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Nobody likes giving negative feedback – but many of us want to hear it

If someone is unhappy with your performance at work, wouldn’t you want to know? At the very least, you’d like an opportunity to clear the air, or address the problem, or explain…or something. Yet when it comes to giving negative or difficult feedback, most of us feel reluctant to give it. We don’t want to hurt the other person or we are afraid of a conflict, so we end up avoiding it. One my colleagues recently used the following analogy during a training session. 

“A stone makes a chip in your windscreen. If you leave it, it will spread and a small crack will become significantly larger, and likely more expensive to repair. Leave it too long and the chances of you having to replace the windscreen are pretty much guaranteed. Being unhappy with someone’s performance can be like that original chip. If you avoid the issue and do nothing, it may spread. Over time the situation will escalate and you are likely to become more judgmental than objective. Dealing with a performance related issue in a timely manner means stopping the problem from increasing and fixing that crack.”

No, giving negative feedback is not one of the enjoyable aspects of managing people. Doing it constructively is a challenge for the best of us, and even when we do it well – who’s to say that your feedback is taken on board and improvements are made?

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Here are 7 tips to get you started, and they are explained in more detail below:

  1. Be clear about what you want at the end before you begin
  2. Use language that focuses on the situation, not on the person
  3. Turn up to the conversation, stay there and speak out
  4. Be open, try to be objective, don’t judge
  5. Demonstrate understanding
  6. Give examples and share patterns – and the impact on you/others
  7. Believe in change

Be clear about what you want at the end before you begin

What is obvious to you is not always obvious to others. People cannot look into your head (or heart) and guess how you’d like things. You need to be able to explain, in simple and safe language, what you want from the conversation and why you are starting it. Think about it, picture it. Simply saying that you want something to improve is not enough, it means different things to different people. Be specific and focus on the future. A useful approach is to know if this is an A, B or C discussion.  Are you focusing on a specific Action, an ongoing Behaviour or possible Consequences ? Try not to mix them. Another approach my colleagues use in training is “feed forward not back”.

And finally, think about this: if you’re giving negative feedback because you want to ‘make a point’ – there really is no point.

Use language that focuses on the situation, not on the person

Giving negative feedback is always a very personal thing, for both parties. Keep this is in mind when the other person takes your feedback personal. There are no magic phrases to use when giving negative feedback but avoid language like “you did” and “you shouldn’t have”. Owning your sentence with “I” is a better place than judging or blaming with “you”. Try sentences that start with “I noticed” or “I saw”. Avoid using “I think” or “I heard” as this implies a personal feeling, gossip, and/or judgement. Do keep in mind though that the “I” isn’t magic. If you are blaming somebody, the “I” doesn’t change how they react. And if you are managing people consider sometimes using “our” or “we” as a replacement for “I”.

Given time to absorb and reflect, most of us are grown-up enough to move past the personal impact of what is being said. More often than not, once we look back on the situation, we’re glad that someone gave us the feedback and brought it to our attention so that we can try to change our behaviour, or take appropriate action.

Turn up to the conversation, stay there and speak out

If you are going to give difficult or negative feedback you need to be present in the moment. You are committed to the conversation because you believe both parties will benefit. Shut out unhelpful self-talk like “well it won’t make any difference” or “ I knew he would say that when I said this”.  You both need to focus on this conversation and the outcome. You owe it to both of you to say what you think and feel, taking responsibility for your words and the outcome.

Be open, try to be objective, don’t judge

Don’t be vague, don’t be ambiguous. If the situation is a big deal, don’t call it a minor issue. Be open to receiving feedback on your feedback. Listening is as important as talking. Effective feedback is always a two-way street. And remember, what is obvious to others is not always obvious to you.

It’s almost never a good idea to judge others by your standards. You would do this or that, if you were him or her in this situation? You’re not him or her, you’re you. Or, he or she should do this or that in this situation? Better yet, if you were him or her, you wouldn’t even be in this situation… None of that means anything, beyond that you are different people.

