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3 Ways to Ensure Your Feedback Works

Two coworkers having a feedback conversation
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A lot has been written about providing feedback to employees on performance. So let’s start with something a little more straightforward: what’s the point?

When we ask people that question, we get a similar list of responses:

  • To improve performance
  • To address misbehavior
  • To increase efficiency
  • Because it’s time for someone’s annual review
  • To encourage the behaviors you want to see more of

The common theme is change. Simply put, we give feedback with the goal that a behavior change occurs and the recipient can do more, do better, or do differently. Now if I asked you to think about the best leader you’ve ever had, professional or personal, chances are you’d say that they gave you feedback that helped you grow. However, according to Harvard Business Review in a recent survey of business leaders, 44% believed that giving negative feedback was stressful or difficult and 21% admitted that they don’t do it at all.

If feedback is a necessary part of our role as a leader and we have personally benefited from it in the past, why is it so difficult to give?

This is what we’ve heard:

  • Fear of damaging the relationship
  • Feeling uncomfortable
  • Not sure how
  • Don’t want to demotivate them, especially when they are performing in other areas
  • I don’t have time or I’m unsure of the right timing
  • I don’t know how they will react and I’m not good at handling the emotional fall-out
  • Unease with giving feedback specifically to a peer or leader

Here are three ways we can overcome our reasons for not giving feedback and increase its effectiveness at the same time.

1. Ask for feedback first

Ironically, the first step is not to give any but rather to start asking for it. And brain science research backs this up. When placed under MRI and asked for their opinion, feedback, or input, participants increased their neural activity in the areas of the brain associated with receiving a reward. In other words, rather than the adage that feedback is a gift, it’s the opposite. Asking for feedback is the gift.

Think about a time someone walked into your workspace and said, “I’ve got some feedback for you.” If you’re like most, the first reaction is probably a mix of defensiveness, fear, unease, or avoidance.

Now, instead think about a time when someone walked into your workspace and said, “I’d appreciate your feedback on something.” For most of us, the first reaction is a desire to share our input and feel valued. When we ask for feedback frequently, we set the tone that each person has valuable input to share and the relationship benefits.

Here’s how you do it:

  • After your next meeting, ask participants for feedback on the agenda, what they found most and least valuable
  • Before giving your next presentation, let a colleague know you’d like their feedback on your delivery and message
  • After a client or customer interaction, ask a peer or leader for ideas on how to improve your performance
  • Think of the newest member of your team and ask for their perspective on their onboarding, their transition, and what ideas they have to improve the process

2. Deliver feedback in a way it can be received

When feedback is vague, judgmental, or inapplicable, the recipient is often left confused, defensive, and unsure why they should care. Delivering feedback in a way it can be received is more science than art and there’s a formula: SBI.

  • Situation: In what situations does the behavior occur?
    • All the time? Occasionally? With specific people or with everyone? During times of stress or uncertainty? When leadership is around?
  • Behavior: What specific behavior is the person exhibiting?
    • Behaviors can be seen or heard. In other words, observable actions.
  • Impact: What specific impact results?
    • Typically impact falls into 4 categories: time, money, energy, or fulfillment.

For example, rather than giving the feedback:

  • “You weren’t engaged during our last customer visit. I don’t think you can handle key accounts and your future here may be limited.”

We’d offer this instead:

  • “During our last customer visit, you arrived late. We missed out on your thoughts and had to repeat agenda items. As a result, our team appeared disorganized to the customer.”

The keys to this formula are being as specific as possible and avoiding judgment. Judgements are opinions or labels we attach to other’s behaviors, actions, or words and it’s an easy trap to fall into. As an example, while we might think of these as behaviors, they are actually our opinion: lazy, rude, engaged, disengaged, and don’t care.

The litmus test for judgment is:

  • Is it debatable?
  • Does it require further explanation?
  • Can you further define it as a behavior?

Imagine the difference between being told you don’t care about your work versus having a discussion about a specific missed deadline. One of the fastest ways well-intentioned feedback is rendered ineffective is the use of judgment.

3. Deliver five appreciative feedback messages for every developmental message

Research conducted by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada examined the financial performance, customer satisfaction ratings, and 360-degree feedback ratings of 60 strategic business unit leadership teams. The factor that made the greatest difference between the most and least successful teams was the ratio of positive to negative comments that the participants made to one another. The average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one). Delivering five appreciative feedback messages for every developmental opportunity preserves this ratio and allows team members to better understand the behaviors they should do more of rather than simply those to avoid. Even better, you use the exact same SBI formula.

Once you’ve put all the effort into crafting and delivering your feedback message, how you continue the conversation is equally important. Before giving advice or possible solutions, listen first. It’s possible you misinterpreted someone’s behavior so give space for the recipient to share their perspective and ask questions. After all, you might be wrong.

Eager to learn more about feedback? Watch this animated video on how to deliver and ask for feedback that creates change.

Meet the Author

Sara Hannah

Managing Partner

As Managing Partner, Sara oversees the efforts to help client organizations understand the intersection between people, culture, and a thriving business model.

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Matt Whiat


As a co-founding partner of Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute, Matt Whiat draws on his previous 20 years of leadership experience as a former US Air Force Officer, helping organizations create cultures where people feel valued.

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