Mary has just finished giving a presentation to a group of vendors. As she collects her notes, Joe, her boss, approaches her to offer some helpful feedback: “Hey Mary, I know you’ve taken a presentation skills course, but from what I just saw you still need to work on your eye contact. Overall though, not a bad job.”
You’ve offered similar feedback countless times to your subordinates, perhaps even using the “feedback sandwich” methodology — criticism “sandwiched” between praise. Unfortunately you rarely seem to get any results. Why? Your well-intentioned feedback was given in a manner that most likely de-motivated, upset or even angered the person to whom you offered it.
Here are a few things that went wrong in that example:
-The feedback was not given at a time and place where Mary was ready to receive it. She had not even had a moment to recover from the adrenaline rush of public speaking or to collect her thoughts (never mind her notes!);
-Mary was not given a chance to offer her own assessment of her presentation, and there was no hint that the feedback was given in the spirit of trying to improve Mary’s performance. Therefore it most likely made Mary angry and/or defensive.
Such missteps can easily be avoided by following these 10 steps to effective feedback:
1. Ask permission to provide feedback to your employee. This will allow the employee to choose whether she is in a place where she is comfortable receiving feedback. It also gives the employee a moment to clear her thoughts and focus on the feedback. As a supervisor, asking permission may sound awkward, but consider it the way you would knocking on an office door. Regardless of whether you are the CEO or the janitor, it is just an act of politeness, not subordination.
2. Frame the discussion by communicating what the discussion will be about at the outset. Using the example above, Joe should have opened the conversation with “Can I offer you some feedback about your presentation, in particular the way in which you connected with the audience?” This is important because it focuses the employee on the particular subject you are about to address (connecting with the audience), and it keeps the discussion from being all over the place, which would make it difficult for the employee to have a specific “take-away” or point of improvement.
3. Ask how the employee felt about the work she did. Before jumping in, it is helpful to understand whether the employee recognizes the areas where she did well and those that need improvement. It also provides you with something to reference back to later in the conversation. If the employee recognizes the feedback you are going to give, it changes the conversation and keeps you from spouting off while Mary is thinking “Yeah, yeah, I know all this.”
4. Ask what he/she was trying to achieve. Because feedback is about helping the individual improve his or her performance and be more effective in the future, it is essential to understand what the recipient was trying to achieve. If the recipient’s mistake was her choice of desired outcome rather than her method for achieving it, the feedback given becomes very different.
5. Listen actively. The more you understand what the employee thinks and what she was trying to achieve, the more helpful you can be. Active listening makes the recipient feel more at ease, more receptive, and therefore more likely to buy in to the feedback.
6. Provide positive feedback. It is important to recognize the employee’s strengths so in the future she will continue to leverage them. Recognizing the employee’s strengths shows that you are not just looking to “beat on her” once again, making her more receptive.
7. Provide constructive feedback. By phrasing the feedback in an action-oriented way, it naturally brings the conversation around to looking for a better way of handling the situation.
8. Ask if your comments made sense. If your comments were not understood, then the whole purpose of the feedback session was defeated.
9. Ask how the person might handle the situation differently next time. It’s more important for the employee to come up with her own suggestions as she will be more likely to take ownership of these suggestions and implement them in the future.
10. Suggest a better way of approaching the situation. Provide the employees with your suggestions for improvement. You have established an open dialogue and can discuss next steps toward improvement and make your expectations known.
A few thoughts on the methodology:
-The steps needn’t be taken linearly, but should flow naturally in the course of your conversation;
Keith Morton, President of Erimo Consulting, has spent the last dozen years helping companies of all sizes address their growth challenges. Specializing in strategy development, marketing & sales, technology commercialization and corporate innovation, Keith takes great pleasure working with executives to fundamentally change the direction of their organizations. A graduate of Union College, he received his MBA at UCLA’s Anderson School. He can be reached at email@example.com.