Those of you who have worked with me closely will know that I am passionate about feedback as both a performance and development tool. I believe that feedback is second only to listening as the tool most under utilized by leaders and employees looking to increase performance and engagement levels.
Often when I work with people and talk about feedback, the perception is that giving good feedback is hard to do, or takes a lot of time. Neither need be true, so here are my top tips to giving effective feedback.
1. Think little and often
Feedback is about helping someone to learn to do something new. Generally, one of the ways to do this, is through reinforcement, which is exactly what feedback can do – positive feedback (recognition) when you see the actions or behaviour you want and developmental feedback when you see actions or behaviour you don’t want. As a general rule, in the early stages of building someone’s awareness of a behaviour or a skill, you need to work towards providing feedback as often as you see the behaviour (continuous reinforcement). So that means every time you see the person doing what you don’t want – you need to tell them. And every time you see them doing the thing you want them to do instead – you need to tell them.
Sound time consuming? Well, it means you need to be focused on what you are trying to work on with that person, and keep an eye out for it, which is why it is important to…
2. Pick one thing
Just like when you go to the doctor, the more ailments you try to cover with feedback the more time consuming and complicated the discussion gets. If you want to truly support someone to build more effective behaviour, then pick the one thing that will make most difference to their performance, and focus on that. Put all your energy behind continually reinforcing that, until you see just positive behaviours in place. Then move onto the next thing.
So how do you then give that feedback effectively?
3. Check your assumptions and state an observation
When you give feedback, you are focussing on what it is the person is doing, not who they are. Your feedback should be framed around what you have noticed or observed to make sure that is the case. Take your judgements out of the mix. For example – someone may have been late to work every day for the last week. The little voice in your head says ‘they are lazy’. But you don’t know that. That is an assumption based on your values. What you do know, is that they were late every week. So that is where you start: “I noticed that you were late every day last week. Is there anything I need to know?” There may be reasons behind the behaviour (lateness) that you need to help them address, but if they are just struggling to come to work on time, that is when you need to…
4. Be clear on the impact
It is important that those receiving feedback know how their actions made a difference (positively and negatively) in order to be able to understand the reason for continuing positive behaviour (e.g. helping others) or ceasing negative behaviour (complaining about co-workers). So as part of your feedback, add in the impact of their behaviour and why it is an issue. For example “complaining brings down the team, and changes people’s perceptions of you as a can do, helpful person”. Tie this back to something that matters to them (the what is in it for me factor) such as, “that view of you makes it hard for me to recommend you to others for exciting projects or recognition”.
5. Then add in the future ask
Once you been clear on the observation and the impact, tie making the change to something they would want (the whats in it for me factor again) and set a clear future ask of them. For example ” If you want to be up for more benefits, recognition or projects, instead of complaining about your co-workers when they do something you don’t like, I would like you to offer to help them, or give them feedback about how their behaviour is impacting you and suggest an alternative”. That way you have been explicit about what you are looking for them to do going forward and now have the licence to recognize a positive change and pick up on continued negative behaviour.
That might sound like a lot to remember – but if you put it altogether it looks like this:
” I noticed you were late every day last week. Is there anything I need to know?”
“No? Ok. Well when you are late, we have problems managing the calls that come in, and other people in the team have to pick up your work which isn’t fair to them. It also creates a perception that you aren’t committed to the job, and I don’t want people to have that perception of you as it will likely impact what opportunities you will get in the future.”
“So, from today, I need you to be here, and at your desk by 9am every day. If you have any challenges with that going forward then please come and talk to me.”
And then tomorrow, if s/he is in on time, you give positive feedback and if not, you reinforce again.
6. Sometimes I get asked , “what if I am giving feedback and I don’t see any change?”
Then that is the time to shift from feedback to more of a performance conversation where you talk consequences. The conversation would look something like – “Kathy, we have had a number of conversations about you getting to work on time, but I am not seeing the changes I would expect. You have been late 8 times in the last 3 weeks. If I don’t see you consistently being on time for work in the future, then I will need to raise it formally as a performance issue. If it continues it may lead to disciplinary action (or whatever your process is).”
Don’t wait too long before you get explicit about consequences because others are watching what you do. I generally use a rule of three (giving feedback three times before I shift to talking consequences) but it depends on the severity of the issue. If you let someone continue with negative behaviour, over time, others, even your highly engaged employees begin to wonder why they bother, and you create more challenges for yourself. At the end of the day, the few minutes a day you might spend on feedback is worth the pain you can save yourself if negative behaviour becomes endemic, so start practicing ‘observation, impact, ask, repeat’ today.
For more tips on giving helpful feedback check out our blog post ‘Be a Feedback ICON’