The Art of Giving Feedback — How To Get It Right In 10 Steps

At some point in your career, you will have received feedback that left you feeling deflated or worse, no communication at all about your performance so you had no idea whether you were sinking or swimming. Now that you’re a tech leader, you don’t want to repeat these mistakes and it’s worth mastering because your business depends on it. To help, we’ve broken down the different types of feedback and how to communicate it properly, so that everyone wins.

Why feedback is vital for growth

Whether you’re in an early-stage startup, scaling or leading a huge corporation, feedback is key to gauging and improving performance; when feedback is regularly exchanged between managers and employees, engagement jumps to 79%. It’s no surprise therefore that the top performing companies are such because they’re always looking for ways to be better and practical communication is part of this. Your juniors need to feel valued, encouraged and engaged. They are invested in making the product / business model sustainable and profitable, so they need to know that you care about their contribution and that they have a place within the team. How? By pointing out when they’re doing well and when they aren’t.

Types of Feedback

Feedback should highlight both strengths and weaknesses. Too much praise can be considered patronising and inauthentic, while over-criticising can feel aggressive. Crucially, this doesn’t mean that feedback can’t be ‘negative’, it can be; just that when it is, it must be purposive and constructive, and delivered in a way that doesn’t belittle or undermine your team members. A simple ‘dressing down’ may make someone realise they’ve made an error, but without a clear discussion as to how it should be done, confidence can be knocked and improvement may take longer or not happen at all. It is also pays to be aware that giving feedback — positive or negative — can create a ‘fight or flight’ response in the receiver meaning that their ability to hear, and act rationally on, what is being said can be hampered.

Feedback can be broken down into three categories: positive constructive, negative constructive and negative destructive. The difference between constructive and destructive is intention. If you want to help someone develop, it’s constructive; if your aim is to make them feel bad for their behaviour then you are crossing the line into destructive.

Example 1: “You gave a good presentation in the meeting earlier — people found it helpful in the way it was set out, so how would you feel about doing more in the future?”

This is positive constructive: you are recognising something that has been done well and reinforcing that behaviour by indicating that the approach should be adopted going forward.

Example 2: “Well done for giving a presentation earlier, however I am concerned it was missing some crucial information. What did you do to prepare and how can build on that to avoid it in the future?”

This is negative constructive: you have recognised the contribution made, been direct with your misgivings and asked the employee what they think they can do to make it better. Crucially, you’ve indicated that you want their contribution to continue so they know you are invested and will want to improve.

Example 3: “Your presentation in this morning’s meeting was awful. The information was irrelevant and you paused too much, I don’t know why you volunteered to do it.”

This is destructive and only serves to diminish self-esteem, lower morale and undervalue your staff. Offering no support or guidance on how to change the problematic behaviour will lead to disengaged staff, a reduction in productivity and increased turnover.

In recent years, there has been a move towards the concept of Radical Candor — the idea that honest feedback is the ‘atomic building block of good management’. Kim Scott, who held management positions at both Google and Apple, is the author of How To Be a Kick Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. She defined two fundamental dimensions of radical candor — ‘challenging directly’ and ‘caring personally’ and said to be a good leader, you need to avoid the following feedback behaviours:

  • Ruinous Empathy — This is caring too much; by burying your head in the sand and avoiding telling people the truth so you ‘don’t hurt their feelings’, you’re setting them up for more fundamental failures in the future;
  • Obnoxious Aggression — Forgetting the person behind the work and simply attacking them for failures. The ‘silent treatment’, public degradation and shouting in the workplace all fall into this category; and
  • Manipulative Insecurity — Not saying what you think because you want to be liked.

Scott concluded that in order to achieve radical candor, you need to care about the human side of your team; they have dreams, aspirations and feelings, but also be frank with them. Demonstrate integrity when feeding back by getting straight to the point and ‘telling people in caring, non-judgmental language when their work is falling short’.

Getting it right

A survey by leadership development company Fierce Inc, found that 86% of respondents blamed a lack of communication for workplace failures. Additionally poor communication can cause a multitude of problems and is a bigger cause of high employee turnover than financial incentives.

Now you know how integral feedback is to any communication strategy, here’s our top 10 tips for doing it effectively:

  1. Identify a goal — As a manager and leader, the aim of any feedback session rests with you. What is it you want to see from your staff? Where do you want them / the project to go? How do you envisage that happening.? Goals should be set both for the short and longer-term and communicated so both of you know what, if anything, needs to change and agree a way forward.
  2. Beware your own biases and limitations — Constructive feedback doesn’t simply involve telling people how you think the job should be done. It also requires providing them with the capacity and resources to perform effectively. While there may be a general ‘right’ way of doing things, there are often multiple — and equally good — ways to reach the same end-goal. Don’t assume that just because it’s not done ‘your’ way, it’s wrong.
  3. Have a conversation — ‘Feedbacking’ should be two-way street; be descriptive and give examples of when you have encountered the person’s positive / negative behaviour and invite a response. They will understand what you want from them and ensures they actively participate in their development.
  4. Don’t make it personal — Feedback is about actions and behaviour, not the person. Before giving it, it helps to look at the issue(s) and make sure you can separate the two. Use examples of behaviour to demonstrate this and if you can’t find any, it maybe that you’re targeting something incorrectly or you’re getting too personal.
  5. Avoid loaded language — Focus on asking WHAT and HOW, not WHY. Enquiring ‘why’ someone acted the way they did is akin to searching for a ‘motive’ and can come across as accusatory. This will set a negative tone, make the receiver act defensively and feel like they are on the back foot; none of which will lead to a constructive outcome.
  6. Be specific and timely — Change doesn’t happen overnight. First, you need to be clear about the change you want to see; second, give the person a reasonable and achievable amount of time in which to do it. Lastly, choose the right time to do it — it goes without saying that constructive negative feedback should not be given in front of others as it will defeat its purpose — however, you also need to consider: when the receiver is likely to be the most receptive; when you have time to listen to any concerns in response and support development; and when it will be most impactful for the team / any project.
  7. Offer training and development — If, as a result of the feedback given, the receiver feels they need additional training, consider the benefit of workshops, mentoring or coaching and make it available whenever possible.
  8. Be consistent in your approach — Have a standardised feedback policy that involves regular meetings and appraisals rather than pulling someone aside when the moment takes you. Your team will know what to expect and when, so they’ll feel more prepared.
  9. Acknowledge the good as often as the bad — Only giving negative constructive feedback, even when well-intentioned, will adversely affect performance. Recognising when your team (individually and as a whole) has done well will breed confidence and improve productivity. It will also increase their trust in you as a leader as it’ll be clear that your feedback is genuine.
  10. Follow up — If you’re truly focused on the long-term gains for your business, you should be playing the long game. Keeping a log of feedback given to juniors means it can be followed up at a later date and you can document their progress and reward it.

So go forth and feed back — your team will thank you for it and so will your business.

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