Let’s talk about feedback
In our latest TJ long read, Jules MacMillan has some great ideas for better feedback.
Love it or loathe it, giving and receiving feedback is a crucial tool to develop people to achieve organisational objectives. While I suspect there may not be that many people out there who love giving feedback, there are those who love receiving it - not least because they are aware of how important feedback is in aiding their own development and career success.
For those that are on the loathe end of the spectrum, this is often borne out of a fear of getting it wrong, particularly if they're worried about push-back or upsetting someone.
In his book Black Box Thinking , which encourages organisations to embrace and learn from failure, Matthew Syed references the aviation industry as having one of the lowest failure rates - just 0.41% (which equates to one accident per 2.4m flights).
His research suggests that this low rate is in part due to a culture in which owning up and learning from mistakes is encouraged, and where feedback is part of everyday work routines, irrespective of who it's for. Without such attention to feedback, low trust or blame cultures may breed – both of which kill creativity and innovation, and result in lower engagement and performance levels.
If you're a manager, aim to have some form of specific or meaningful feedback conversation with your direct reports at least once a week.
Barriers to giving feedback
If we know then how important it is to have these conversations, why is it that so many managers are reticent to conduct them? Having worked with hundreds of managers across Europe over the last 15 years I have identified several key barriers to the adoption of successful feedback conversations:
- ‘I don't have the time’ – for many, being a manager can sometimes feel like having two jobs: actioning your own tasks whilst also facilitating your teams’ achievement of theirs. Ultimately though, giving regular feedback could save you time in the long run and help develop more productive teams.
- ‘What if I upset somebody?’ – one of the biggest barriers is the worry that someone will react badly to the feedback, even if it is constructive. Understandably, this can give pause to the most proficient of managers, which is why it’s so important to take the time to prepare for feedback conversations. For example, always check your emotions at the door - never let your negative feelings cloud the potential success of a feedback conversation.
- ‘Hopefully it will get better’ – it won’t by the way. Poor behaviours and underperformance don’t go away on their own. In this respect, it’s only fair to give employees the opportunity to improve and develop for example, to make required changes that might only be identified in feedback conversations.
With that in mind, don't put off having these conversations. If you're a manager, aim to have some form of specific or meaningful feedback conversation with your direct reports at least once a week. It doesn't have to be a lengthy meeting - it could simply be a well-placed piece of reinforcing feedback, taking no more than a minute or two.
Creating a feedback culture
It is worth mentioning here that the responsibility for giving feedback does not only sit with each line manager. To create a successful culture, feedback needs to work in a cyclical - 360° - manner. Whereby employees feel empowered to both ask for feedback and have the confidence to give constructive evaluation to their line manager and colleagues.
No one is saying that this is an easy task, but it is a result which can be achieved by focusing on and developing the micro and macro cultures that operate in the workplace, and the provision of relevant training as required.
When running management development courses I often ask managers if they've ever had formal training in how to deliver feedback, typically around 40% never have, so no wonder some are reluctant to give it. But what's really interesting is that when you ask the same question to nonmanagers, only a fraction of them have received training.
So, as a manager, consider how best to upskill your team on how to give constructive feedback. How you can create a culture where feedback – with managers and within teams - is encouraged, and where teams feel they can proactively seek evaluation and ask questions like:
- what specifically am I doing well?
- what do you perceive are my greatest strengths?
- if there were one thing I could do differently to improve, what would it be?
- what would be a good stretch assignment for me?
- what would you like me to do more or less of?
Which feedback works best?
Without feedback there is no development and without development we tend to get disengaged and stagnate. This is especially true at the present time when many of us are working remotely - disengagement can become exacerbated by an out of sight, out of mind mentality.
It is important to make sure this doesn’t stand in the way of regular, well-delivered feedback. We should also consider how best to deliver feedback (email, video call, phone, face to face). First and most important, never assume the way you like to receive feedback is the way that will suit all members of your team.
For example, if we overlay a personality profile such as MBTI™ or Insights Discovery™ and the Introvert/Extrovert traits, extrovert personalities don’t mind being given positive feedback in front of their team. By contrast, those that score higher on introversion tend to prefer feedback which can be absorbed in private; email rather than face-to-face conversations may therefore be more appropriate.
That said, for all the different labels that you hear bandied about, fundamentally there are only two different types of feedback:
- Reinforcing feedback -sometimes referred to as positive or motivational – this is all the good stuff; praise and positive reinforcement of the specifics of what is working well – which is ideal to boost motivation and confidence.
- Developmental feedback -sometimes referred to as feedback for change or constructive feedback.
Whereby we are looking at areas of improvement to build competence. You do sometimes hear the term negative feedback, but in my opinion, that is just feedback given poorly. In this form, those providing feedback focus solely on pointing out errors or mistakes, and there is no conversation about what needs to change or what could be done differently to improve.
we need to point out the specifics of what the receiver did to make that job great, so that they can do it again.
