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Five things to remember when giving feedback

Jan 13, 2018

Imagine your company managed its finances like it manages its employees; ignoring red flags, not following up with debtors and sitting down once a year to have a retrospective conversation about what went well and what didn’t. You wouldn’t be in business very long!

Yet this is how managers often treat their most valuable resource: people. There is a very real cost associated with failing to give appropriate feedback, including confused priorities, missed opportunities and disengaged employees. Giving feedback is a key management responsibility (and a good life skill for anyone), but it’s the one managers avoid the most – particularly when the feedback is likely to cause discomfort.

Consider these five pointers when engaging in feedback conversations:

  1. Set the scene. Regular dialogue forms part of your relationship with your team, extend this to include feedback. When a new member joins have a ‘positioning conversation’. Explain that as manager your role is to provide candid feedback on an ongoing basis. Clarify that the purpose of this feedback is to support the person’s development. The objective is to embed regular feedback as a team norm and create a culture of continuous improvement. 
  2. Check yourself. Challenge your motivation in offering the feedback – is it positive or negative? Make sure it's not your need for control, judgements based on your values or bias that is driving you to comment on an aspect of someone's performance. Consider whether or not you communicated your expectations clearly and give the other person the benefit of the doubt by believing that they didn't intentionally fail to deliver. That doesn’t mean that you can’t give the feedback, but it will make the feedback more balanced.
  3. Absolute honesty is critical as it demonstrates: 
    Respect for the other person
    How would you feel if your manager was unhappy with an aspect of your performance, but didn’t tell you? Perhaps causing you to miss out on promotion or a pay increase. Is that fair? Yet as managers we often put our team members in this position. Our own unease can cause us to dilute feedback or try to rescue the other person from a difficult message. What kind of a manager is prepared to set someone up for a lifetime of failure rather than experience a few minutes discomfort? 
    Respect for yourself  
    Difficult issues don’t go away just because you ignore them; they will only escalate. At some point, as the person’s manager, you will be called to account. Whether it’s your line manager, HR or a legal representative, somebody will ask you to demonstrate how you made the person aware that their performance wasn’t at the required standard. 
  4. Respectful language. The best feedback leaves the other party feeling respected and safe while understanding the challenge. This is achieved through the careful use of language. Where possible, avoid judgemental words like ‘why’ ‘never’ ‘always’ and ‘should’ and don’t overuse the words ‘you’ and ‘your’.
  5. Absolute clarity. Discomfort with difficult messages can lead managers to talk in general terms, be vague or even cryptic. In addition, we all process information through our own filters. A key component of giving feedback is to establish a shared understanding of the issue. Show  or tell the person what they could have done differently in a non-judgemental way.  Have them reflect back their understanding of what has been discussed.  Clarity allows the person to self-regulate and reduces the mangers need to micro-manage the situation. 

Remember, feedback is a two-way conversation and it takes the engagement of both parties to find effective resolution to any difficulties. 

Dawn Leane is Principal at LeaneLeaders, Leadership and Management Consultancy and Training.