“Can I give you some feedback?” Cue cringing in fear, forgetting how to speak, or running from the room. We prepare for the worst, waiting to be told how we’ve done something wrong or not met an expectation. We rarely assume it’s good—that our feedback giver wants to share how amazing we are. After all, why would they ask for permission to do that?
And yet, the ability to give—and receive—feedback is a critical leadership competency. Over a more than 25-year talent development career, many of my performance management conversations with leaders focused on if, when, and how they gave necessary feedback to employees—and how often they failed to do so. Here’s a sample coaching conversation:
Leader: My employee is impossible. He just can’t get that report right.
Me: What feedback have you given him on how he’s performing against your expectations?
Leader: Lots of feedback. I’m a great manager!
Me: When did you do so? Be more specific.
Leader: After the third screwed-up report, I told him he wasn’t doing it right and to figure out how to do it better.
Me: So … is it possible your employee doesn’t know what your expectations are, doesn’t know when he’s meeting them, and doesn’t know in which areas to improve?
Leader: Umm …
As humans, we need feedback to learn, improve, and evolve. As leaders, we must give specific, timely, and actionable feedback. We know that the feedback process—feeling safe and encouraged to share it, seek it, and apply it—is a cornerstone of a psychologically safe workplace.
Here are three ways leaders can jumpstart the feedback-giving process, build their feedback muscles, and reframe feedback to help optimize that next performance conversation.
1. Remove the words positive and negative from your toolbox.
Feedback isn’t good or bad. It’s information; it just is. It’s neutral. And don’t cheat by substituting constructive or developmental for the word negative. All feedback has the potential to be constructive and developmental. Instead, think reinforcing (when you want to say positive) and redirecting (when you want to say negative). When you reinforce, you’re telling someone what went well, the results, and that you’d like to see more of those actions. When you redirect, you share what didn’t go well, convey the results of it not going well, and open a discussion on how they could do things differently next time.
2. Don’t let your how obliterate your what.
In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott describes striking a balance between caring personally and challenging directly. Where you are on the spectrum—whether you lean toward caring or challenging—depends on you, the person to whom you’re giving the feedback, and the situation. If you’re too direct with someone who’s regularly hard on themselves, whom you’ve seen take feedback personally, you risk shutting down the conversation before learning can occur. If you’re indirect with someone who likes data and facts—give it to me straight, you risk losing your message. Invest in finding your situational sweet spot.
3. Use a feedback model to stay on track.
I love a good framework. Better yet, one with a catchy acronym. The STAR model (courtesy of our friends at DDI) has been in my toolbox for nearly 20 years and never fails to keep me coloring within the lines and remembering key pieces of performance information. These are the key elements of STAR: situation and task clarify the context, action clarifies what the other person did (or didn’t do), and result addresses effective or ineffective consequences of those actions for the team, organization, or client. Not a STAR fan? SOAR replaces task with objective. Or EARN your feedback: event, action, results, and next steps. Pick the one that works for you, and practice it.
Remember: At its core, feedback is performance information. How well did an employee perform on a specific task in a specific situation? If that employee doesn’t learn what they did well, they can’t repeat those actions. Conversely, if they don’t learn what they didn’t do well, they don’t know what or how to improve—making it likely they’ll repeat those inadequate actions.
It feels good to be good at what we do, and we can’t achieve this mastery without feedback. So, build your feedback muscles, and next time you invite your employees into a feedback conversation, they won’t be looking for the escape hatch.
Catch my session Feedback Fears? Facilitate a Feedforward Frenzy! at the ATD 2023 International Conference & EXPO May 21–24 at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.