Delivering effective feedback

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As a leader, you know that you should be giving feedback. Yet, because feedback can be difficult to give and receive, chances are high that you delay and avoid feedback conversations. While you know that feedback is a vital ingredient for success at work, it is also complex and fraught with contradictions, such as:

Your employees dread getting feedback but want more of it. This apparent contradiction stems from the fact that it is human nature to protect our self-esteem. Feedback that judges and evaluates can threaten feelings of being respected and valued. At the same time, most employees want to know how they are doing so they can improve. Therefore it is important for leaders to learn to give feedback in a way that affirms the employee’s worth and clearly communicates opportunities for improvement.

Change can be both a choice and a command. Some experts like to say that feedback can only be offered, not forced. You may have learned that feedback is a gift that the receiver may choose to act upon or ignore. Yet it is appropriate for you as the leader to convey your expectations and expect to see change when there is a behavior or performance problem.

The key to addressing this contradiction is to acknowledge that it is your responsibility to clarify your expectations for both performance and behavior and accept that lasting change only happens when the employee chooses to change. If the employee ultimately chooses no change to meet the requirements of the job, consequences are appropriate.

Here are five tips for delivering feedback in a way that will help employees improve while simultaneously affirming their value.

1. Arrange a time and place.

Your feedback won’t have an impact unless the other person is ready to hear it. Take the time to set the tone before launching into your feedback.

“I know you have been putting in a lot of hours lately and it seems as if it might be taking a toll on you. I’ve noticed you are acting differently with your team. When can we talk about it?”

2. Convey positive intent.

Constructive feedback can sound like criticism to the person receiving the feedback. When you start by explaining your positive intent, the other person is more likely to be receptive to your feedback.

“I’ve noticed mistakes in the last couple of reports you completed. I’d like to sit down with you to figure out how to make sure the data we provide is error-free.”

3. Limit it to one issue.

Saving up your constructive feedback and delivering it all at once will make the person feel attacked, which will result in a defensive reaction. Plus, most people can only focus on changing one or two behaviors at a time. Limit your feedback to what is most important right now. Once you see improvement in one area, you can address others.

4. Avoid words that put people on the defensive.

Some words or phrases have the effect of backing people into a corner. Avoid accusatory, judgmental and bossy words and phrases, such as, “You don’t understand,” and “You have to” or “You should.”

5. Be clear about expectations.

There is a popular feedback model known as SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact). While this model is effective in describing what happened in the past, it does not address what you want to have happen in the future. In addition to describing a past behavior and the impact it had, you need to clearly communicate what should happen next. The employee should leave the conversation knowing exactly what you would like him or her to start, stop, or continue doing.

Using these five techniques will increase the likelihood that your people will be receptive to your feedback and will ultimately change their behavior.

Tips for receiving feedback

Everyone suffers from a lack of self-awareness at times and feedback is the only way to learn what our blind spots are. Even when you don’t agree with it, view feedback as a gift. When you sense that someone is trying to give you feedback, it may help you both to get very clear. Try asking, “What exactly would you like me to stop or start doing?”

Try giving feed-forward

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith came up with the concept of feed-forward years ago. It means giving employees suggestions in advance about how to behave rather than waiting for them to fail and beating them up afterwards. For example, if you have an employee who is about to present to your company’s executive leadership team for the first time, you might give him or her feed-forward about how to dress, when to speak, how much detail to go into, etc.

Mack is a Woodland Park-based consultant, speaker and author specializing in leading and communicating change. She can be reached at