Employee feedback apps have generated a lot of industry hype and headlines in recent years. In fact, according to the Forbes.com article by talent management expert Josh Bersin, these tools “have the potential to redefine how we manage our organizations.” But while feedback apps have real-time benefits, they also can create a culture of feedback complacency—one where managers feel it’s enough to voice their thoughts anonymously rather than give the honest, human-to-human feedback that’s most needed.
Defining Real Feedback
Because feedback has come to mean different things to different people, let’s start with the basics. For starters, feedback is information about the impact of one person’s actions or level of performance on others. The key words here are “impact” and “actions.” Feedback does not address attitude or motivation, as with the comment, “You’re not a team player.” It's about verifiable behavior, in which the message is given in the service of the receiver, not the giver. This is a key distinction between feedback and a critique.
As defined here, feedback is one of the more challenging and consequential conversations you can have. When given consistently and thoughtfully, however, one-on-one feedback can be a source of insight and a catalyst for change. It can unlock communication barriers, stimulate growth, and inspire career development within an organization.
Why Is Feedback So Hard?
The problem with feedback is two-fold. First, giving informal feedback requires skill and emotional awareness that many managers lack. When this is the case, twice-a-year, formal feedback processes or corner-cutting new apps become the default. The second problem is that many managers rely on rubrics like the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) Feedback Model, which works, but does little to encourage the giver of feedback to lead with self-awareness.
What does self-awareness have to do with giving feedback? Without it, well-intentioned feedback can become a devastating blow to self-confidence, engagement, and communication. Of course, we’re all self-aware to one extent or another. When we’re getting ready for a date or interviewing for a new job, we become more aware of how we act and appear.
But self-awareness goes far beyond this. It involves understanding how we balance speaking and listening, how we manage conflict, how we make decisions, and how we react when we’re under pressure. It’s knowledge like this that can give us the tools we need to provide feedback that is constructive and productive.
Here are four tips for delivering one-on-one feedback that taps into your self-awareness.
#1. Make the shift from emotion to strategy. Managers usually feel the need to give feedback when they experience an emotional response. Whether anger, frustration, joy, or enthusiasm, the emotional response can override rational thinking, which in turn jeopardizes the potential for positive change.
Planning what to say in advance will help you move from emotion to strategy. Ask yourself:
- Why is the feedback needed?
- What did I see happen?
- What was the impact of what happened?
- What new agreements now need to be built?
#2. Tune in to your personality under pressure. Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until [they] get punched in the mouth.” As a manager giving feedback, you often experience this metaphorical punch in the mouth when the receiver doesn’t own the feedback and instead resorts to finger-pointing or debating.
Don’t fall into the trap that many managers do when they’re under pressure, which is to become righteous about the message they’re determined to deliver. Take a breath and learn to redirect the conversation. You could say, “I understand there are other variables at play here, and I want to talk about them. But this conversation is about you and how you showed up.”
#3. Hold two important questions in mind as you deliver feedback. The words you use in that moment of truth when conveying a message will either reinforce or change a behavior. So, first ask yourself, “What will I say to convey my thoughts and feelings candidly, and with empathy?” The second question relates to how the feedback is being received. Here, you need to ask yourself, “How is the person interpreting and reacting to what I’m saying?
#4. Uncover your own learning opportunities. Giving feedback is fertile ground for learning about your own blind spots. Sometimes you’ll learn about your leadership and communication skills. Perhaps you’re not as clear about expectations as you thought you were. Other times you’ll learn about your team. Collaboration, or the lack of it, can impact individual performance. You might also learn about your company’s culture. Organizational culture—the unwritten workplace norms that often go unchecked—can lead to underperformance.
These moments can give you a new perspective that will teach you to deliver feedback more effectively in the future.