Not many people seem to relish giving constructive feedback, and I haven’t spoken with anyone lately who complains of receiving too much positive feedback. Remember the “BOLDER” model for help in regularly delivering both positive and constructive feedback in a way that can actually strengthen the relationship. One rule of thumb is to maintain a 3:1 ratio of positive to constructive discussions. I have a dream that one day, a combination of on-the-spot feedback and brief, structured monthly/quarterly feedback conversations will replace the dreaded and highly ineffective “annual review” process.
Begin by describing the specific behavior you’ve personally observed, as opposed to expressing opinions and judgment about the person. Stick to the facts. Personal characterizations such as “irresponsible” only escalate tensions. Avoid vague terms as well as absolutes and superlatives such as “always” and “never.” Explain why the observed behavior misses or exceeds expectations. The feedback recipient must understand the specific behavior you’re discussing. This is just as important for positive feedback as it is for constructive feedback situations. The comment “Great job on the project!” doesn’t provide useful insight for improvement on future projects. “Hmm, I wonder what I did that was so great? Was it my creative new collaboration with the design department or the new vendor I found that reduced costs 7%?”
2. Own It
Own your comments with “I statements.” You’re not speaking on behalf of a nameless group. State what you’ve observed and the effect it has on you, or something in which you share common ground, such as a client. Just as the feedback giver owns the feedback, the feedback recipient is the primary owner for the response and solution.
After a brief description of the behavior, ask neutral open-ended question to allow the feedback recipient to respond. “Could you tell me more about this?” Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding. Each party can demonstrate active listening by paraphrasing comments and asking further questions to better understand and diagnose the root cause of the behavior. Approaching the feedback discussion as a conversation creates opportunities to collaborate and problem solve.
Timely face-to-face feedback allows for a more nuanced conversation. The only good reasons to delay feedback are to calm down if emotions are highly charged, or to schedule appropriate private one-on-one time. Being timely and direct also helps to avoid the “sandwich” effect in which both positive and constructive feedback comments slowly build up in queue then are served up all at once in the highly ineffective good-bad-good “feedback sandwich.”
Empathy builds the relationship while maintaining accountability for expectations. Seek to understand how the other person feels. You don’t have to feel the same way, (that’s sympathy), but expressions of empathy can reduce tension and keep the focus on the behavior, not the person. Sensory words such as see, hear, or feel are helpful. “I can see that you are frustrated by the new deadline policy. Do you have any ideas on how we can address this?”
Recognize that it takes some courage for the feedback giver to initiate the conversation. Likewise, the feedback recipient may feel surprised or awkward. Briefly acknowledge these types of issues then move on. “This was hard for me to bring up, but I respect you enough that I had to let you know how this behavior is affecting me. I thought you’d appreciate knowing this.”
Set specific time-bound expectations by describing what that specific behavior would look like in the future. If there is a commitment or competence gap that needs to be bridged, define what steps the feedback recipient will take to reach the goal. “Who will do what by when and how will they do it?” The feedback recipient has accountability for the process, and has the prerogative to partner with the feedback giver or others to get the resources needed to meet the expectations. Check back in to see what’s working and what’s not. Correct course as necessary. Feedback is a circle, not a single point in time!
When have you seen feedback work well (or not so well)?