Why we need to get feedback right

Communication  Leadership
19 November, 2014

For best results, deliver feedback in a timely way

As a leader, you have the greatest ability to impact the growth, performance and engagement of your team members. Many studies indicate that the number one factor that influences a person’s intent to stay on or leave a job, is their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their supervisor.  It is our responsibility to keep our team members challenged and help them perform to the best of their potential. And without giving regular feedback, it really is not possible for us to be effective team leaders.

Though giving feedback is a very important part of our roles, this is possibly an area that many of us are uncomfortable with; especially when it involves a difficult conversation. Often, we seem to go through the motions to just check the boxes. We don’t really think about how the feedback will actually drive the performance and growth of our team members. I strongly believe that as leaders, giving useful and frequent feedback is something that we really need to get better at.

One of my first bosses taught me a technique of feedback that is quite popular and can be sometimes effective. It is called “The Shit Sandwich” (pardon the language). The basic idea is to start the feedback by complimenting the individual (top slice of bread). This is followed by giving the difficult message (the shit). And then the conversation is wrapped up by reminding the person how much they are valued (the bottom slice of the sandwich). I quickly realised though that this formulaic approach did not work well with experienced employees. The initial goodwill from the praise would quickly get dissipated as the employee would inevitably start waiting for the negative part of the conversation.

Thus, I learnt that for feedback to work, it is very important to be authentic. The feedback has to come with the right intentions. Team members should feel that the feedback is genuinely being provided to help them get better.

Over the years, I have learnt some tips on how to give feedback. I am sure that many of you use these techniques (and probably have other better approaches as well). Here are 10 tips below that you may find useful

1. Do your homework

There is no substitute for preparation. Spend about 30-45 minutes preparing for each review discussion. Think about the key messages you want to discuss. Get the necessary data and examples to bring the messages to life.

2. Get your team members to do their homework

Encourage your team members to set aside adequate time to think through their self appraisals. Make it clear that this is as important as your review process with them. Get them to share this feedback well before your review, so that you can go through it and be better prepared for the discussion.

3. Create a conducive atmosphere for the conversation

Small things matter – book a room or choose a space where you know you won’t be disturbed. Block adequate time on your calendars. Don’t take calls or check email during the conversation. Start with some general chitchat to make your team member more comfortable – maybe ask how his / her family is doing; how the weekend was etc.

4. Feedback is a dialogue, not a monologue

Ask the team member for his / her views on what has gone well. And on things that did not go well or their biggest challenges. This will also help you identify areas where you can help with their development. Listen to their views.

5. Value your team member’s contributions

Affirm the strengths and the contributions that your team member has made to the organisation. It is important to frame the conversation in terms of what he / she has done well. Be genuine and authentic in your praise. But also be careful – don’t sugar coat the message or use positive feedback to cushion the blow before delivering criticism. That will degrade the value of your praise.

6. Provide specific feedback

Avoid general assertions. Back your points with specific anecdotes and examples. Focus on business outcomes – frame it in terms of reaching specific goals. That will make the feedback more tangible. Avoid a laundry list of improvement areas. Focus on the 2-3 most important areas to improve on. Ascertain that both of you are on the same page on this.

Also, remember that effective feedback cannot be given in an one size fits all approach. People react to feedback in different ways. Some are much more sensitive than others. So, you need to think about what tone to use – that will influence how receptive the individual is to the feedback.

7. Identify next steps for the next six months

Provide suggestions that will help your team member work on any gaps. Agree on an action plan, including how you will support their development. Ask him / her to send you a follow up email summarising these next steps. Maybe agree on meeting in a month’s time to follow through, if necessary. Block the date. For someone who has performance issues, be clear about the consequences of not improving.

8. Commit your support

Reiterate that you will fully support him / her on their journey. Emphasise that you will be available to be a mentor, sounding board – whatever is needed.

9. Ask for feedback on the feedback

Ask your team member what he / she thought of the conversation and how you can be more helpful.

10. Take notes

Take notes during the discussion that you can refer to later on. Find a way to track and save these. Showing how interested you are and the details that you will focus on, will encourage your team member to commit more strongly to the discussion and the agreed way forward.

Feedback works best when it is a continual process. While we will have scheduled discussions as part of review processes, we must individually commit to creating more regular channels for feedback with our teams.

This could be anything from a one-on-one lunch every month to a debrief session after closing a major project, or even sharing ideas at a weekly meeting. There is no one size fits all. As you would already know, the more you can tailor your approach to an individual team member’s style, the better the discussion is likely to be.

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