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Useful feedback is prepared in advance

Tip number seven (of the eight ideas I originally shared) is to prep your feedback before you give it. Now you might be saying, "Kate, you just told me that feedback should be shared before things escalate." And you're right. I did say that. (Thanks for paying attention.) I do not recommend diving right into giving feedback the second you see a situation that could use it.*

Imagine this: You're in a big team meeting and your boss' boss is sitting in. You just gave a recap of your project that you thought went pretty well -- sure, you were a little nervous, but you don't think anyone could tell -- and when you're done, in front of the whole group, your boss laughs and says, "Thanks for that presentation. It was... something!" And everyone laughs, and you do, too, until after the meeting when you want to find a rock and crawl under it.

What did that feedback even mean? Why did your boss say that in front of their boss and the team? What are you supposed to do differently next time?

Preparing your feedback in advance means three things:

  1. Knowing the behavior you want to address or change

  2. Picking a good time and place to say it (and hint, in front of teams or boss' bosses is a bad place)

  3. Making sure your feelings about the feedback won't get in the way

Let's look at all of these in a little more depth.

Knowing the behavior you want to address or change

As a reminder, all useful feedback is aimed at changing behavior (not shaming or blaming someone for what happened). When you focus your feedback on behavior (and ideally on behavior that can be changed) it allows the recipient to take action (if they want to). If you're simply giving feedback to make yourself feel better or make the other person feel worse, it's not feedback. It's selfish.

So let's look back at the earlier example of your project recap. Your manager gave feedback that was so vague it's hard to know whether it was praise or correction. What are some of the behaviors that could have been changed in that situation? You could have spoken too quickly, or meandered off-topic, or been eating while you presented, or could have looked like you were about to fall asleep -- you get the idea. Giving feedback on the observed behavior is far more powerful than vague feedback or labeling.

Sometimes, however, it can take a minute to figure out all the behaviors you think need to change. I do this by analyzing the performance and then saying, "ok, if X were changed, would that be enough?" If the answer is yes, then I give feedback on X. If not, I keep looking. "Ok, if X and Y were changed, would that be enough?" Again, in this situation, if your recap had several behaviors that could have been done better, I'd identify everything I could give feedback on and then narrow it down to the one or two I think would have the most positive impact. If you start piling the feedback on, it gets overwhelming.

Picking a good time and place

When I teach feedback, I always like to ask my students to share the worst place they've ever received feedback. (Mine was in the elevator in front of the CEO.) I've heard all kinds of things -- in their car in the parking lot, in the cafeteria, in front of their children, in front of a tour full of people, and (my personal favorite) in the toilet.

I also like to ask for the worst times they've ever received feedback. These include Monday morning at 9am, Friday afternoon at 4:55, right before vacation, first thing back after vacation, during team meetings, during offsites at the bar (when their boss was clearly drunk), right before their wedding, and, my favorite, as they were flying to the airport for bereavement leave.

"But Kate," I hear you saying, "you just told me that feedback should be shared before things escalate." And you're right. I did say that. (Thanks for paying attention - again!) But you have to act like a person first and a manager second. Would you want feedback in the bathroom? As you're heading to your grandmother's funeral?   Does that show respect? Does it show you care about the recipient? There's no point delivering feedback in a time or place where it just cannot be received. You're wasting everyone's time (though potentially generating lots of groans in my future feedback training.)

Making sure your feelings won't get in the way

Often managers spring into action and give feedback because they feel pressured to do so -- what they saw was "high-risk" or had potentially "lasting implications." But true high-risk situations are rare and the benefits of being calm and providing feedback with your emotions in check far outweigh the benefits of jumping on performance immediately.

I remember once I watched a direct report of mine give a truly lackluster presentation to the wider HR team. I was frustrated (as we had gone over the presentation several times and the feedback I had previously given didn't stick) and I was embarrassed that she was representing our team (and, by extension, my ego) so poorly in front of so many important stakeholders. I waited to give her feedback, but just until the end of the meeting. But twenty minutes later I was still angry and disappointed. Even though I knew the behaviors I wanted to address (because I had addressed them several times before), and I picked a time and place that wasn't public or embarrassing, my feedback fell short because I was so riled up. How could my direct report have respected me enough in that moment to take me seriously?

If I had taken even just a few more minutes (or taken a walk around the block or had a chat with a peer) I could have calmed down more, gotten more perspective, and delivered more effective feedback that could have strengthened our relationship instead of weakening it.

When you should dive in

*Let's talk briefly about the situations where you should dive into action, no matter what. When someone is in physical or psychological danger, it's time to jump in. If you observe harassment (sexual or otherwise) you should jump in (or call your HR rep immediately). Very few situations call for immediate feedback and I caution you about being too trigger-happy with your notes. Ask yourself what harm would be done by waiting. If none, then give yourself time to reflect before sharing the feedback. But if the answer is that there will be harm, by all means, jump.

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