You’ll never forget the first time someone bursts into tears when hearing your feedback. If you care about your teams, there are few worse feelings in the world. For this reason, many of us shy away from delivering critical feedback. Unfortunately – as most of us soon find out – this only makes things worse in the long run.
As someone who’s had the responsibility of giving feedback to hundreds of people over the last few years, I’ve spent a lengthy time compiling and reflecting on the advice in this post. I can’t wait to share with you all the tactics that I’ve used in my career in professional services to deliver important constructive feedback.
First, though, I asked myself “what would my good friend Eminem have to say about giving feedback?”
"Look If you had One shot Or one opportunity To give feedback that could change everything In one moment Would you take it Or just let it slip? Yo Their palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy There's anxiety in their stomach already, nerves are spaghetti They're nervous, but on the surface they look calm and ready To drop bombs, but they keep on forgettin' What they planned to say, the whole team goes so quiet They open their mouth, but the words won't come out They're chokin', how, everybody's jokin' now The clock runs out, time's up, over, blaow Snap back to reality, ope there goes gravity Ope, there goes the chance, they choked They're so mad, but they won't give up that easy? No They won't have it, they know their whole reputation's on the line It doesn't matter, they're professional, they know that, but they're scared They're so stagnant, they know, when they go back to their desk, that's when it's Back to the feedback again, yo, this whole rhapsody Better go capture this moment and hope it don't pass them Their souls escaping, minds are racing They know what they must face and they're pacing But they know they have to be strong and courageous To give feedback that could be the difference They take a deep breath and they start to speak They open their mouth and the words start to leak They're confident, they know what they have to say And they drop their bombs and watch as their team starts to sway They did it, they captured this moment and they hope it won't fade away" -
EminemSteve, our ChatGPT friend
Now that we’re all feeling inspired, let’s chat about some more, uh… practical advice.
There’s a heap of “research” online which serves generic advice for giving feedback. This often includes stuff like:
- Start with a positive comment
- Feedback sandwiches (good-bad-good)
- Give 5 points of positive commentary for every negative *rolls eyes*
- Use “I” statements
While none of this is wrong, per se, I’ve found that it feels a little stiff and formulaic for my liking. If I’m constantly thinking about whether I’ve given 3 or 4 positive comments so far before I can drop bombs, it inhibits what should be a free-flowing conversation and makes me seem disingenuous.
In the interest of promoting conversation and getting the right messages across, I try to follow a very simple method for my feedback conversations:
- Write down key messages/themes that you’d like to get across to the person
- Ask my team member to self-assess before your conversation
In my experience, following this method has helped me to deliver feedback in a way that is clear and constructive, without coming across as harsh or critical. Keep reading for what you need to know about each step.
1. Write down key messages/themes
By writing down my key messages beforehand, you can stay focused on the specific points you want to make, rather than getting sidetracked or emotional. In most conversations, the points won’t even be made by you (see 2 & 3) so this serves as a checklist to ensure nothing important gets left out. If there are some critical messages to be delivered, I believe it’s important not to nitpick. Include the few things that will have the most constructive impact on your team member’s performance going forward.
Note: I haven’t said “write down what you want to say verbatim”! Feedback is not a lecture, it is a conversation. This means that listening is more important than speaking.
2. Ask team member to self-assess
Whenever someone reaches out to schedule a feedback conversation, I always ask them to do some introspection before our chat. Specifically, I ask them to think of:
- 2-3 things they’re really proud of
- 2-3 things they would do differently, if given the chance
Doing this achieves a few objectives. It reduces defensiveness and makes the person more responsive to feedback. It also makes it clear that this is going to be a chat about both the good and the bad (and probably in equal proportions). Most importantly, however, it makes sure that we are entering a conversation, not a tongue-lashing or a one-sided lecture.
[If you’re the one getting feedback I’ve written about how to do this here: Start Doing These 4 Things to Receive BAD Feedback Like a High Performer]
You’ll be amazed at how self-aware your team members are. If someone’s done a bad job, 9 time out of 10 they absolutely know it. That’s why this step is unequivocally the most important step of them all.
