Embrace Feedback — the Gift That Keeps on Giving

I once heard someone say, “Feedback is a gift.” I thought, okay. A gift for who — the giver or the receiver? I think it means more for the person getting it, and the phrase should be more like, “receive feedback like it’s a gift.” Gift giving is meant to be joyous. Even the word […]

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I once heard someone say, “Feedback is a gift.” I thought, okay. A gift for who — the giver or the receiver? I think it means more for the person getting it, and the phrase should be more like, “receive feedback like it’s a gift.”

Gift giving is meant to be joyous. Even the word ‘gift’ brings visions of childhood birthdays or Christmases packed with toys. But let’s be honest, unless the feedback is “great job!” — which isn’t really feedback at all — it’s usually not a joyous event.

The commonality between feedback giving and gift giving is a desire to give, and the habit of tailoring that gift to the recipient. Everything else is different — including the fact that giving good feedback requires practice and diplomacy, and that’s not always an easy combination. Having said that, it is worth it.

Feedback can increase workforce performance, spark new ideas, promote collaboration, identify problems, enhance communication, and the list goes on. With that kind of list to support its existence, it’s a wonder more people don’t take the time to get it right.

Here are five things managers need to practice so they don’t become one of those leaders who either gives no feedback at all, or gives fluffy feedback that isn’t actionable, measurable or particularly useful.

Know when to give feedback

It’s best for a manager not to wait too long after an event or a result to share his or her thoughts, good and bad. When you wait, you risk losing situational context and an accurate recollection of details that can be used in instructive examples. Immediate feedback can be cathartic for both manager and associate. The exception to that is when a situation is emotionally charged — then it’s definitely best to wait. Give tempers a chance to cool, and allow some space for introspective, logical thinking.

Put thought into feedback, but don’t overthink it.

Call out one to three things that if worked on, will yield the greatest benefit for both the associate as well as the organization. Be prepared to give detailed, work-specific examples, and concentrate on the outcome rather than the act itself. Understanding the implications helps to internalize feedback and instructions.

Moreover, a laundry list of feedback items is not as helpful as, say, three focused areas; three is a lot easier to work on than 10. An extensive list could also spark animosity because it may look like the manager finds fault in everything the associate does. Parsing things out makes it more likely that positive changes will be made, and that they will stick.

Listen before giving any feedback.

Start with open ended questions such as “how do you feel it went?” Follow up with “why do you think that?” This will help better connect the manager’s feedback to the associate’s self-awareness of their actions and outcomes. Often with less experienced associates, the implications of their actions or inactions are completely lost on them. Therefore, if you ask “how do you think it went?” They might say it went very well, or ok, when in fact the outcome was less desirable.

The manager needs to understand the level of self awareness the associate has in order to regulate the feedback accordingly. For instance, if the associate knows the meeting did not go well because they didn’t shop around the idea in advance, there’s no point beating a dead horse. Simply focus on the “how” for the future.

Start feedback with something that was done well.

Positive feedback is a reward or a reinforcing stimulus. It signals that the associate should continue those desirable actions and not lose them. If there is nothing worth calling out, then there was a mismatch in expectations. Either the manager has failed to give clear instructions and provide the necessary resources, or — and this is often the case — there was a lack of communication. In either scenario, the manager bears some burden for any lackluster results.

Make tough feedback personal and action oriented.

Most of us look up to our leaders. There may even be some part of us that wants to be like them. Therefore, it’s good to hear that they too have received tough feedback and had to work hard to address and improve certain things.

Along with sharing a personal story that shows a small amount of vulnerability, giving concrete suggestions on how to improve for the next time goes a long way to help associates internalize feedback. For instance, rather than suggest taking notes in meetings, show the associates your notebook to illustrate how you take notes and highlight action items. Doing so will help make the conversation more actionable, authentic and human.

Giving feedback is far more difficult than giving even the most thoughtful gift. Feedback requires the giver to have empathy for the recipient if it’s to come from a good place and be received in the same vein. One needs character to make feedback constructive, and as a manager you may have to take a risk because there is always a chance that your well-intentioned feedback may not be received well.

So, let’s get past thinking about feedback as a gift. Just be a leader who genuinely cares about people and wants them — and by association the business — to improve. That intention will shape your actions in a productive way, and ultimately, it will help to shape your reputation as a thoughtful, performance-oriented people leader.

This piece was originally published by Management Matters in July 2020.

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