One fundamental role of any manager is to help people grow. There are many ways to do that, but one of the most effective is by giving high-quality feedback to your team.
Unfortunately, giving and receiving good feedback can be a tricky process. Often, people are uncomfortable asking for and listening to feedback on their performance. It’s equally difficult to dole out feedback because it requires trust between team members. This trust ensures that feedback meant to help isn’t misconstrued as simple aggressive criticism.
As a manager, it’s easy to hold back. You may even be able to convince yourself that doing so is good for your team. In the right circumstances, however, offering feedback skillfully can be a gift that helps employees to improve.
Why Is Feedback So Singularly Valuable?
While it is difficult to give good feedback, the ability to do so is exceptionally valuable. The Harvard Business Review found that people of all generations preferred to receive constructive feedback, delivered skillfully, than any other variety of feedback—including compliments.
In other words, people would rather receive feedback that helps them to do a better job than praise that doesn’t.
Similarly, Forbes discovered that leaders who ask for feedback are highly effective. In a study of 51,896 leaders, the top 10% of those who ask for feedback the most were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile for effectiveness.
Feedback has a bad reputation, though, because people confuse feedback and criticism. No one likes to be told that they’re doing their jobs badly. It creates a negative, awkward atmosphere in the workplace, and usually breeds resentment.
Done well, however, it has precisely the opposite effect, reassuring people that their contributions are valued and cultivating trust. Some of the most successful companies on the planet, including Amazon and Facebook, cultivate cultures in which people produce very detailed peer-to-peer feedback.
This four-step model is a process I’ve found valuable when giving feedback, and a tool kit to guide you in giving feedback that will genuinely serve your employees.
A Step-By-Step Guide to Giving Feedback
One of the trickiest aspects of both delivering and receiving feedback is the recognition that it is not about who is right, and who is wrong. Instead, it is about seeking to understand.
This process starts from the assumption that people have reasons for their behavior, and that an intelligent feedback process can help to uncover those reasons and improve the working environment for everyone.
1. Observe the Behavior
When you’re ready to give someone feedback, start by observing something that you’ve seen. This is distinct from something you’ve heard.
If you want your feedback to be useful, focus on behavior that you have witnessed with your own eyes.
“I noticed that you were late for yesterday’s team meeting” is an effective foundation of quality feedback. “I heard you were late for work yesterday” is not.
Note that, when you use this model, you are not seeking to judge the behavior of others. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. You are simply observing what has happened.
2. Share the Impact
Step two is to share the impact of the behavior you’re discussing. In the example above, other team members might think that someone who is late for meetings doesn’t respect their time, or doesn’t respect you as a manager, creating an impression that person is uncooperative.
None of these outcomes are good for the morale and togetherness of the team.
Ideally, the person you’re giving feedback to will understand your perspective and recognize that they are having an impact upon the people they work with. It’s quite possible that they will never have considered that impact until you bring it to their attention.
3. Look for Understanding
At this point, you can transition to understanding. Usually, I literally ask people to help me understand how the situation appears from their perspective. When I do this sincerely, with a genuine desire to understand, I learn things I could never have guessed.
Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons for the behavior I observe. People tell me, for example, that they have had family emergencies, or that they have urgent commitments clashing with team meeting times. This is exceptionally valuable information.
When you take a step back, and ask people to help you understand why they do what they do, you may find that, from their perspective, it makes sense.
4. Move to a Resolution
Now you have a solid basis from which to reach a resolution that works for everyone involved. Your objective here is to find a way of moving forward together.
Some people confuse resolution and discipline. “OK,” they think, “now I understand why you were late. Be on time next time.”
Resolutions are based on what you have heard and discussed. If your team member has another commitment that clashes with the start of a meeting, maybe it’s possible to shift the meeting time, or set an expectation with the rest of the team that allows for late arrival. If they have experienced a family emergency, you can reassure them that it’s OK, and ask them to let you know next time it happens.
Effective Feedback: Curiosity and Comradery
Following this model often helps both managers and their teams develop greater awareness and thoughtfulness. It invites them to consider situations from the point of view of others.
Over time, this can reshape management instincts away from criticism and towards curiosity. In the example above, it encourages managers to look for the reasons why people are late, and to craft satisfying resolutions.
When I teach this model to managers, they often feel as though they are learning a secret magic trick. Often, they have previously shied away from giving feedback, out of fear that they will appear confrontational.
As they explore this process of inquiry, they come to see that it’s possible to give feedback in a way that will land, and which will actually create closer relationships between team members. This is an enormous relief.
People want feedback that makes sense to them, that respects their perspective, and that invites a positive resolution. When you become skilled at providing that type of feedback, it can be an extremely powerful teaching and management tool.