Demonstrate understanding

For feedback to lead to a positive outcome for both sides you need to demonstrate understanding.  You can do this by …

  • Actively looking to find truth and agreement in what they are saying and validating this.  If you disagree with everything they say, how likely is it that they will accept and embrace everything you are saying?
  • Keep calm, centred and actively side-step confrontation and escalation.
  • Summarize your understanding of the other persons feelings (and be open to them correcting you).
  • Summarize your understanding of what they have said (and again, they can correct you)
  •  Asking a straight question to build bridges

Give examples and share patterns – and the impact on you/others

Your vested interest and understanding of the situation are important and this should be clear early in the conversation. Models such as DESC build this in. If you are not clear about something, ask and listen. Stick to what was observed. And as mentioned earlier, know whether you want to focus on an action, a pattern of behaviours  or consequences.

Trainer tip

“When we talk about patterns of behaviour, people will typically ask for an example. You are obliged to give examples- but if somebody is behaving defensively be prepared for them to then pull the example apart (challenge facts, bring in new information that may or may not be relevant, argue it was a unique situation). Your task is to listen, learn AND keep the conversation focussed on the pattern and no single event or action.”

Believe in change, support change

The words you say, your thoughts, your body language – if you don’t believe this change can happen, it probably won’t. You are a part of this change. You are, in fact, one of the initiators. More often than not, you can do more than give negative feedback. For change to work, it can’t come at a cost of something else and it often isn’t the responsibility of only one person to make the change. Look to create a “safe” environment where change is made easier.

And finally, not every moment needs to be a feedback moment

Sometimes people are having a rough time, sometimes problems do correct themselves. Not everything needs to be addressed, not every situation is a feedback or learning moment. Sometimes choosing not to give negative feedback is okay too – unless avoiding it comes at a cost (e.g. your frustration, team spirit, the problem escalates). Not giving difficult or negative feedback doesn’t mean saying nothing and doing nothing. Try a different approach – the feed forward method focuses the discussion on common goals and what you need to see done differently going forward. Use the  CIA model (Control, Influence, Accept) to determine which parts apply to this situation – and finding techniques that will help you move past it, without giving negative feedback.

 

Giving feedback using the DESC model

Everybody understands that performance feedback should be constructive, focused and to the point. Effective feedback can resolve conflicts, overcome problems and improve individual and team morale. It doesn’t really need mentioning that ineffective feedback often accomplishes the opposite. Or that if you are skilled at giving effective feedback, your team will be more motivated, which leads to better performance.




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“While feedback should focus on behaviour, performance feedback is still a personal conversation between people about people. Emotions always play a part in interpersonal communication. Effective feedback is as much about bringing the right message(s) across as it is about how your message is interpreted.”

Scott Levey

Some feedback facts*

  • 98% of employees will fail to be engaged when managers give little or no feedback
  • 69% of employees say they would work harder if they felt their efforts were better recognized
  • 78% of employees said being recognized motivates them in their job

*(source)

Giving positive feedback is easy

No matter how skilled the feedback giver is, if the receiver isn’t interested in hearing or taking the feedback, nothing will get through. The more difficult the feedback, the more the giver needs to consider the the emotional impact of the feedback. Giving positive feedback is easy.

What is and isn’t feedback?

In an interpersonal environment, feedback is communication about a person’s performance and how their efforts contribute to reaching goals. Feedback is not criticism. Criticism is evaluative; feedback is descriptive. Effective feedback is goal-referenced and tangible, actionable, personalized, timely, ongoing and consistent. As a leader, giving feedback is a task you perform again and again, to let people know where they are and where to go next in terms of individual, team, and company goals.

Giving feedback is a touchy thing. Think back over feedback you have received in the past. Chances are you’ve been given feedback that helped you develop. And, unfortunately, chances are somewhere in your career you’ve been given feedback that made you feel defensive, resistant or unmotivated. By putting yourself back in your old shoes, and thinking about how they actually gave you the feedback, you can improve your own feedback skills.

