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How to Give Effective Feedback


Have you ever received feedback that just didn’t sit right? I have. I was once told I was “too confident. We know you’re smart. You don’t have to work so hard.” That feedback left me baffled, especially since I didn’t realize I was “trying too hard” and I struggled with insecurities like everyone else. I couldn’t help but feel judged and misunderstood. Then I wondered, would anyone ever say this to a man? When I tried to figure out how to change to be "less confident," I had to dig in deep to process it and understand how to pivot moving forward.


When feedback is laden with judgment – essentially an opinion or belief of intent on someone else’s behavior – it becomes hard to hear and even harder to act upon. If your employee seems defensive, tries to explain their behavior or justify it, or even avoids you after feedback is given, it might not just be about them needing to change. It may be time to self-reflect on how you deliver feedback. 


Here is a four-step approach to giving feedback in a way it can be received, understood, and acted upon.


Step 1: Describe the Behavior Observed

Behavior is an observable action. For instance, if I slammed my hands on the desk and yelled, “Why would you do that?” the behavior isn’t that I am angry, frustrated or upset – those are judgments. The behavior is simply the action: slamming my hands on the desk and raising my voice. Describing feedback in terms of behavior rather than judgment with specifics prevents confusion and ensures the feedback is heard.  It also helps you, the leader, to understand the behavior because you are opening transparent dialogue and not delivering a reprimand, making your employee feel small, embarrassed and judged.


How to point out behavior: Since this is an observation, it is critical that the feedback is delivered in a timely manner, not months after the behavior is observed. Start with, “I noticed….” and describe exactly what you saw or heard.” For example, "I noticed you slammed your hands on the table and raised your voice when you were talking about that subject.” The straightforward observation leaves little room for argument.


Step 2: Ask Questions to Understand.

Feedback should be a two way conversation, not a one-sided delivery. After stating the behavior, seek to understand it by asking questions. Use inquiries such as, “Did you notice that?” or “Can you help me understand where that came from?” or “What was your thought process around that?” or simply, “What’s up?” Focus on questions that start with, who, what, when, where, how, tell me about or help me understand. Avoid starting a question with “why,” as it can feel accusatory and make the person receiving the feedback defensive.  

Be genuinely curious and listen carefully to the answers to your questions. Engage with follow up questions in an open and transparent conversation, continuing to avoid passing judgment on the behavior.


Step 3: Explain the Impact

Describe the impact of the behavior on the person receiving the feedback – not on the company, you or the work.  For example, if someone is consistently late, you might say, “I noticed you coming in after 10 am most days. What’s up?” Depending on their response, the impact you describe will be the same, but the delivery might differ. For example:


  1. If the employee response is, “I’ve been taking my mom to chemo every morning and some days she needs a little extra help before the care nurse comes.” You may then want to respond, “Thank you for sharing. I’m really sorry to hear about your mom. I appreciate your transparency because I was starting to wonder if you weren’t as committed to the job anymore.”

  2. If the employee response is, “I’ve have a new boyfriend and every night he likes to try new bars so we've been out til all hours and it's making it hard for me to wake up and get moving in the morning,” you might say, “I appreciate your honesty, but this job starts at 9 am. When you show up late, it makes me question your commitment to the joandb whether you understand professionalism.”


Though the content differs every so slightly, the impact statement highlights the same concern: commitment.


Step 4: Suggest Alternatives

Follow the impact statement with clear suggestions on the behavior you’d like to see. For the first employee, you might suggest, “I understand you need time in the mornings. Next time, let me know you have a personal issue, whether you disclose details or not, so I can cover for your absence.” For the second employee, it could be, “The job requires you to be here at 9 am. My expectation is that you’ll arrive on time to succeed in this role.” The goal is to provide clear expectations so the employee knows what is required of them.

Giving difficult feedback isn’t easy, but it can be less daunting if you focus on behavior rather than judgment. Consider how judgmental feedback could backfire in the same example as above, “You’re getting lazier, coming in around 10 am when everyone else is here by 9 am.” Such a statement shuts people down and doesn’t open a dialogue for understanding. If the employee responded like the first example above, showing empathy after a judgment wouldn’t come across as genuine. Therefore, take the time to draft your behavior feedback so it can be heard and acted upon for everyone’s success.


Feedback Pro tips:


Preparation:

  • Find the right location. Choose a private setting for negative or constructive feedback. Consider a walk to avoid distractions.

  • Choose an appropriate time and date. Avoid giving negative feedback on Friday afternoons or right before vacations to prevent prolonged worry and delay in addressing issues.

  • Schedule enough time. Ensure the conversation isn’t rushed, showing the feedback is important and valued.

  • Avoid distractions. Put away your phone and close your laptop to focus on the conversation.


Delivery:

  • Rehearse: Prepare your points and questions to engage the employee and gather all necessary information

  • Use positive language: Frame feedback to show support and intent for the employee's improvement.

  • Be mindful of body language: Maintain neutral, attentive body language to convey seriousness as well as openness.

  • Be open-mindedEnter the conversation willing to learn new information.

  • Encourage dialogue: State main points and ask questions to involve the employee in problem-solving. Don’t monopolize the conversation.


The Close:

  • Summarize key points: Recap the discussion, highlighting specific behaviors for continuation or improvement.

  • Identify specific action items. Provide clear, actionable steps with timelines for positive or constructive feedback.

  • Follow up in writing: Send an email summarizing key points and action items, reaffirming your support.

  • Revisit the feedbackPlan follow-ups to acknowledge progress and reinforce changes.

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