've said or shared some feedback doesn't mean the feedback has been delivered. You may have challenges in the way you're delivering it, they may have any number of obstacles to receiving it, and overall, the process can be clunky. The way you know that feedback has been delivered is to make sure that the essence of what you said comes out of the person you said it to. I like to end a feedback conversation with questions like:

  • What are you taking away from this conversation?

  • What's your next step?

  • What stood out to you in what we just talked about?

3. Useful feedback is specific

When feedback is focused on behaviors (the more granular the better!) it's automatically more specific. Watch out for labels ("you're a top performer!" "you have a bad attitude") and always/never. (Because if you've ever delivered a "you never" statement, you know that the person usually responds with the one time they did do what you asked.)

4. Useful feedback is not a sandwich

Many managers feel more comfortable starting corrective feedback with some praise, to take the edge off the feedback. But Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago, ran a simulation in which half her class gave feedback sandwiched between two statements of praise to the other half and showed that the correction doesn't come through when the feedback comes between statements of praise. While it may be easier or more comfortable for you to give a feedback sandwich, in the end, it doesn't serve the person who needs the feedback.

5. Useful feedback comes regularly

When people are more comfortable hearing feedback from you on small things, they'll be less likely to overreact on the bigger things. Feedback (positive and corrective) should come regularly - in every 1:1 meeting, I'd suggest - so that it's part of your team culture and baked into your managerial relationships. You should also give feedback whenever an issue arises (and you've had time to calm yourself enough to give valuable feedback).

6. Useful feedback happens before things escalate

What I've seen in my HR roles in the past is that managers often put people on performance improvement plans because of an issue they failed to address when it was no big deal. My recommendation is that if something isn't that big a deal, address it nonetheless. If it starts to become a pattern, address it again. And if it continues to be an issue, address it, potentially with the support or guidance of your own manager or HR partner.

7. Useful feedback is prepared in advance

"Winging" feedback is never a good idea. To prepare in advance, you need to know what you want to say, pick a good time and place to say it, and make sure you've checked your own emotions so they don't get in the way of your delivery.

8. Useful feedback follows a template

I'm a big fan of the STAR/AR model, which starts creating some context by sharing the Situation or Task about which you're giving feedback. ("In yesterday's meeting...," "when you were giving your presentation...," "while you were talking to Doris...," etc.) The next thing you share is the Action that was or was not taken. ("you cut off Morris...," "you rushed through slide three...," "you were looking at your phone the whole time...") Then (and this is the step most managers skip), you share the Result of that action. ("and he got really frustrated." "and you lost the audience." "and she didn't take you seriously.")

The AR part of the model (which I like to growl like a pirate -- "arrrrrrrrgh!") is about what the person could have done differently and how it would have turned out. So you share an Alternative Action that might have been possible in the situation. ("Next time, try to let Morris finish his thoughts...," "Going forward, aim to slow down on the text-heavy slides...," "When you talk to Doris again, go in without your phone...") Then wrap with an Alternative Result they're likely to see if they take that action. ("and he might have some valuable input." "and you'll see the audience keep up." "and she'll more likely give you her full attention.")

In the coming days and weeks, I'll go into greater depth on each of these, so keep coming back! And if you have a challenging feedback situation and would like some coaching, you can always schedule some time with me.

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