Jude Tavanyar looks at some simple “rules” to giving effective feedback.

We’ve all been there. That sinking feeling in the stomach when a boss, or peer, cheerfully announces they have some “feedback” for us. Of course, the sense of fear and trepidation is hardly universal when the word “feedback” is mentioned, but in too many instances, giving and receiving feedback in businesses of all shapes and sizes, from SMEs to global corporates, is an activity which is charged with apprehension, to an extent where it is sometimes avoided altogether.

Why is this? Aside from the anticipatory factor, there is the simple fact that any kind of communication between people may misfire without some consideration beforehand, especially when it touches on sensitive areas or highlights development points. Feedback is no different. It can go wrong, and it regularly does, partly because the person giving feedback doesn’t know some simple “rules” to make it work.

Feedback needs a conscious purpose or goal in order to achieve change

It’s interesting to think that the word itself, which allegedly dates back to usage in an engineering manual circa 1915, proposes the idea that “feedback” from a mechanical or electrical system of any kind is a response of the system to an input, which can then be used to recalibrate the system appropriately.

The most obvious example on any kind of technical level is the screech of an amplifier when a wired-in electric guitar is played too loudly. Without corrective action, we’re likely to hear that sound again next time the guitar is played. Turn the sound down, reset the connection, and the feedback will disappear and the guitar sound will improve significantly.

Sounds obvious perhaps, but all too often people offer feedback simply to “be nice” — and that is usually not only confusing for the recipient, it is also a wasted opportunity for positive change.

“Feel-good feedback” needs to include observation, clarity and detail to be developmental

Surprisingly, giving “purposeless” feedback is all too common. One example is that of the boss who gives appreciative comments to her staff frequently, but which are so vague or short on detail that it’s impossible to understand quite what it is she appreciates. For example: “You did a great job in that meeting. Well done!” Nice to hear, but what exactly does it suggest the employee should keep doing, or do more of next time?

That’s not to say that praising and acknowledging people is not a very useful way to motivate them. It’s just to note that the same message, with more consideration, could have a significantly more powerful and transformative effect. For example: “In the meeting this morning, I noticed you taking great care to listen to everyone’s points of view, and include people who are new on the team. Everyone seemed to be much more relaxed today, and I think that may have been largely to do with how you ran the meeting. I was impressed. It would be great if you could keep running meetings like that, it seems to me to defuse some of the tensions in our group.”

It may be that that is a lot longer than the original message of “great job” but there are no vague comments here, and plenty of elements that give pause for thought. First, it highlights the fact that the boss has taken the trouble to notice the recipient’s actions in detail, and to value them. The fact of that deep observation on its own is motivational, as is the commentary on specific behaviour that is appreciated. Second, the feedback-giver talks about the positive impact of the other person’s actions, both on herself and on the group. Finally, there is a clear direction or goal established at the end to “keep doing this”, and highlighting the positive change that may bring about.

If you are thinking that crafting messages like this is something of an arduous undertaking when all you may want to do as feedback-giver is give a simple verbal “pat on the back” — think again. According to anecdotal research, effective, focused, well-delivered feedback stays in the recipient’s mind for years, and may also continue to shape his or her behaviour positively, whether its original message was appreciative or critical.

Avoid “interpretative commentary” and keep feedback current, specific and personal

Generally, people do not appreciate or respond well to the kind of feedback where more attention is paid to an analysis of why they might have done something (usually something that is not appreciated) than what is was, and how it came across, and what to avoid, or do next.

For example: “You behaved really badly at the social event last week, and although I can see that the stress you are under with all the changes at work may sometimes come out in passive-aggressive behaviour and a refusal to talk to anyone at parties, you really should think about being a bit more friendly, especially with Board members around.”

This kind of feedback ticks every negative box. The feedback recipient does not need elaborate interpretation of any behaviour they show, positive or negative. While it’s helpful as a manager to know the driving factors behind unhelpful (and excellent) behaviour in order to develop people in their strengths and avoid ineffective performance — feedback is not the place to explore this; a coaching conversation or performance appraisal, however, may be.

And why did the feedback-giver take a week to address the issue? The more current the feedback, the better, and carefully-expressed feedback that follows swiftly after the event offers the most memorable and developmental insight — otherwise we often just can’t remember exactly what the speaker is talking about.

Finally, give specifics about behaviour, and own it. What that means as feedback-giver is that you need to be clear about the impact on you, because while anyone can deny having malicious intentions in their behaviour (avoid the “why”), and you cannot really know what the impact on others has been of another person’s behaviour — no one can deny your own feelings and reactions.

If the feedback recipient’s behaviour led you to feel happy, sad, angry, thrilled, disappointed, etc — then that is your experience, and it’s irrefutable. It also helps to suggest a clear motivational goal if the recipient knows what impact their behaviour has on you, because then there’s a very clear indication of the difference they will make for you if they either change their behaviour, if negative, or do more of it, if not.

Why all the fuss about feedback? It is a gift which we so often forget to ask for, or give. At best, it changes our lives and the success of the organisations within which we work. It’s powerful, and it’s free.

Last reviewed 5 June 2018