Delivering effective feedback

Passing on positive feedback is a pleasure. But how do you deal with critical feedback?

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Passing on positive feedback is a pleasure. But how do you deal with critical feedback? What is the best way to approach this? How can you turn a negative situation into a positive experience? Your delivery can either help the recipient to move on and improve their performance or leave them upset and disheartened.

Some time ago a senior colleague responded to my ‘thank you for the feedback’ with surprise in his voice as he said, ‘I thought it was criticism’. There had been a core of fact in what he said about the performance of one of my team. His delivery had been brusque, and I could understand his frustration as the issue had arisen once before. However, I wondered about the purpose of his comments and if he considered it simply ‘criticism’. Did talking in this way help him feel any better? I doubt it. Was it useful? Not really. Could the individual act upon it to make improvements? Unlikely in the current form. What a waste.

Often the opportunity to make a useful improvement is missed because of a punitive attitude coupled with a misguided mode of communication. This combination can create a blame culture. People begin to hide mistakes rather than deal with them and learn never to take risks as they might fail.  Even the phrase ‘I would like to give you some feedback’ can fill you with dread if your previous experience has been a poor one.

So how can you ensure that the feedback given by you is effective? 

Let’s begin by defining effective feedback as fact-based, evidenced by examples, clearly communicated, objectively given, capable of being understood and accepted. If you wish to provide useful feedback, this is the crucial question to consider; what is your intent? Your attitude is squarely within your control. You cannot guarantee a person will act upon your feedback. However, the way you give it will influence their behaviour. It is worth taking the time to learn how to deliver feedback thoughtfully, professionally and with a positive outcome in mind.

Here are some tips on how to give effective feedback:

Give critical feedback constructively. Feedback is not always pleasing to hear. However, with effort, all feedback can be constructive. After all, what is the point of the communication? If you have positive intent, surely it is to help the recipient solve a problem or act to make improvements. Destructive criticism tends towards personal remarks about the recipient and their character, abilities or attitude. With destructive criticism, the recipient walks away not sure of what they are supposed to do other than keep their head down.

Constructive criticism is very different. The communication is from one adult to another adult. It is specific, fair, fact-based and provides examples of how behaviour has impacted upon another. The aim is to point out how the recipient can make beneficial changes to improve future outcomes. It gives hope, and this encourages a growth mindset which enables them to rise to the challenge.

Make it about behaviour, not character. You are not passing judgement on someone’s character or values. When passing on feedback, such as from a client, remember that you are only commenting on how the recipient behaved and the impact this had on the client as reported by them. Don’t be drawn into criticising or praising the client for the comments they have made as this will sully the feedback process. This approach works regardless as to whether the feedback is pleasing or critical.

Describe the effect of the behaviour. Stay non-judgmental and impartial. You are reporting the impact of the action as described by the client. Neither of you has any control over how the client felt. It is what it is. If you have experienced the behaviour, be clear about the effect it had on you. Own your feelings. State plainly how you would like things to be different in future. This approach will make it more likely for the recipient to hear and accept it.

Be specific. Make sure you ask for examples when obtaining feedback. Vague comments are unhelpful. It is much easier to hear about an occasion than, for example, ‘X is a poor communicator’. This approach also stimulates the recipient to think about what they might do differently next time (if the feedback is critical) or how they might repeat a winning formula (if the feedback is positive).

Make it timely. Giving out praise is tremendous. It makes you feel as good as if you are offering someone a gift. Putting off giving feedback that isn’t so positive is an easy trap. Days drift into weeks and weeks into months. Perhaps you never pass on the critical feedback. Delay helps no one. The person who provided the comments will wonder what the point was. The person whose behaviour is causing an issue is ignorant to its effect or doesn’t think it matters. You feel a nagging sense of guilt as you have information that if skillfully imparted could make a difference to at least two lives. Feedback needs to be timely so that everyone involved remembers the details. Just get on with it.

Be well prepared. Plan the feedback process as you would any meaningful communication. Book time and private space. Explain in advance that you have feedback to share. Set aside some time and write up your feedback plan. Questions include:

  • What is the issue?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was involved? 
  • What exactly is the behaviour?
  • What was the effect of this behaviour?
  • What are the consequences?
  • How might things be better in the future?
  • What action can the recipient take for their benefit and others?

It can be helpful to talk out a problematic piece of feedback with a trusted colleague. That way you can hear the words as you say them, and your colleague can act as a sounding board. Think about how you would like to hear the feedback if you were the recipient. Would what you want to say be acceptable to you? Don’t rush the feedback process and take time to listen as well as speak.

Remember that the essence of giving effective feedback is that it imparts hope which encourages a growth mindset, and this creates the motivation to work at change.

Beverly Landais PCC

Certified Personal & Team Coach: enabling people to be at their resourceful best ,

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