Leadership

Is Your Feedback Fair?

We all need feedback in order to grow. It helps us learn how our actions impact other people and whether we have been effective in what we are doing.

Despite our need for feedback, the word often carries a negative association. This is because when it is given in unhelpful ways, it often does more harm than good. Many of us even fear feedback because it has been delivered to us so poorly in the past.

A friend of mine was recently caught off guard and hurt when his manager handed him a letter at 4:22 p.m. on a Friday. The letter outlined a series of complaints, some of which he didn’t even remember. He asked if he could discuss the letter, but the manager responded with “No, we’ll talk about it on Monday.”

In my view, this is a very unfair approach to feedback – and it’s ineffective.

Despite our need for feedback, the word often carries a negative association… Many of us even fear feedback because it has been delivered to us so poorly in the past.

Let’s imagine that the manager did have something that was important for my friend to hear. By delivering the feedback right before the weekend and shutting down the opportunity for dialogue, any chance for it to be well-received was eliminated.

Instead, my friend was left to stew with his unanswered questions all weekend long. It did not enhance his desire to enthusiastically engage in a conversation about ways he could improve when he came back on Monday.

 

What can you do to make sure you’re giving feedback in a way that’s fair and easy to understand?

There are many things leaders can do to strengthen the effectiveness of their feedback. Here are eight principles for giving feedback in a way that is fair and maximizes the chances for it to be well received. 

Remember that feedback is about learning.

As with all teaching or coaching, keep the desired outcome at the center of your feedback so that you remain focused. It is ineffective if feedback is delivered in such a way that the recipient cannot internalize and act on it to reach the desired outcome.

One of the most powerful ways to promote learning is to affirm what someone has done well.

The question we should ask is, “What conditions and approach to feedback will lead to the desired outcome?” One of the most powerful ways to promote learning is to affirm what someone has done well. When you notice what someone has done right, they are more likely to repeat and build on that behavior.

Start with a question.

It is too easy to misunderstand what we see or experience from another person. Before launching into your feedback, take a moment to pause and get curious about what you have seen. Then name the action or behavior and ask the other person for their perspective on what they did.

As you listen to their response, consider whether there is a disconnect between what they say their intention was and the impact of their actions. If you have misunderstood the situation, you may be able to let your feedback go at this point. However, if they need to understand the impact of their actions, then proceed with your feedback.

  Before launching into your feedback, take a moment to pause and get curious about what you have seen.
Provide feedback immediately.

It’s easy for managers to let small things slide and store them up for a larger conversation. However, if you bring up multiple issues at once, you run the risk of overwhelming the employee. Most people learn best when their mistakes are pointed out to them soon after they happen. This allows them to reflect on the issue while it’s still fresh in their memory. It also prevents them from forming a habit based on an incorrect way of doing things.

Instead of making a list of things someone has done wrong and then giving it to them in a meeting, talk to them about issues as they arise.

Be Mindful of When You Give Feedback

When it’s not possible to give feedback in the moment, consider other times when the employee will be receptive to what you have to say. Avoid giving feedback right before the person has to attend a meeting, office party, or give a presentation – and don’t discuss the issue right before they have days off. People often ruminate on feedback, and it is not fair to the employee to have them do so on their time off.

In addition to this, I think people need to consider the feedback they receive while they are in the midst of their work. That way they can immediately apply what they have heard to real situations. This helps with integrating the new information.

If you are planning to give feedback, try meeting earlier in the employee’s work week so they can immediately consider and implement what they have heard.

Be mindful of where you give feedback.

Depending on what the feedback is about, consider whether it should be given privately. If your feedback is related to a specific behavior, you risk embarrassing the receiver if it’s given in front of others. This will make it much harder for them to accept what you have to say. Although your feedback might not seem like a big issue to you, it may be significant for the employee. Some people will want privacy so that they can process what you are saying without distraction, even if it is mild or positive.

Depending on what the feedback is about, consider whether it should be given privately.
Focus on Behaviour, not character.

One of the most common mistakes that managers make when giving feedback is making assumptions about the employee’s character. For instance, you might think an employee has been coming late to meetings because they don’t care, or that someone didn’t volunteer for an assignment because they are trying to get away with only doing the bare minimum. Speculating in this way ultimately clouds your ability to give feedback about specific behaviors. It can cause you to focus on something you don’t like about the person, or treat a person differently based on a false assumption.

If you want to be an effective manager, concentrate on a specific behaviour that needs to change. Focusing on character creates defensiveness; focusing on behaviour and its impact creates an opportunity for learning.

Make the conversation about their interests, too.

As a manager, you should always try to include the employee’s interests in the feedback conversation in addition to yours. That means focusing on why you want to have the conversation from a management perspective and why this might be valuable for the employee’s own interests. Practically speaking, your interest in giving feedback is normally to help the employee do their job better. An employee’s interests will often include being seen as competent, valuable, and doing their job well. 

To bring the employee’s interests into the conversation, express your positive intention in giving them feedback. Explain how you are confident that they want to do their job as well as possible and that you believe they would want to know if they were doing something that could be preventing them from performing at their best.

To bring the employee’s interests into the conversation, express your positive intention in giving them feedback.
Discuss a positive vision for the future.

Your conversation should finish with a plan so that the employee knows what their next steps should be. Talk with the employee about what they can do differently based on your feedback. Make sure the conversation is specific and framed in the language of behavior, not character.

Remember to also build in a plan for assessing how the changes are going. This can be as simple as planning a follow-up meeting to check in. Let them know you are there to support them as they integrate the feedback and make any necessary changes. You might even want to provide training or other supports. Thank them for taking the time to have the conversation with you.

Everyone needs feedback to improve and everyone deserves to be treated with respect when receiving it. Feedback should be a conversation that protects the dignity of the employee, upholds your professional integrity, and clearly communicates what changes need to be made. Following the principles outlined above will help you deliver feedback that is fair and well received.


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Author

Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, Don’t Blame the Lettuce: Insights to Help You Grow as a Leader and Nurture Your Workplace Culture. Eric is also the co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. These books are available on our website.

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