The art of giving feedback

Very few employees have been trained how to give verbal or written feedback — combine this with the fact that most supervisors don’t lead other people well, and it’s a recipe for disaster, especially when the emotions are running high.

Most people are comfortable giving positive, performance-applauding feedback — why? Well, because it’s easy. Most people enjoy passing on good news — it’s nice for both the Messenger and the Receiver. The trouble arises when an employee, (lets say a supervisor) has to give negative, performance-improving feedback to another employee (lets say a direct report).

I’m originally from a place in England not far from William Shakespeare’s birthplace and he wrote in his play Hamlet, “To be, or not to be — that is the question.” I believe we can use that as a framework when giving feedback. I hope Billy Shakes doesn’t mind but I tend to rewrite his line and ask instead, “When to use the verb “to be” and when not to use the verb “to be”, that’s really the question.

What am I talking about? I recommend using the verb “to be” and other declensions of the verb (such as “you were” or “you are” etc) when giving positive, performance-applauding feedback. Why? Well, positive, performance-applauding feedback speaks to the heart of the person — your goal is to affirm a behavior you want to see repeated. For example you might say, “Bob, you are superb at this.” Or, “Suzie, you were a star on that project!” Or, “Ken, you will always be someone I can rely upon for this type of work.” Can you see how we’re using the verb “to be” — past, present or future tense?

If you’ve never thought about this, I encourage you to give it a try. Keep it simple: remember when you’re giving positive, performance-applauding feedback, use the verb “to be”. Focus on the person — your goal is to affirm a person’s behavior you want to see repeated.

Here’s the switch: when you need to give someone negative, performance-improving feedback, (sometimes referred to as “constructive feedback”) focus on the verb “to do” and other declensions of the verb “to do”. Essentially, you need to separate the poor performance from the person. You’re not attacking the person — instead you want to deal with the poor behavior, which has resulted in an unacceptable product or service. For example you might say, “Bob you aren’t doing that as per the agreed standard.” Or, “Suzie you don’t tend to do that as well as expected”. Or, “Ken you never seem to do that to the level we need it to be done at.” Can you see how we’re using the verb “to do” — past, present or future tense?

It wouldn’t take a leadership guru to realize that if we use the verb “to be” when we’re addressing negative, performance-improving feedback it can get messy. For example if someone was to say, “Bob, you aren’t paying attention.” Or, “Suzie, you aren’t very good at this.” Or, “Ken, you don’t seem to care about the team.” This type of feedback can be accusatory as it’s perceived as you’re attacking the person — the moment someone thinks you’re attacking them personally, their defensive barriers go up and all sorts of misunderstanding ensues.

Again, if you’ve never thought about this, I encourage you to give it a try. Keep it simple: remember when you’re giving negative, performance-improving feedback, use the verb “to do”. Focus on the outcome and not the person — your goal is to correct a behavior to improve the outcome. Ideally, link the outcome into business facts such as, “Ben, because you didn’t do this on time the customer delivery was three days late and scored us a poor rating.

From our experience at Newleaf Training and Development, we’d suggest the root of many poor relationships in the workplace could be traced to the lack of training on how to give feedback. As a supervisor, manager or leader of others it’s a noble, honorable responsibility to give feedback to another — you’re treading on sacred ground — the heart of another person. You have an opportunity to lift the heart of another person for a job well done, or you run the risk of losing the heart of another person if you attack them personally.

In summary, for positive feedback, focus on the person and for negative feedback focus on the outcome. In next week’s article I’ll provide some thoughts about where to give feedback and how to receive feedback.

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