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Insights

Delivering Actionable Feedback

Wednesday, January 16, 2019
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Many managers are not good at providing feedback, yet it is one of the most important tools they have to improve a team member’s performance. Indeed, people rely on accurate, useful assessments of their work to help them become better at what they do.

Effective feedback not only provides guidance to help an employee perform tasks correctly, it also clarifies expectations, builds a person’s confidence, and fosters trust between a worker and the manager.

Essentially, useful feedback helps employees see how their performance is aligned with the organization’s goals, and it motivates teams to achieve at a higher level. How well people perform is directly related to their ability (from knowledge, skill, and feedback) and their motivation, explains psychologist Edward Locke.

Many employees have said in surveys they do not receive effective feedback, which is attributable in part to the fact that managers rarely receive training in management communication—not in college, not in MBA programs, and not in executive education.

Here are a few suggestions managers can follow if they want to give their team members useful, actionable feedback.

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Be Specific

Don’t provide feedback that raises more questions than it answers. When an employee says, “I’m not clear about what you want,” the manager needs to be more specific about their expectations. Precision is important, because the more exact an employee is at completing a task, the more reliable the outcome. And in many fields, such as engineering, precision is critical.

Don’t tell an employee that you would like to see “a better job” next time. Using specific language makes the feedback easier to process and remember than comparative adjectives, such as better, stronger, bigger, and nicer. For example, it’s more precise to say, “We cannot have any scuff marks or other abrasions on the surface of this product."

Prepare for the Conversation

Critical feedback can create a stressful atmosphere. Employees sometimes get defensive. In response, you become more emphatic, and the employee, in turn, gets increasingly sensitive. The cycle continues, and tensions rise.

Go into a feedback conversation prepared. Think ahead about what you want to say. What issues need to be addressed? What is the outcome you want? What topics don’t need to be brought up? Don’t try to think through the conversation while you are having it, because you are apt to fumble your way through, or you might sound vague and uncertain.

Know Why You Are Giving Feedback

Managers often are uncomfortable giving feedback because they are concerned about alienating the employee. Tone is important, so be polite and respectful. But remember that the purpose of feedback is to provide information that helps the person improve their performance on the job. The more they improve, the better their performance review, and the more they contribute to the team and to organizational goals. Stronger self-confidence is a side effect.

Encourage Others to Share Suggestions

Feedback should not be aimed only at subordinates. Managers should elicit feedback from their own superiors and from peers, and employees should invite colleagues to share constructive criticism and helpful observations. Feedback also can be self-generated through personal reflection and evaluation.

Giving, receiving, and implementing actionable feedback—that leads to learning and tangible results—is essential to performance. One way people translate that feedback into action is by setting goals, which will be a topic for another post.

About the Author

Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach who has helped thousands of business professionals worldwide improve their ability to craft clear, compelling messages. He started Writing With Clarity following a long journalism career with the Associated Press and now conducts corporate workshops and provides one-on-one coaching. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill). His clients include Facebook, GE, Dell, Chevron, Cisco, Georgia-Pacific, KPMG, Campbell’s Soup, Oracle, Motorola, Reebok, Dow Chemical (China), SAP (Singapore), and Vale Mining Corp. (Brazil).

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