5 Powerful Practices to Give Feedback Like a Pro

In my previous article on How To Cure A Passive-Aggressive Culture, I made the case that the essence of leadership is to “go before” and guide others to a destination.  The way leaders guide others is by constantly pointing to the destination and providing frequent feedback about how well individual efforts are moving the team closer to the destination.  Guiding others is the central role of a leader.

The problem is, only 7% of managers provide their staff with effective feedback.  If you have any question as to why people on your team are not meeting performance expectations, consider whether you are among the 7% or the 93%.

If you come to the conclusion that, as a leader, you have room to improve your guiding skills, here are five powerful practices to help you give feedback like a pro.

1)  Earn The Right to Give Corrective Feedback

Leaders must create a safe environment before anyone will accept their feedback.  The first step to creating a safe environment is to evaluate your motives before giving feedback.  The next time you want to give someone some corrective feedback, first ask yourself this question: “Am I providing this feedback because I truly care about this person and want to see them succeed, or am I mostly giving this feedback because they are causing me grief?”  The difference between these two mindsets is the difference between guidance and blame.

When someone sincerely cares about us, we can feel it, which makes us far more receptive to their feedback. Remember your favorite coach or teacher? Odds are they could give you very blunt feedback about your performance and you respected them for it.  That’s because you felt that they truly had your best interests in mind.  They cared more about how your performance was affecting you than how your performance was affecting them.

If you want others to be more receptive to your feedback, you must care more about how their performance is affecting them than how their performance is affecting you.

2) Demonstrate That Feedback Is a Gift

True leaders set the example they want others to follow.  So if managers want others to request their feedback and accept it with gratitude, they must show others how its done.

Managers demonstrate that feedback is a gift when they:

  • Regularly Request Feedback Themselves. Feedback is sure to land badly when it comes from someone who never requests any themselves.
  • Show Gratitude When They Receive Feedback.The only correct response for any type of feedback is “Thank you.”
  • Publicly Admit Their Mistakes. Doing so sends a clear message that it’s okay to make mistakes if we treat them as learning opportunities.
  • Share Corrective Feedback of Themselves. Managers model how to make feedback useful by sharing how it has helped them.

Feedback is sure to land badly when it comes from someone who never requests any themselves.

3) Diagnose Before You Prescribe

Imagine if you told your doctor that you had persistent stomach pain, and then without asking you any questions, he prescribed a medication.  You’d be more than a little suspect of the prescribed remedy, wouldn’t you?

Now think about the last time someone gave you feedback.  Did they ask you enough questions to fully understand the situation before they told you what you needed to fix and how to fit it?  If not, you may have felt a little resentful when their suggestion totally missed the mark because they didn’t have their facts straight.

A global study by consultant group Zenger Folkman revealed that employees are far more willing to receive corrective feedback from their manager if their manager listens to them before giving them feedback.

Before launching into a monologue about what the employee did and why it’s a problem, ask the employee about the incident in question to make sure you have your facts straight.

4) “When You Do This, I Feel Like That”

Kim Scott, author of the book Radical Candor tells a story about very direct feedback she received from Sheryl Sandberg, then an executive at Google.  Kim said it was possibly the best feedback she ever received.

Kim was new at Google and just made a presentation to Google’s CEO.  The presentation went very well.  When Kim and her boss Sheryl left the meeting together, Sheryl gave her some specific feedback about what Kim did well.  Sheryl then told Kim that she needs to work on saying “um” too much. Kim casually responded “Ya, I know I say ‘um’ a lot” while making a brushing off gesture with her hand like she was shooing a bug away.

Sheryl responded: “When you do that thing with your hand, I feel like you’re ignoring what I’m telling you. I can see I am going to have to be really, really direct to get through to you. You are one of the smartest people I know, but saying ‘um’ so much makes you sound stupid.”

Kim said it was extremely effective feedback because Sheryl had established that she cared about Kim’s success and had provided several specific, sincere, examples of what Kim did well.  Sheryl had earned the right to provide corrective feedback.  Kim also said it was effective feedback because there was no room to misunderstand it, and because it was not a personal attack. Sheryl said Kim “sounded” stupid rather than saying she was stupid.

Here’s how Sheryl’s tactic could work for you.

If someone who reports to you is chronically late to work, you might say “When you regularly show up late to work, I feel like perhaps you are not happy here.”  This then addresses the issue and opens a discussion about the possible cause.

“When you do this, I feel like” is a non-judgemental way of addressing a questionable behaviour. You’re stating a fact about their behaviour and then telling them how you are interpreting that behaviour.  In doing so, you’re being transparent about the conclusion you are coming to and inviting them to help you come to a more accurate conclusion.  This encourages a two-way discussion as opposed to making an accusation.

5) Set the Expectation of Feedback

A big reason why receiving corrective feedback tends to feel like a smack in the face is because it often comes out of nowhere and blindsides us.  There’s no warning.  Intuitively, that’s also why we fear giving it so much.  It’s because we know we’re going to surprise someone in a negative way. We can avoid so much of the awkwardness and discomfort of giving and receiving feedback if people know when to expect it.

In his book Work Rules, Laszlo Bock, former head of HR at Google, tells a story about how a former boss established a feedback routine with him early in his career when he was a management consultant.

In the minutes before every client meeting, he would take me aside and ask me questions: “What are your goals for this meeting?” “How do you think each client will respond?” “How do you plan to introduce a difficult topic?” We’d conduct the meeting, and on the drive back to our office he would again ask questions that forced me to learn: “How did your approach work out?” “What did you learn?” “What do you want to try differently next time?”  Every meeting ended with immediate feedback and a plan for what to continue to do or change for next time.

Another way to set the expectation of feedback is to include it as a standing agenda item on your one-on-one meetings with your staff.

There are many ways to set the expectation of feedback by creating a feedback routine. Try asking a member of your staff who is keen to improve their performance how you two can create a routine of giving and receiving feedback and see what you two can come up with.

Being a Good Leader Is All About Practice

Leadership is relatively simple, but it’s not easy.  Leaders constantly point to the destination and guide others to it.  That’s the bulk of the job.  Most other leadership responsibilities are appendages of these two duties.

Knowing what to do is the easy part.  To be good at anything requires diligent practice.

Managers who consciously practice these five powerful feedback-giving practices will dramatically improve their ability to guide others and fulfil one of their primary roles as a leader.


4 Responses

    1. So glad you enjoyed it Kim! Thanks for saying so. 🙂 Yes, we could all benefit from practicing these principles a little more often, myself included.

  1. I really enjoyed reading the article shared and this one touched me a lot, ” If you want others to be more receptive to your feedback, you must care about how their performance is affecting them than how their performance is affecting you.” Will always remember this when giving or sharing my personal feedback to others as this would make me to look at things in a very objective way.

    Thanks Michael for keeping me grounded!

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