When I was a young manager, I was panicked by the idea of giving feedback – until I was given a clear 3-step methodology to have ego-less, collaborative, and actionable feedback conversations. Having a feedback conversation is about preparing yourself mentally in order to avoid being judgmental – towards yourself or towards the other person. Our previous post was about overcoming your fear of feedback. This article lays out three simple steps to give constructive feedback in a way that contributes to your team members’ personal development.
1. Prepare the conversation
- Remind yourself why you are giving feedback. Your goal is to improve the situation or the person’s performance. You won’t accomplish that by being harsh, critical or offensive. Focus on the person’s personal development needs: what can the person learn from your feedback? Similarly, feedback is not about venting your own frustration. Rather it is about clearly explaining the rational and emotional effects on you or the organization/business of the other person’s behavior. This is also why it is important that you describe your own emotions: don’t let the other person make assumptions about them.
- Double-check your facts. Good feedback needs to be fact-based. Take the necessary time to gather all the facts and to cross-check them. Get input from several people: we all have our own biases, and you want to develop an objective picture of the reality. It also shows that you have taken the time to prepare it. The last thing that you want in a feedback conversation, is to start debating whether you have your facts right.
- Stick to the facts and never make assumptions. Don’t assume people’s intentions: you don’t know what is happening in other people’s minds. A wrong assumption in a feedback conversation can be considered infuriatingly unfair by the person receiving the feedback. Your own interpretation of the facts and emotions is exactly what can create destructive feedback. Facts are things that you can observe if you would film the person. For instance: “Getting angry” is not a fact. However: “Raising your voice” or “Turning red” are facts that you can bring up in a feedback conversation. Start with describing the behavior. And if you really have to explain your assumption, make it clear (eg “I notice this behavior of yours, and I assume that it means X. Is this a correct assumption?”).
- Put yourself in their shoes: for which good reasons would they act the way they did?
- Ask for permission to give the feedback. Accept that the person says “no”: sometimes it’s not the right time or we are just not in the mood for feedback, even if it is well crafted. A simple “Hey, would you have time at 3 pm this afternoon for a feedback conversation?” can help the receiver be mentally ready for it.
- Choose a moment in the near future – the sooner the better. If the situation upsets you though, wait a few hours until the emotion settles.
- And last but not least: Build trust with your team. Asking for feedback first (instead of waiting for it) is a great way to build vulnerability-based trust – especially at the top. Our next article will deal with this topic.
2. Step into the feedback conversation
1. Frame the conversation
Define your mental framework and express it. For example: “I believe that feedback is my way to create better relationships and contribute to personal growth. It is with this intention that I want to talk with you. I can imagine it will not always land that way, although it remains my deepest wish when I start such a conversation.”
2. State the facts
State the facts and how they differ from your expectations or the rules. Stick to the facts, without making assumptions or interpretations, and without being judgmental. Judgments assign blame and can make the conversation unproductive – people get defensive. For example: “During our meeting yesterday I noticed no reaction in your body language. How should I interpret this body language? ” is more effective than: “You are passive in meetings.” Provide specific examples. Avoid vague words like “often”, “always”, or “never”: state the date/time of events as accurately as possible, to make these facts irrefutable. This is why the preparation stage is so important.
- Dialogue with the person about these facts. Make sure that you are on the same page: “Do you agree with these facts?” Disagreement on facts makes your feedback destructive. If there is a fundamental disagreement on the facts because you haven’t done your homework, you may just as well apologize and come back when you have investigated the issue thoroughly.
- Ask questions to understand the other person’s point of view: What would have been driving the person to act the way they did? What was important to them? What was their good intention?
4. Talk about emotional facts
- Talk about what their actions do to your emotions. Stating your emotions helps the other person understand your point of view (they may not know why you are frustrated) and why the situation has to change. How did you feel then, what are your worries now, what was your initial emotional reaction? What are your concerns and fears if the situation/behavior doesn’t improve?
- Investigate with the person the potential effects of their behavior for the rest of the team/organization: “What is the impact of the organization?” “How does it make the rest of the team feel?”
5. Create the next steps
- Explore the potential improvement options.
- Agree on next steps and their timing. Be specific. “I will do better next time” is not specific. You want to make it a moral contract, whereby both parties have the same understanding of the expectations. Make this a conversation: you may have suggestions, and the other person may think of even better ways to correct the issue.
- Agree on how to follow up in the short term (e.g. “We will meet again in 2 weeks to evaluate the progress”).
3. Follow up
- Document the conversation in writing and share with the receiver of the feedback: there can be no ambiguity about the issue at hand and about the next steps.
- Follow up as agreed. If you fail to follow up, you will give the impression that this feedback was not important – why would this person listen to your next feedback?
The key in giving feedback is to avoid being judgmental, which you can avoid by sticking to actual facts, without any interpretation or opinion. Preparation is therefore a critical step of giving feedback.
One way to keep you grounded during your preparation is to assume that you don’t know everything. Kevin Lawrence explains it this way in “Your Oxygen Mask First:” “Even when your brain doesn’t have all the facts, it likes to assume that it does. Most brains have a tendency to believe their perspective is whole, especially when you are rattled. The reality is: you may not have all the facts. Approach every tough conversation from this vantage point, and listen.
The way you feel walking into the conversation, and the thoughts that are in your head, set the energy in the room. If you genuinely want resolution, don’t walk in feeling wounded and irritated. If you show up to peace talks with a gun in your hand, don’t complain later when all hell breaks loose.”
While giving feedback is a skill that needs to be practiced, unpacking feedback on the receiving end also needs to be done properly. Because unpacking feedback in a constructive way encourages your team to do the same. This will be the topic of next week’s article.
What about you? How often do you practice giving constructive feedback? When was the last time you got energized after giving constructive feedback?
This article has been co-written by:
- Johan van Eeckhout, executive and team coach (more information: Praesta France : Cabinet de coaching) – As a professional coach, I enlarge the relational footprint of Leaders and Management teams to improve efficiency, performance and creativity.
- Xavier Lederer, business growth coach (more information: Ambrose Growth | Business Coaching & Consulting) – As a business coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want – their company has outgrown their management approach. I help them adjust their management approach to get back on track to profitable growth. Lack of honest feedback is often one of their roadblocks, because it slows down their team’s personal development – which slows down the company growth. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.