Feedback – as businesswomen, it’s one of those words that we bandy about a lot, and no doubt something that we put into practice just as much. Or at least, we try to! Yet all too often we struggle to get it right and sometimes we’re a bit woolly on what it really means. Saying to someone “You did a great job, thanks very much, well done” is lovely, but it isn’t feedback – and nor is “That was rubbish – you’ll have to do better next time!”
Giving feedback is a key part of demonstrating assertive behaviours, which means it is critical to our personal and professional effectiveness. So how can we make sure that the feedback we give people, whether positive or negative, actually makes a difference without doing more harm than good?
Understanding What Feedback Is
Well, firstly we need to really understand what feedback is. It’s not a complaint or a pat on the back – it is communication to a person that gives them information on some aspect of their behaviour, and its effect on other people. The aim is either to reinforce behaviour we’d like to see more of (praise), or change behaviour that we don’t want to see any more (criticism.) The aim is not to insult, offend or embarrass someone – but sadly that is often what happens! This is probably why we find it so hard to give effective feedback. We worry that it will be taken the wrong way, that we will upset someone, that we’ll be the ‘bad guy’ for being critical, or that we’ll get a punch on the nose for our trouble (unlikely, but you never can tell!)
Simple techniques for giving feedback
There are however some simple techniques to giving feedback that will leave someone feeling motivated and informed, help them to learn from their mistakes and understand how their behaviour impacts on others, and give them a reason to improve.
The first and most important thing to remember is to be descriptive, not judgemental. You are giving feedback on the behaviour, not the person! So focus on the ABC – Actions, Behaviour, Conduct – not on the personality. Otherwise you can end up making assumptions that may not be true, unless you’re Derren Brown or a Jedi knight, or something.
For example, don’t tell someone they were rude to you. That’s your subjective opinion – they may not agree! Instead, describe their behaviour and tell them how you felt about it. “When I was talking to you, you interrupted me three times – that made me feel that you weren’t listening to me and I was quite offended by it.” You’ve stated your opinion – you haven’t claimed it as fact. The fact is that they interrupted you three times, so they can’t argue with that! Even if they were actually listening to you, they can’t deny that you felt otherwise.
In the same way, don’t just say that something was good, bad, excellent, poor etc. – those words can all be interpreted differently, depending on personal judgement. So be neutral and focus on what you see, hear and feel – not what you think or believe – and describe their behaviour, not their personality, intentions or attitude!
Be specific as possible
It’s also important to be as specific as possible, and to be able to back up your feedback with examples. Making generalisations such as “You always do this” or “You never do that” is just asking for trouble, especially if you can’t give any concrete examples. If they come back with “But what about last Wednesday?” and give an example that contradicts what you’ve just said, then you’ve immediately lost all impact (and look like a right muppet!) So make sure that you can prove your point.
Timing is everything
Pick an appropriate time and place, particularly for delivering a difficult message, but don’t leave it too long. There’s no point telling someone six months down the line – they either won’t remember what you’re talking about, or will wonder why you’ve let them carry on for the last six months without mentioning it! Again, the impact is lost. Try and keep a balance between the positive and negative feedback, so that people don’t feel unduly picked on. People will take criticism better if they have also received praise – otherwise they’ll think you just have it in for them and will get defensive, or just take no notice.
Keep it as a two-way discussion
Don’t just make it a one-way telling (or telling off!) as people are more likely to take things on board if they’ve been actively engaged in the conversation. That way they can’t switch off and just keep nodding while thinking instead about what to have for tea tonight, or what’s happening on Emmerdale. So ask them questions. Discuss whether the person realised what they were doing or the impact that it had, and discuss the consequences – “When you do blah, what do you think the result is?”, or “When you do blah, how do you think that affects the rest of the team?” etc.
This also means people can come up with their own solutions, which they will be much more committed to – you can make suggestions for different ways of doing things, but don’t impose them.
Remember feedback is a means to an end
It’s not an end in itself, so if nothing happens as a result then it’s all a bit pointless! By sharing info about what we’ve seen, we leave people free to decide for themselves how to use that info – but when telling them what to do, we take away their freedom to decide for themselves what is best.
Make feedback supportive
It’s important then to make feedback supportive rather than threatening. “I need to have a word with you about that presentation you did the other day” sounds ominous, but “I thought your presentation was great – if you like, I have a few thoughts on making it even better for next time” starts positively and then offers an opportunity to discuss improvement. Suggest alternatives or ask them to come up with alternatives, themselves, by asking “How could you do that differently next time” or “What do you think would be a better way?” rather than “In future do blah blah or else!”
Finally, to remember all this, just think about giving feedback with a
BOOST – Balanced, Objective, Observed, Specific and Timely!
Don’t forget to share your tips for giving feedback in the comments below.