As a leader one of your jobs is to help those around you – and sometimes this means coaching and helping people to improve.  However, doing this in a way that is well received and effective can be a challenge for most of us.  This blog represents the tips and tricks I have learned so far….

My experience as a manager has changed my approach to feedback several times over the last few years.  When I first became a manager, I was overseeing the work of my peers – so when I wanted something done differently (or more likely my manager wanted something done differently) I would hint at a change.  Suggestions often formed statements like “Have you thought about trying it this way instead?” or “Maybe we could change the format so that section was at the top” – sometimes they worked other times they had no effect.  I was struggling at making change.

So after quite a while of “hinting” without success I moved into a more direct approach – “Please change the format to have a summary at the top”.  You could not mistake what I was asking, and all of sudden changes started happening.  People were listening and I was getting results.  However, I was also coming off bossy, and well who would want to receive feedback like that?  I know I wouldn’t.

Therefore it was time to make a change again.  Learning to give better feedback in a way that was helpful and direct, but also kind and thoughtful.

Here are some of the tips that helped me get there:

  • Ask first.  This is a more recent change, but before giving someone feedback on something they need to change ask them if they are open to feedback.  Prefacing your comments with “Would you like to hear a suggestion?” or “Do you mind if I give you feedback?”.  That way the person you are providing feedback to can be mentally prepared for it ahead of time, this should psychologically prepare them for criticism making it easier to swallow.
  • Use the “Oreo” approach.  This is where you sandwich your criticism with praise before and after the statement.  For example, starting with a compliment “The work you put into that new service was quite a feat and is sure to make things much more scalable long term” [compliment] “However, some of the complaints at launch could have been helped with additional performance testing” [criticism] “When the complaints did arise, your excellent customer focus showed through in your timely responses” [compliment].  The feedback is still direct (should have had performance testing) but there is also focus on things that went well.
  • Be timely.  Feedback is most effective when it is delivered at the time of the event. The longer you wait the less useful the feedback can be come.  Even better if you can provide it in the moment when the person can take  step to correct their actions.  If you feel awkward sending it because too much time has elapsed, then it can still be useful, but use judgement since it can become more personal as time goes on.
  • Make it about the task, not the person.  When providing criticism try to focus it on the task, and never the person.  For example say “Adding headers to the email would make it easier to read” [not personal, talking about the email] versus “The way you wrote the email made it hard to read, you should add headers next time” [personal, criticizing the act of writing the email and not the mail itself].  The second statement would be much harder to swallow since it seems like the person did something wrong, versus something they could do to improve the email itself.
  • Give suggestions on how to improve.  If you ever work on a team with me you may hear me say “don’t bring up problems without solutions”, and it is true, no one wants to work with someone who complains about things all the time. People want to work with problem solvers, and this includes the leaders.  Therefore if you ever do give someone feedback, don’t just say “this thing you did could be better”, tell them how – give them examples and ideas on how to make something better.  This will be more actionable for the person and they will be much more likely to make the changes if they have a clue on how to do it.
  • Provide a personal example.  One way to make feedback easier to receive is to make the recipient feel like they are not the only one making that mistake.  If appropriate, provide an anecdote of a similar problem or issues you encountered.  Even small statements like “I learned this the hard way” or “I used to do the same thing” makes it okay for people to be more vulnerable and will make them more comfortable accepting your criticism.
  • Identify the motive or reason for the changes.  Provide people the “why” behind your suggestions. Often times if you are asking someone to make a change, providing the rationale behind why you are suggesting the change will make your suggestion that much more effective.  For example, telling someone “The email would be better if there was a section at the top summarizing the customer impact of the event” may be helpful, but the person is going to be more receptive to acting on it if you added “because then the customer service team, the audience, would know right away how to handle tickets”.  Providing the rationale and reason behind the feedback makes it that much more effective.
  • Allow the person to defend/vent/explain.  Accepting feedback is hard.  And the receiving party may react by defending or justifying their approach.  In these cases I find the most useful tactic is to listen and allow them to say their piece.  More often than not they will still make the changes, but knowing that you heard their side of things will make them feel better – and you want people to feel good after talking to you!
I am still working on some of these myself, but since I adopted a lot of them I have found my feedback has been more effective.  Do you have other tips or ideas?  The comments are open if you want to make suggestions!

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