How to give feedback: rules, examples, tips
Feedback is one of the most important managerial tools. It’s essential for your development as a leader that you learn to effectively receive and provide feedback.
Feedback involves the responses and evaluations we receive from other people. That’s why feedback is such a great compliment to our own self-perception. It provides us with an outside view and allows us to come to a more objective assessment of ourselves.
By giving feedback you can help others to see how their actions are perceived, how their performance is rated, and show them potential for improvement. When applied correctly feedback can be an invaluable source for professional growth.
But note that feedback is not always well received, and it needs to follow certain rules.
What you can expect from this article
- Feedback: definition and goals
- Bad advice comes at a price
- Feedback rules: tips and examples for good advisors — How to give feedback in three simple steps
- Four typical mistakes that we make with feedback — Employee reactions: the SARA-Model
- Asking for feedback: This is how you do it — Asking for advice makes you more creative
1. Feedback: definition and goals
Feedback — what is it? And more importantly: What is it good for? Feedback is a cornerstone of constructive communication among humans. It plays a critical role, both in clarifying misunderstandings and formulating expectations. In short: Feedback fosters mutual understanding, allows to build trust and achieve better results.
As a tool for leading and developing employees, professional feedback helps to to motivate people and ultimately improve their performances. Richard Conniff at Yale University managed to show that constructive feedback can boost employee motivation and performance by 10 percent. When good outcomes are appreciated and they are properly communicated, motivation can even rise by 17 percent. It has a bigger impact on people’s spirit and eagerness to excel than monetary incentives alone.
The precondition for this is that feedback is not limited to spontaneously outbursts and impulsive responses. It requires preparation and a setting that provides sufficient time and space for the feedback to be handled professionally. One way to do this are regular feedback sessions for employees.
Another critical factor lies in the goals feedback aims to achieve. Here are some examples of feedback goals:
- assessing the performance level
- evaluating and naming successes
- defining new goals and adapting future expectations
- analyzing the required competencies
- planning the development of an employee
- resolving misunderstandings or (professional) conflicts
- agreement on the future collaboration
Feedback fosters mutual understanding, allows to build trust and achieve better results.
No question, such elaborative feedback comes with significant challenges for both sides — the feedback provider as well as the feedback recipient. Professional feedback contains not only praise, but also criticism. This includes sensible areas like personal development and looks at positive as well as negative behavior.
Raising these points is no less difficult than receiving them. All the more important is that the feedback provider creates an informal, calm atmosphere and pays attention to the actionability of his or her remarks. When you are too demanding with people, they will become even more frustrated.
2. Bad advice comes at a price
There is little more annoying than advice that has not been asked for. Sure, they intended to help, but when feedback is inappropriately formulated or comes at the wrong time, it can feel very patronizing, intrusive, and humiliating. The actual message might get totally lost and all that is remembered is the criticism, the nagging, and the judgement.
This might be partly caused by the fact that “feedback” is sometimes used in a very hypocritical manner: these “advisors” give feedback to display their superiority, as they grant you the special favor to benefit from their sublime expertise. You can easily spot them. For they are the ones who care less for your improvement and more for making sure that everybody recognizes them as the ingenious savior. In the worst case their advice might be even toxic: these people feast on other people’s misery and will use their toxic advice to prolong their struggle.
Spotting bad feedback
There are typical indicators that will help you to spot bad feedback:
- bad feedback is formulated in a hurtful way and degrades others
- bad feedback attacks others personally
- bad feedback condemns instead of evaluating
- bad feedback comes in spontaneous outburst — without empathy for your circumstance or feelings
- bad feedback is motivated by self interest — not by what others need
Don’t get me wrong: It is often said that good advice is hurtful. But this is only really the case for destructive feedback. Truly good advice is precious — it is rare, but also rarely comes at a price. Conversely, good feedback requires certain basic rules, in order to be useful and feel supportive.
3. Feedback rules: tips and examples for good advisors
A good and well-meaning advisor that only want the best for you (and doesn’t just pretend to) has to follow the following feedback rules:
1. Get an overview
From the outside things often appear a lot simpler. But before starting to hand out advice too quickly, you should ask yourself if you have competently assessed all details: are all variable known — also the ones concerning the current situation of the person in question? Or put differently: You should only give good advice when you actually can.
