What does it mean to provide feedback?
This question is not present daily in most peoples’ minds. I have seen too many managers using feedback to complain about something or request course corrections. But it seems to me that they don’t see feedback’s real meaning.
Before diving into this theme, let us recap a different question – “what is the real purpose of leaders toward their people?”
Our people, our teams, are not just a bunch of people we use to produce something for profit’s sake. Sure, a manager and a leader need to have the outcome and the team’s throughput in mind. And the companies profit as well. But all starts with our people. I strongly believe in that. I see leadership as something almost sacred, a higher calling to help our people succeed.
Our primary and sole purpose as team leader is to grow our people, enabling the entire team’s success.
I will give you a moment to let that thought sink in.
Now, with that understanding out of our way, back to the initial subject.
What is Feedback?
Feedback should be a tool to help your people improve. Feedback is a way to show that you care about the other person, and that means that you, as the leader, need to get out of your comfort zone every time you need to deliver that most needed conversation.
I believe we can split feedback into three categories: Positive, Constructive, and Negative:
- It would be best if you used positive feedback whenever you want to reinforce some positive attitude or behaviour.
- We should apply constructive feedback whenever we want to promote a course correction. This feedback form should be precise, specific, and related to the behaviour we want to see improved.
- All feedback that is not behaviour or attitude-specific is considered negative—this type of feedback we should ditch altogether.
The Bank Account Balance
In 2005, Professor Andrew Miner reported in a study that a ratio between positive and constructive feedback impacts people’s morals and moods. And that ratio is 6 to 1. What does this mean? See it as a bank account balance. We will withdraw six from that account every time we deliver constructive feedback. And whenever we provide positive feedback, we will deposit one. The goal is always to have a positive balance.
Most leaders I have met, from line managers to senior managers, directors and C-levels, believe they provide lots of positive feedback. But from that belief to the actual perception of the people we lead is different. We as leaders need to be more mindful of this ratio, and every time we see someone doing something great or having positive behaviour, we should point it out as an example.
But providing feedback is like an art form. The more you practice and improve, the more natural it becomes.
However, this is a tricky and dangerous art form. There are some hidden dangers.
Let me point out three. Any one of these should be considered a significant bank robber. If you let them slip into your behaviour, all the trust you may have been building with and among your people will entirely disappear.
- The sole deliverer
Feedback is a two-way street. As a leader, you should lead by example. Demonstrate that you want to have your people’s feedback. Ask for it and embrace it. When receiving feedback, strive to understand the other person’s perspective. Ask questions to increase understanding. Observe non-verbal cues. Don’t make assumptions; paraphrase what the other is saying to clarify that you understood what was said. Listen actively!
If the other party doesn’t know how to provide feedback and you see that it’s just an attack on your person, defer it while questioning the specific behaviour that triggered the situation.
Avoid justifications that will only feed the disagreement fire. Use the “I” message. Speak only on your behalf about what you feel.
And remember that the way you proceed is the way you want others to replicate. So, seek to make constructive changes in your behaviour. That will demonstrate that you really are listening to your people. Any leader should aspire to be a proficient feedback receiver.
- The public criticist
Constructive feedback should always be delivered in private. If we look into Maslow’s hierarchy of personal needs, we find a whole level related to “Esteem”. To be publicly criticised is an attack on self-esteem.
There’s also an entire level dedicated to “Love and Belonging”. We are a social breed, and we strive to belong. No one enjoys having their status and recognition in peril – “will this make the group kick me out?”.
And if this process keeps repeating itself, even our “Safety” needs can be questioned – “will I lose my job?”
How delightful is this? Our mind is fantastic. We are the ultimate drama directors.
And it is on our hands to minimise all the drama. Just book a meeting room, and deliver the constructive feedback in a private setting.
- The loose-lipped
Ok, you are only the boss; you are not a shrink nor a priest, but everything you speak in private with your people should be treated as something to keep confidential. Even if the subject is something you want to share with your line manager, request permission to disclose the origin.
Sometimes it is possible to share the situation without revealing where it started.
However, if the situation demands an escalation to your line manager or HR, inform the individual so they are not caught off guard about it.
Now that we know the dangers, I will provide tips to help you consciously kick-start your practice.
7 Tips to Kick-Start Your Practice
Tip #1 – Timely feedback.
Many people wait for the yearly review to provide feedback. Sometimes the feedback is about something that happened during the Q1 or the H1 of the year. How can one expect the other party to remember the situation? It is totally ludicrous.
All feedback should be provided in a timely way.
Beware of any altered state of mind. Most of the time, when stakes are high, people have their emotional state overtaken. In those situations, your feedback can wait a day or two.
Tip #2 – Be ready.
Be ready. Prepare yourself.
That means checking your emotional state. That means being entirely intentional about what will happen. That means taking real time to process the message you want to deliver. Never forget that you want the best for the person and team. The person and the group deserve your total commitment.
Tip #3 – Say no to the “Sandwich.”
The “Sandwich” technique. That technique is so bad that I like to call it “the sh!t sandwich”. I wrote a past article about why this technique sucks. If you hide the vital part of the message between two layers of good stuff, how can you expect the person to fully grasp what should be addressed?
Your feedback should be precise. The message must be crystal clear to be effective. Be direct, clear and intentional with it. And ask the person to paraphrase the message to clear off any misunderstanding.
Tip #4 – Be mindful of the receiver.
Even positive feedback can be harmful. It may seem strange, but it happens sometimes. We are not all the same. Some people are more introverted and prefer to receive positive “kudos” on an email, while others enjoy public recognition. Know your people and work with that.
Tip #5 – Keep a positive “bank account”.
You should push yourself to deliver positive feedback. All people and teams have small victories along the way. Celebrate all accomplishments, no matter their size or impact. If you see someone fully embracing one of the company’s principles, shout out “way to go”. Show that you care. Show them that you are attentive. Show them how you really like them to behave. Keep your “bank account” balanced, but please don’t count how many positives versus constructive feedback you delivered. That should be natural and not a task for an accountant.
Tip #6 – Watch out for hidden bias
I believe this one is self-explanatory. Check out your bias towards gender, race and whatever reason you may have.
Tip #7 – Keep yourself humble
Embrace the fact that you will fail. That is the only way to keep practising the art of delivering feedback. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Accept that practice makes perfect, though perfection does not exist.
Now it’s time to follow the path, start practising and be aware of yourself and your impact on others.