Your goal here is to get your team member’s perspective on their performance and to understand whether they have identified the main points that you were hoping to get across. Often, they’ll identify even more things than you had observed! You should also be paying attention for any pieces of information that address your own blind spots or provide context for the conversation ahead. In my experience, people will often drop hints about why their performance might have dipped. Pay attention to statements like:
- “I really struggled to get used to the way you/other managers/director worked” (Conflicting management styles/mixed messaging can make it really difficult for teams to perform well)
- “I spent a huge amount of time coaching [junior person]. I wasn’t expecting them to need so much help.” (We need to unpack whether this impacted the person’s performance or whether coaching skills is a development area for them in itself.)
- “With everything that’s been going on, I’ve been struggling to keep up with the workload” (Is this person okay? Is there something going on at home?)
- “With our team being so much smaller than it was last year…” (A very, very common issue in professional services nowadays)
The statements above all require a different kind of response. If you’re not listening actively, you’re often going to miss a root cause.
Notice that we’re 4 steps in and now’s the first time we’re actually going to weigh in with anything…
First and foremost, acknowledge and commend the person on the things they’re proud of! It’s rare that someone has done nothing good, so take the time to listen and echo the positivity. Sometimes we aren’t always aware of the little things someone is implementing to try and do a great job (for example, actioning poor feedback from the past). I find it incredibly heartening to hear these things as it reminds me that this person really is trying to improve.
Next, thank them for for being brave enough to identify their own shortcomings. We are trying our best to promote self-awareness and normalise the fact that people make mistakes. It’s important that we convey the reason for talking about these things: To help them get better.
It’s also crucial here that we respond to any context/root cause we picked up while listening to our team member’s self-assessment. Please – whatever you do – don’t attempt to invalidate their feelings.
– Instead of: “I think we had enough team members for the job,” try: “I want to acknowledge that we’re a lot lighter on resources than we have been before. Thank you for doing your best in a bad situation. We are trying to fix this problem, but for now we’re all trying to spread the load as best we can. If you’d like, I’d be happy to share ways I’m using personally to try and be more efficient.”
– Instead of: “When you’re at work I really need you to be focused on work,” try: “You mentioned things have been going on outside of work. Are you okay?” [Also – a person’s wellbeing is more important than your critical feedback. Please bear this in mind if you’re trying to help someone who is working through an issue.]
95% of the time the feedback conversation goes in one of two directions:
- The person identifies all their own major development points in sufficient detail.
- The person, for fear of alerting you to something they feel would result in a bad outcome, glosses over the major development points by highlighting smaller things they did wrong, or they only hint at the key issues.
In the first case, this is PERFECT! You can spend your time reiterating what your team member’s been able to say and spend more time focusing on the actions that can be taken now. (See 6 below)
In the second case, this is totally natural! Your job as a manager/coach in this scenario is to help in fleshing out the major themes. Be honest and don’t be afraid to say “I was disappointed with the way ABC happened” or, “I feel you could have done XYZ differently if you did it again.” In these situations it is important to be specific and objective. You’re trying to address and correct the behaviour, not attack the person. If done right, your team will respect you for your candour (if not straight away, certainly after some time).
Specific examples are always your best ammunition for this part of the conversation.
Do illustrate your point.
This is the second most important part of the conversation (after listening). Together with the individual, come up with potential solutions for the problems. Give them something actionable they can take forward with them onto their next project. This is how the conversation becomes constructive!
Most of the critique you provide will be something you’ve heard/said many times before. I’ve always found it helpful to talk about how I’ve gone about doing those same things better (or how I’ve seen others overcome the obstacles effectively).
Once you’ve agreed on the actions to be taken, I’d recommend checking in with that person after some time to see how they’re going with implementation. Reinforcing the message is often just as important as the message itself!
Boom! No more tears/tantrums
With this very simple method, I find myself being more comfortable saying the things that need to be said. You’re never going to feel great about giving bad feedback, but I believe that the above approach will help you have more of an impact and ensure that your message is well-received.
Now, one more question from me:
If you had
Or one opportunity
To give feedback that could change everything
In one moment
Would you take it
Or just let it slip?
Do you have any tips for giving feedback that worked for you? Start a conversation in the comments below!
- Avoiding Tears and Tantrums: Giving Negative Feedback Like a Pro - December 14, 2022
- An AI has this advice to young professionals for 2023 - November 24, 2022
- When’s the last time you prioritised yourself? - May 3, 2022