Common mistakes people make when giving feedback

  1. Avoiding giving feedback
  2. Focusing on the person and not the performance
  3. Giving feedback on what is going wrong, and never on what is going right
  4. Coming  across as judgmental
  5. Doing all the talking, and none of the listening
  6. Giving the feedback without any context
  7. Making generalized, vague statements
  8. Avoiding responsibility for what they are saying by referring to others
  9. Getting defensive if they don’t understand you, or you don’t understand them

“We can’t let our own success, education and advancement ride on whether the person giving us feedback happens to be talented or caring. We have to learn to learn from everyone around us, including people who are lousy at giving feedback, or who don’t have the time to do it thoughtfully. Our individual success depends on it, and so does the collective success of the organization.

The DESC model

In our skills-based Leadership training, we use the simple 4-step model DESC for structuring feedback. Participants in our “Practical Toolbox for Managers” seminars often highlight DESC as one of the most valuable tools they take away. This model is designed to help you to get your message clear and it can even take the stress out of the feedback conversation for those of us that weren’t born with effective feedback-giving skills.

DESCRIPTION

Give an objective and concrete description of what you have observed using “I” statements.

EFFECT

Explain the effect or impact it had on your business, the team or its members. If the effect was an emotion, name it. Your body language and tone of voice will already be showing your elation or frustration – putting them out in the open can help you move things forward.

SOLUTION

Build the solution through a directive (“What I would like you to do next time is …”) or a participative approach (“What do you think we can do to avoid this next time?”).

CONCLUSION

Build a “contract of commitment”. Check your understanding of what has been agreed, and get commitment for the future.

Further Leadership resources:

Asking for feedback

1001meetingsphraseslargeI recently asked a colleague for some feedback following a presentation which I thought had been a bit shaky. ‘You did great’ was the reply, and the conversation moved on. Later on, when the warm glow of being told ‘well done’ had faded, I asked myself what I had actually learnt from that feedback and how would it help me improve. I realized that apart from thinking what a nice person my colleague was, I’d actually heard nothing which would help me do better next time. It then dawned on me that this was because of how I’d gone about asking for it. If I wanted to get meaningful feedback, then the way I asked for it had to be structured too.

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Basic steps to get the feedback you want

Getting feedback from peers is one of the most useful tools we have for enhancing our performance. Peer feedback is in real time, looks at learnt skills being used in real situations, and it’s from ‘end users’. But how we go about asking for this feedback has a huge influence on how useful what we hear will be. No more ‘Do you think my presentation was OK’? type questions, what do you really want to know?

Check with your peer that they are comfortable giving you feedback

If they say no, it’s not necessarily because they have nothing good to say! Not everyone is comfortable giving feedback, and those that aren’t tend to give the type of empty answers such as ‘great’ or ‘it was fine’.  A few ways to ask could be:

  • “I’m really hoping to improve my presentations skills and could use your help.  Do you mind giving me some feedback after my presentation?”
  • “Could you give me some feedback on my presentation afterwards?  It would help me a lot in improving my presentation skills.” 

Be specific about what you want feedback on

When asking for feedback, briefly explain what you would like to cover, and why it’s important to you.

  • “It would help me a lot if you could specifically pay attention to my body language during my presentation.”
  • “Could you try and focus on how I transition from point to point during my talk?”

And, if the other person is struggling to think of something to say, ask two basic questions:

  • “What did I do best?” 
  • “Is there something I can improve?” 

Don’t be afraid to dig deeper

For example, I was told that I had lost the audience in a presentation. By asking where I had lost them, why did they feel this had happened and did they have any suggestions for what I could do differently, I was able to think of ways to prevent this happening in my next presentation.                            

Since following these steps, I’ve found feedback far more useful and an increase in respect from both sides. There have only been a couple of times that I’ve winced at something somebody has said, but what they said was true. Ultimately, audiences at future presentations have benefited. So, take a big breath, smile and ask the question – could I ask you for some feedback?