Leaders often preach the importance of constructive feedback but do we practice it? Corporate communications, job descriptions, engagement surveys, and even corporate values all point to the significance of feedback and yet we rarely provide it and when we do, it is often not done well. We even go so far as to let someone go so we don’t have to give them honest, constructive feedback. So what makes it so hard? In countless sessions I have given on feedback the overriding concern remains the same – “I don’t want to hurt them.” Sadly, not giving feedback will hurt them even more.
Years ago, working with one particular team, I came up with an analogy for feedback to make it easier to discuss objectively. Think of yourself walking around everyday with parsley in your teeth. Everyone sees you with it and sadly no one tells you. It distracts them, some people even avoid you, and you don’t get invited to client meetings as they believe you may embarrass them or the client. You are judging your work by your positive intentions – what is going on in your head – and others see you in terms of how you impact them; they are distracted, find it hard to work with you and don’t trust you with clients. We do things everyday that impact others in unexpected and often unknown ways and think our great intentions are being viewed positively. But what if you are walking around with parsley in your teeth and no one is telling you? Chances are, eventually you will either leave or be let go. And yes, you will take your parsley with you.
So, how do we mitigate this risk? If we don’t want to ‘hurt’ them personally then don’t make it personal! Most leaders don’t know how to give constructive feedback effectively so when they do and it backfires, they are less likely to do it again. We all have those war wounds. Here are a few tips to help you deliver effective feedback:
- Find a time when the recipient is open to feedback. If they just got off a call with an upset client, it may not be an appropriate time. Try asking. “I wanted to give you some feedback, is this a good time?” If it is not, make sure to book a time later that day or within the week.
- Be as specific as possible with what happened and stick to the facts, not your opinion or assumptions. “When you walked into the meeting 15 minutes late this morning...” rather than. “You didn’t seem to find it important enough to attend the meeting on time.”
- Then you must address the impact. The great thing about this approach is that, when done properly, the impact is about others, not a judgment about them. For example, “When you...it caused the production team to be delayed and the client received the material 3 days late.”
- Despite what we may think sometimes, people really do have the best intentions. Reserve your assumptions and ask questions. For example, “What did you intend to happen?” This will not only offer the person a chance to express themselves, it will help create the dialogue needed to work together on a solution for the current issue or for the future. If you know them well, you can even acknowledge their intention and follow up with the impact they have on you or others. “I know you wanted to ensure the client was aware that we weren’t responsible for that error. When you interrupted him however, it caused him to stop talking and disengage.”
- Look for teaching moments and don’t miss out on this great opportunity! “What could you have done differently? What will you do next time? How can I or the team support you in that?” As much as it is ideal if the employee comes up with the solution, you may also offer one. “May I suggest....” Keep in mind however, if you are their leader that the suggestion you provide may be viewed as the ‘law’ whether intended that way or not.
- Give thoughtful, constructive feedback often and it will eventually become more commonplace and accepted within your team.
- Don’t forget yourself! When you give feedback, always be prepared to receive it. You can even ask for it. The first time you ask for feedback, say during or after a team or individual meeting, you may see some shocked faces. However, if you ask frequently enough, your sincerity will come through and you will start to get the feedback you need to be a better leader and ‘walk the talk’.
- Don’t forget to give positive feedback. The same basic principles apply and if you don’t find it natural, find a way to remind yourself. I have even had senior leaders put a positive feedback reminder in their calendar to ensure they are consistent.
Be brave. Providing meaningful feedback isn’t easy but you’ll improve with practice. Just remember, when done properly, feedback can build trust, drive engagement, and improve the team and the results. You are doing it for them, for you, for the team, and for the firm... there is no better intention than that!
Who in your team or organization is walking around with parsley in their teeth? Be the one person who tells them. Then it is up to them. Your feedback may cause them to take immediate action, pause for reflection or they may ignore your comments entirely. In any case, you have done your job as a leader or colleague and trust the recipient to do theirs.