It is also important to consider the language and words we use when providing feedback. Research by Gottman and Leveson  looked specifically at the effect of negativity between couples – an approach now adopted into the fields of leadership – and found that, for every negative comment we receive, we need five positive comments to counteract the unfavourable remark.
That 5:1 ratio is key in ensuring people don't go away from feedback conversations only focusing on the negative. The irony is this: if we only point out what is done incorrectly, people are more likely to do it again. So, to make your feedback count, make sure both parties walk away with a very clear view of what needs to change, what needs to be done differently to improve, and/or what the ideal outcome is.
There is a plethora of feedback models to choose from to help structure your feedback conversations. I'm a particular fan of AID for both its simplicity and for the fact that it can be used to deliver both types of feedback - reinforcing and developmental.
Prior to conducting a feedback conversation, you can use the AID model as a framework to draft key talking points, plus any questions you may want to ask to engage your intended recipient. It’s always worth remembering that it is their feedback, not yours. Don’t fall into the trap of doing all the talking.
Action - this is where we outline what happened, what the facts are, what specific actions/behaviours did you see, hear, notice? Make sure you use non-accusatory language. For example, ‘this is what we were looking to achieve, this is where I feel we are now’ – as opposed to ‘you did this…’ – no one responds well to that sort of language.
Specificity is also key, so don’t be too vague. Be careful not to over generalise, particularly with reinforcing feedback. If you just say, ‘great job’, the receiver of the feedback can't replicate ‘great job’. Instead, we need to point out the specifics of what the receiver did to make that job great, so that they can do it again.
Based on Gallup’s research on the ‘Elements of Great Managing’ , they suggest that well placed praise, ideally once a week, can provide a dopamine hit, especially when delivered on its own rather than wrapped around some developmental feedback.
Impact – the next stage of the AID model is where we discuss the impact their action or behaviour had on the bigger picture, such as the team, their own career progression or achievement of
organisational objectives. This ‘impact’ could be in the form of consequences or benefits, for example:
- the negative impact of repeatedly being late for meetings might be looking unprofessional
- the positive impact of successfully resolving a customer complaint could be delivering on a key strategic objective of enhancing customer experience
When discussing the impact for developmental feedback, it works best for the manager to adopt an ask vs. tell approach, for example, ‘what’s your understanding of why we needed to meet the deadline?’ This encourages the direct report to contribute to the conversation, describing what they think the impact is, and making the feedback session a two-way interaction.
Do - this final stage of AID is where we want to discuss what needs to happen next. For reinforcing feedback, that could be what the team member could keep doing or do even more of. With developmental feedback, there would be more attention paid to what the team member could do next, do differently, or do to improve to achieve the desired outcome.
In this context, I would advocate using a coaching approach. This is where, as a manager, you facilitate the conversation, seeking to encourage team members to devise solutions to gain the maximum amount of buy-in, and flag up any pitfalls or barriers that might stop them achieving the end result.
Remember, taking a few minutes to use the AID model to prepare your talking points for a developmental feedback conversation, especially if you’re anticipating an unfavourable response, could save you so much time and really aid somebody else’s development in a positive way.
Make your feedback count
In summary, a reminder of the top tips for delivering feedback:
- Be specific – stick to the facts, have evidence to back them up and use non-accusatory language.
- Be timely - around 80% of our development is done on the job, so where possible give feedback as close to the event as you can so that it has the most impact.
- Start with the aim in mind – focus on what you want to achieve as opposed to focusing on the issue, articulate the ideal solution or outcome and make sure you use the right language in outlining your expectations of what needs to change – remember, semantics are key to well received feedback.
- Tailor it to the individual - we all respond differently to feedback & development. In this respect, it is best to focus on what you know about your intended recipient. For example, think about how to phrase questions and how the recipient of the feedback is likely to respond. Also, think specifically about what the recipient needs to hear for the feedback to have maximum impact.
- Make it 2-way – lastly, make feedback, particularly developmental feedback, a 2-way conversation. Ask lots of open, thought-provoking questions - using the GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Will) model, developed by John Whitmore in his book, Coaching for Performance , as a conversational coaching framework here works well. Above all, avoid the tendency to tell direct reports what to do. Instead, coach them to resolve their issues & achieve goals themselves.
If at this point you are still slightly reluctant to have constructive performance conversations with your peers or direct reports, I will leave you with this parting thought. Just imagine if nobody in your whole your career had ever taken the time to give you any feedback – positive or developmental – where would you be now?
We need feedback, both individually and organisationally. Without it, we don’t develop. By embracing feedback and making it part of our everyday culture we really can thrive.
About the author
Jules MacMillan has been a coach and trainer in the field of people development since 2004 and is Managing Director of Cascade Learning.
1. Matthew Syed, (2015), Black Box Thinking, John Murray Publishers
2. Kyle Benson (2017), The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science, www.gottman.com
3. Rodd Wagner and Jim Harter (2007) The Fourth Element of Great Managing, www.gallup.com,
4. John Whitmore, (1993), Coaching for Performance, John Wiley & Sons
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