The Best Ways To Offer Effective Feedback

As a freelancer, I get lots of benefits that don’t come with most full-time jobs. I get to choose the work I do and the clients I take on, I make my own hours, and I work from home—in my pajamas, if I want to.

But there are upsides and downsides to everything. Freelancing means you’re your own boss, and it’s up to you to keep yourself on task. You also have to think about saving for retirement and paying for insurance, which might be covered if you were an employee.

It might sound strange, but not getting feedback is one of the downsides of freelancing, if you ask me. I thrive on feedback. I love hearing about what I did well (who doesn’t) and I like knowing what to work on (note my change of language there—I don’t actually like to hear about what I can improve on, but I do like to know what needs work; if only I could have one without the other).

Anyone who’s had to manage people knows how uncomfortable it can be to give feedback to your team members. Even providing positive feedback can be awkward if you’re not sure how to do it well. So we end up with a mumbled “good job” now and then, and managers frustrated over criticisms they can’t share, because giving feedback well is rarely taught to managers.

I’ve been in this situation before, and I know I’ve done a horrible job. I can remember uncomfortable conversations where I had to criticise someone’s performance, and I only wish I’d known how to handle it well.

But better late than never, right? Let’s look at what the experts say about handling a feedback conversation effectively. (Spoiler: we’re about to learn that the “shit sandwich” is a terrible approach, among other practical advice.)

Be Prepared

For managers, offering feedback is part of the job. “You do your star a disservice if you fail to help her figure out how she can continue to grow,” says Jean-François Manzoni, author and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Development at IMD International.

Though top performers tend to be overlooked when it comes to feedback, it’s something you should be providing for everyone on your team. Kim Castelda, senior vice president at software company Bullhorn, says she’s “rarely met someone who didn’t want to be successful, and giving feedback is an essential part of that.”

To start your feedback session on the right foot, Castelda suggests taking your role seriously and being prepared before your meeting starts. “Leaders should walk in centered, prepared, and organized,” she says. You should also prepare examples and data in advance, she says, to back up the points you want to make.

Be Specific with Correctional Feedback, General with Directional Feedback

When you actually deliver feedback, conflicting advice abounds on how to go about it. In particular, how specific you should be. But there does seem to be a general consensus depending on the situation.

When you’re providing feedback for creative work, to help an employee understand the direction you want them to take their project in, take a tip from the experts. Pixar director Pete Docter says the best way to provide feedback in this case is to keep it general. Don’t tell them exactly what to do, when, and how, he says, but take advantage of your employee’s creative skills and let them do what they were hired for.

If you can use a language that allows them to put in their own specifics, then it becomes much more truthful. — Pete Docter

Docter provides an example from working with animators. Rather than telling them how to animate a particular scene, and at what point the character should do something, he says, it makes more sense to use imagination and memory to evoke the feeling he wants to come across in this part of the film. Reminding the animator of how it felt to squabble with siblings when they were young is enough to get them thinking about how to make that mischievous feeling come through in the film, without telling them exactly what to do.

But you may be in an entirely other situation. One where you need to offer corrective feedback to help someone adjust their behavior or the way they approach their work.

In this case, most experts agree specificity is important, but with a caveat: feedback should be squarely aimed at the work or behavior itself, not the person. “Always describe behaviors, not traits,” says Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work.

“The more general the coaching advice,” say authors Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp in their book Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, “the more it is taken as a personal indictment.”

Again, Pixar has this process down pat. When criticising early versions of a film, the Pixar team knows they’re dealing with work that reflects strongly on the artists behind it. To avoid egos and hurt feelings getting in the way of improving the movie, criticism is always clearly aimed at the film itself, rather than its makers.

Start with the Negatives

When you’re delivering negative news, there’s one more thing to remember: if you’ve ever heard of the “shit sandwich” approach, now’s the time to discard it. The idea of sandwiching bad news between two bits of positive news sounds great in theory, but doesn’t work in practice.

Evolution has primed us to respond to and remember negative events more strongly, since they’re more often related to life-or-death danger than positive events. A close run-in with a tiger, for instance, would have stuck in our ancestors’ minds more strongly than a nice meal. They needed to learn from the encounter with the tiger and avoid it happening again, so their brains remembered it vividly.

Fortunately, we rarely face life-or-death dangers these days. Unfortunately, we still react more strongly to negative events. Which is why criticism stings so harshly, and we have a hard time letting go of negative experiences.

This is why the shit sandwich doesn’t work: sandwiching the bad news isn’t enough to overcome our natural tendencies to focus on it.

The good news is, there’s another approach that might work. According to Roy F. Baumeister, professor of social psychology at Florida State University, many good events can overcome the psychological effects of one bad event in our mind. Because it takes many positives to outweigh negatives, Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford University, and author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop suggests starting with the bad news first, then following it up with lots of positives. This helps to overwhelm the employee’s brain with good vibes, so they can’t dwell on the bad feedback.

Be Empathetic

Speaking of egos, we all know how much it hurts to get bad feedback on something you’ve done. Whether it’s your work, a suggestion you offered in a meeting, or a joke that doesn’t land, no one likes the feeling that we could have done better.

When you’re offering feedback to an employee, remember this. Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs says we need to be empathetic when discussing feedback. “Even if you disagree with their perspective,” she says, “honor the human in front of you.”

To ensure the process is respectful and useful to everyone involved, feedback discussions need to be a two-way conversation, not a lecture. Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, says to avoid making “the mistake of attributing intent,” and instead to “just focus on the impact of the behavior.” It’s all too easy to assume we know why someone made a particular decision, but without asking and truly listening, we can’t know for sure.

Rather than making harmful assumptions, be open to hearing your employee’s point of view. Davey suggests asking open-ended questions to learn how your employee took the feedback, whether they’ve understood you clearly, and what they plan to do differently next time.

Amy Gallo agrees that checking for understanding should be part of your process. She also suggests you and your team member “agree on clear next steps and a fair way to measure progress.”


One final thought: Castelda, who leads a training program on delivering difficult messages, suggests managers keep in mind the positive reasons for providing feedback. If you’re finding a conversation difficult or nerve-wracking, remember that your aim in providing feedback is to help your team members succeed and grow.

Research shows 53% of managers avoid difficult conversations due to lack of training in how to handle those moments effectively. A 2014 study also found 43% of managers felt that offering corrective feedback was a “stressful and difficult experience.”

If you fit into either of those groups, I hope this research will prove helpful in approaching future feedback sessions. And if nothing else, remember that you’re dealing with another human being, and do your best to be empathetic to their point of view.


 

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