2. Wait for the right timing
As mentioned before, you should never give advice to someone who did not ask for it. Otherwise your feedback will look more like instructions. At most, good advice can be offered. It is important though that you accept when the offer is not accepted. Optimally feedback comes as a response to a question. Still, it should come timely, as otherwise the initial situation might not be fully remembered anymore.
3. Create the right setting
Always give feedback in one-on-one meetings, to allow the other person to save face — especially when the feedback is quite critical.
4. Use I-statements
Constructive critique never remains vague. Generalizations and blanket statements are of no use as they don’t allow you to derive actionable steps from them.
To make feedback comprehensible it should be as specific as possible. That forces the providers of feedback to prove the value of their feedback. Such advice is often better received when it is phrased in a subjective manner (I-statements). That means, talk about your personal observations, and impressions and say what you would do –not what “one” would do.
For example: “Mrs. X, I had the impression that you were not optimally prepared during your last presentation. When asked questions, you often avoided the issue. What was the reason for that?”
5. Show options
But don’t intervene! Good advice never creates pressure, that would undermine trust. Also a taboo: forcing others to defend themselves. The goal is to be constructive and show new options by describing the situation as neutrally as possible without judging or attacking others. Even if some people need to be forced to their luck –in feedback it is forbidden.
6. Accept feedback
A clever feedback provider would never phrase advice in a way that makes it appear to be an impregnable truth. They should rather let the recipient talk and signal openness to question their own advice. And most importantly –accept feedback from the other person. This is how you have a conversation on equal footing.
Here are a few feedback phrases that can be used in professional settings:
- I have the impression that…
- I recently noticed…
- Although I appreciate _____, I did not like this time that…
- I find that you _____, when compared to…
- I would prefer, if next time you could…
- I would appreciate if you could for example _____, in the future.
Tips for good feedback
Providing good feedback is not easy, but it doesn’t need to be rocket science either. If you want to give feedback that is useful to the recipient and conveys all important aspects the following three steps are often sufficient:
1. Show your perspective on issues
To begin with, feedback is about your personal perception. Don’t claim to know the truth and rather communicate what you see, feel, and observe.
2. Explain your point of view
In the second step, you might want to explain the conclusion you draw from what you perceive. A useful way to phrase this could be: “To me it feels as if you…”
3. State your expectations
Finally you should end with a clear call to action. What do expect from the other person? What should he or she do differently?
4. 4 typical mistakes that we make with feedback
Of course it can feel very fulfilling to help others and give them useful advice. Entire professions like coaching and consultancy are based on this desire. Nonetheless, there are certain pitfalls to avoid that complement the before-mentioned feedback rules. Since you should always follow your own advice, the following mistakes are phrased positively:
Be self critical: Do you rather give positive or negative feedback? Or put differently: Do you prefer to criticize others or to praise them? Even though the answer might be quite inconvenient, it can reveal a lot about you.
Good advisors encourage others instead of degrading them. They avoid selfish behavior, as their goal is to open up opportunities for others — not for their own ego. By the way, little is worse than so-called sandwich criticism — meaning supposed praised covered in scolding.
Commenting when someone has a bad hair day? Big mistake! Never give advice when someone is frustrated or in a bad mood. This will always rub off on the feedback provider. And in no circumstances should you make it your personal mission. Neutrality is the highest duty of any advisor.
Good feedback is always honest and specific. If you only want to complain, without concern for the other, you might better keep the advice to yourself. This also carries another risk: Honesty and bluntness can feel hurtful. Despite your good intentions you might be perceived as an aggressor. That’s why it is important to be sensitive and properly dose your feedback.
Don’t always say everything that you see. Or in other words: Have mercy when giving feedback.
If you advise others, without laying out the consequences of your suggestions, you act irresponsibly. Advice is not a game. Otherwise you would be gambling with the live of somebody, who is incapable of helping him or herself.
Helping others in need feels good, but it also includes taking on responsibility.
5. Employee reactions: the SARA-Model
Psychologist Art Markmann investigated the following question: Why does feedback fail and why is advice so often ignored. He found the problem to lie in the different levels of abstraction between providers and recipients of feedback.
