Monday, January 18, 2021

A Better Way to Give Feedback

Actions to take: Do not change anything about how you give feedback yet. Wait until the core series of posts about feedback is complete before rolling out your new way of giving feedback.

The first post on feedback argued why managers need to provide far more feedback than they are currently giving their staff. This entry will begin the discussion of how to give consistent, frequent feedback.

The easiest, most effective way to give more feedback is to adhere to a verbal model, a formula that you will always follow when you articulate what your employee should do more of or do differently. The best model I have found looks like this: "Hey Ben, can I give you some feedback? When you make sure to explain why changes need to happen, it helps people connect with the change and follow the new plans. Keep it up." Or "Hey Ben, when you don't explain why changes need to happen, people are more skeptical about them and less likely to comply. Can you work on that?" 

I am arguing that you should put every piece of day-to-day feedback in that format (major issues and recurring problems are a different story that will be covered in later blog posts). Some managers give me the side eye when I propose that they use the same structure, time in, time out, to give their staff performance feedback. They say that it will feel weird to do, staff will notice them doing it, that it will feel robotic, and that they won't be able to sound genuine. 

I'm not blind to this. I know there are downsides to using a structured format for feedback. Those complaints are all true. We will discuss strategies to mitigate them in future posts, but I do not deny that these downsides exist. The first one is probably the biggest hurdle: it feels weird. Readers who never try out this formula or try it out for only a month or so and give up: most of you will stop or never start for that first reason. 

To engage in frequent feedback, to do most of the things that this blog recommends, you will have to be a little bit bold. The whole premise of is that most bosses are not doing these things. By definition, you are going to stick out a little. I encourage you, have the confidence to take that step.

The benefits of using a formula vastly outweigh these concerns.

  1. You will actually give feedback on a regular basis: For the things we do often, we naturally establish a routine. It works in reverse as well. If you create a routine for something, you are much more likely to start doing it routinely. You will never manage to give frequent, consistent feedback without developing some kind of rote structure to it. You might as well choose the one that works best.
  2. You won't freeze up: Feedback is awkward. Most bosses avoid it like the plague unless it is a big issue or big success. How many of you have stumbled through giving feedback to an employee? Or how about this: how many have gone into a conversation fully intending to mention an issue and decided in the moment, "I should just save it for later"? Having a structured format for feedback is going to dramatically reduce those false starts.
  3. Your will focus on the message, not the phrasing: With the phrasing already in place, half of your work is done for you. There isn't a single manager who hasn't asked themselves, "Now how am I going to address this?" Use the formula. You won't be struggling with "how do I broach the topic" or "how can I put this." I know very well how tense it can be to give corrective feedback. In those moments, we need every helping hand we can get. Free up that mental space by having your plan already in place.
  4. Staff will notice: Yes, this showed up in the cons list above. It is secretly a major benefit to using a model. The purpose of feedback is to inform future behavior. Actually making a change to the behavior is the employee's task, not yours. The employee needs to recognize it as feedback! They need to be aware that you are communicating an expectation, not just saying something nice or complaining about their work. Using a structured format is the single easiest way to ensure that your employee recognizes your feedback as feedback.

I gave a couple examples of the formula earlier in the post. Let's abstract that into a generic structure that you can use for your own feedback. First, ask the question. Then, say "when you do X, it has Y impact." Finish with some version of "can you work on it" for corrective feedback or "keep it up" for positive feedback. 

Each of these elements exists for very good reason. Each will have their own blog post explaining how important they are. Here are those explanations in very brief:

  • The Question: The purpose of feedback is to advise on the employee's future behavior. However, the employee's behavior is up to them. There is no reason to give feedback to someone who is not in a state of mind to receive it. Therefore, we check to see if they are interested in hearing feedback in that moment.
  • When you do X: The phrase is "when you do X" not "when you did X." It is future-oriented, talking about what happens, not what happened. Also, our phrasing describes a category of behaviors, not a single event. We may be referencing something that recently happened, but only in order to discuss the future.
  • It has Y impact: This step is the most challenging to compose well. It can be difficult to properly articulate why something is a problem (or why it is a success). Sometimes, it is so self evident that you draw a blank. Other times the problem is subtle. I urge you not to skip this part of the feedback formula. This step is what encourages long-term growth. This is what the employee is missing. People know what they did, obviously. They do not know how others are perceiving it. This part of your statement helps them see from your perspective.
  • Can you work on it/Keep it up: This is the reinforcement element of our formula. You are instructing the employee to do something in the future. We define feedback as communication that informs future behavior. Without this part, you are not giving feedback. You are just describing their work. 

We have more ground to cover yet: what to give feedback about, when to give feedback, where to give feedback, who to give feedback to, and how often. Look forward to posts on each of the four elements above, these questions, and many other topics to help you on your path toward effective performance feedback with your team. 

Most bosses give very little performance feedback to their employees. Some manage an occasional comment while stumbling through the awkwardness. Better bosses have a plan for how to give frequent, consistent performance feedback to all their employees every week.

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