Wherever there is criticism and negative feedback employee reactions range from rejection and anger to acceptance and agreement. To many leaders this feels like an emotional rollercoaster, like you would expect to experience during existential crises –especially when the feedback has severe consequence for the employee.
Scientists refer to this spectrum of reactions as the SARA-Model. It is an acronym composed of the four phases that individuals go through with varying intensiveness:
Leaders that want to provide an 360-Degree Feedback to their employees should be prepared for the following:
When you receive negative feedback you usually react with shock. “That’s not possible! There must be a mistake…”. The reason for this is the sudden crack between self and outside perception, which the recipient needs to process.
In the second phase most react with a kind of forward defense: As things ought to be, as they are supposed to be, somebody else it to be blamed. Instead of questioning themselves and reflecting (which is much less comfortable), they blame external circumstances, mean colleagues, etc.
As the feedback requires change (which is often painful) phase 3 is about growing resistance: “That’s just how I am…, this is too much to ask!” Many fall back to various rhetorical means to find new reasons and explanations. For their managers this is probably the toughest phase.
At some point–hopefully–you will come to the last phase of this emotional rollercoaster: The receiver accepts the feedback and their role in it. Now it’s time to implement changes and begin the reconstruction.
Managers should be aware that these reactions can be delayed and might occur only a few days after the meeting. During the session the other person will remain calm on the surface but is while shocked on the inside. This is to cover up an emotional response or to process what has been said. One way or another, you should carefully observe your employee and might want to offer him or her a follow-up meeting.
How to ask for feedback
When was the last time that you asked a colleague or manager for feedback? Must have been a while. Then you have something in common with most employees. Even though they are aware of the importance of feedback, we often see it as criticism.
Criticism might be a natural ingredient in a feedback session, but is is just one among many. Praise, assessment, hints, and suggestions for improvement are other vital components of feedback.
However, without feedback there is no controlled growth. Hence the importance of regular feedback sessions: without reflection from and with others, we all might just continue working our way, developing in the wrong direction.
You can ask your colleagues for feedback whenever you want. With your superiors this can be a bit more difficult, depending on the organizational and team structure. Here you should use quarterly or annual performance reviews to receive proper feedback from your bosses.
Choosing the right advisor
When choosing your advisor the following criteria play a major role:
This person should have the functional expertise to evaluate your work properly and give you qualified feedback.
You should be able to trust their feedback.
The feedback provider should not follow a hidden agenda.
As the recipient of feedback you should stick to the following rules:
Good feedback takes its time. You will not get this on the go.
Let the feedback provider finish first and listen actively. Not only is it more polite, it is also more productive, as it allows the other person to properly formulate his or her thoughts so that you can access their full potential.
Be sure to thank him or her at the end of the feedback session. This shows gratitude for their time and investment. And simultaneously it increases the likelihood to get feedback from them in the future.
After receiving feedback you should take you time to go through, reflect on, and analyze the points tackled. See which suggestions you can and want to implement and which ones are less important to you.
Also take some time to give yours advisors some feedback on the implications of the changes and implementations they’ve suggested. This is a given when it comes to receiving feedback from superiors, but you should also do it after receiving feedback from your peers or subordinates.
Asking for advice makes you more creative
When you ask for help, your creativity is boosted. This is the result of a study conducted by researchers Jennifer Mueller and Dishan Kamdar at University of Pennsylvania and Indian School of Business. Both scientist had 291 test subjects solve various tasks.
The following interrogation showed that people who asked for advice and help were seen as more creative, even by their managers. But why?
- People who seek advice get newer information, consequently finding more complex and creative solutions.
- Individuals asking for help accepted that they would not succeed on their own and that their ideas would not suffice. That’s why they showed more openness towards other perspectives. They were open to assessing the problem from different angles.
Researchers also discovered something else: When you give others too much advice, you pay a hefty price: you become increasingly uncreative. Advisors run risk of favoring their own perspective over others’.
You do not have to follow all these points at once. Pick two or three ideas you would like to test in the upcoming weeks. As soon as you gain more confidence you can take more steps.