You know you need to give a team member some hard-to-hear feedback, but you worry about the impact on the person’s self-esteem or maybe on your relationship. You don’t want your feedback conversation to backfire. What can you do to successfully deliver constructive feedback? Here’s another Ask Halelly episode of the TalentGrow Show, where I answer a question from a listener, a member of the audience at one of my conference speaking events, a learner in one of my corporate workshops, or a member of the media. This is a common concern and rightly so. But I have some important suggestions both about your approach and the steps to deliver the feedback that can allay your concerns and produce the results you seek. Take a listen, weigh in with your own opinion, and share with others!
Giving hard-to-hear feedback and constructive criticism can be tough. It needs to be done, but you also don't want to destroy the confidence of your employees. What do you suggest, Halelly?
A common question I hear from leaders is, what is the way to have a feedback conversation? What are the steps for having an effective feedback conversation?
I have suggestions for sure.
But first, if we want to give feedback that has a positive impact and doesn’t damage the person’s confidence or self-esteem, and doesn’t damage our relationship and trust --we need to step back from that question and dig inward a bit.
Before we look at the steps to having a feedback conversation we need to think about the mindset that we use when initiating that feedback conversation and also the context for that conversation, such as the environment and the relationship.
What’s your feedback mindset?
What we know from the work of Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University is that there are two different kinds of mindset that inform the way that we give and receive feedback that can completely transform the way in which people react to that feedback. Therefore, we must ensure that we have the right mindset before we give feedback and when we receive it, too. Dweck described these two different mindsets as a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset means that I think I am pretty much set in my ways and there really isn’t a lot of room for change. I am who I am and that’s the best that I can do. And of course, having a fixed mindset applies to how I think of others, too. So when I receive feedback, I see it as something that cuts me down because I don’t see it as something I can do very much about. And with this kind of fixed mindset, I’m much less likely to give others feedback at all or I give feedback while believing (perhaps subconsciously) that there’s not that much that they can do with it and not a great likelihood they’ll be successful making any kind of a meaningful, lasting change. This impacts the style and approach I use when giving feedback.
Whereas if I hold a growth mindset, I think I’m a work in progress – everyone is. I believe that we’re always shooting for mastery. We’re always growing our skills and developing ourselves, and it isn’t binary (either I have or don’t have it), but rather “where am I on that journey?“ This guides me to always seek feedback because it helps me develop. And when I’m giving others feedback, I do so with the conviction that my feedback recipient is very apt to use it in a way that helps them achieve greater mastery of whatever skillset they’re trying to grow.
Before providing (or seeking) feedback, adopt a growth mindset
As you can see, a growth mindset helps us be much more open to feedback, much more interested in getting feedback, and much more likely to use it. It also primes us to be more interested in providing it, and doing so constructively. So before you focus on learning the best steps for giving feedback, check your mindset. By incorporating a growth mindset when you’re receiving, soliciting and giving feedback, you’ll help ensure that that feedback will be much more meaningful and produce a more lasting and beneficial impact.
Before providing (or seeking) feedback, set the right context for trust and safety
In addition to using the right mindset, we also must have the right kind of environment, or context. More specifically, there needs to be a context of trust and safety.
If I trust that you have my best interests at heart, I’m much more likely to be open to receiving your feedback. Even if this feedback comes across as a surprise, or maybe even unpleasant to hear because I thought that I was doing great and now you’re telling me about something I could improve. Still, I’m going to be more likely to be open to receiving it and less likely to be defensive because there is trust between us and I believe that you have my best interests in mind in this context of a trusting relationship.
Also, if you give me some feedback that will result in having to do something differently than what I’m used to doing, there is a very high risk that I’ll do it wrong. There’s a high risk of failure with new skills or during times of change.
Therefore, I’ll be taking your feedback in context of how failure is treated in our workplace, or at least in our relationship:
Is there punitive damage that is caused by my failure?
Do I get reprimanded for failing when I try something new, based on the feedback I received?
Or is there safety to try new skills and fail and know that you’re going to help me learn from my failures because I’m on a journey of growth and development?
These implications weigh heavily on how feedback is received and whether the suggested changes are implemented.
With the right mindset and context, you’re headed toward an effective feedback conversation that yields better results
Before you start any feedback conversation, think about your mindset and the context of trust and safety. Because that’s much more likely to have a meaningful impact on how well that feedback is delivered and received than any step-by-step formula applied without these preconditions in place.
Don’t serve your feedback in a sandwich
Have you heard about the Feedback Sandwich – the advice that you should sandwich constructive feedback between two layers of positive statements?
This is bad advice. Don’t do it!!
Instead, when providing constructive feedback, you should focus on both the macro and the micro relationship.
- Macro: The big picture must be tilted in favor of positive content
- Micro: The feedback conversation must be free of fluff and fillers, sincere but short, direct and to the point.
We must think about the context and content of the feedback conversation BOTH in the big picture (macro) perspective of the whole relationship AND the specifics of the feedback conversation (micro) perspective.
My advice will not work as well if you only focus on the feedback conversation in isolation. (But then my caution about the feedback sandwich is also not stemming from a micro view, either.)
[You might like to read my full blog post on the feedback sandwich here.]
No one is ever “always” or “never” anything, so drop the superlatives
A sure-fire way to make a difficult conversation instantly more difficult is to use a superlative like 'always' or 'never' to describe the other person's behavior. It is guaranteed to make your conversation partner instantly defensive and offend their sense of justice, because it's almost certain to be a false statement.
It's impossible for any human to be 100% consistent in any behavior or approach, positive or negative. And we have a natural need to establish fairness and justice, so the moment someone describes us in this generalized way, we immediately begin to search our memory for contrary examples to prove it is a falsehood.
Now your conversation partner is preoccupied with proving you wrong and is no longer listening to you or open to hearing your side of things. You've damaged your credibility in their eyes. You've sent them on a detour and now you must dig back from that detour to get back on track. A waste of time for all involved!
Therefore, be very careful to stay specific and factually correct. Instead of saying, "Pat, you're always late with your reports", say, "Pat, you turned in the last three reports late." Keep it objective and keep it constructive.
[Here’s a blog post about this topic.]
How to give positive feedback and appreciation - Halelly's "STS Formula"
Here's the simple formula that is guaranteed to work to make people feel truly appreciated:
1. Be Specific. Describe in as much detail as possible WHAT you appreciated and WHY. While "Thank you" and "Good job" are way better than nothing, they don't really describe the behavior you appreciated and want to recognize. Here's a little secret: what gets appreciated, gets repeated. Don't you want to let the person know what behavior to repeat?
2. Be Timely. Articulate your appreciation (whether orally or in writing) as closely to the occurrence of the appreciated behavior as possible. Otherwise, not only will the person possibly forget what they did, but they may not feel your appreciation is as authentic or heart-felt as it should be. I mean, "thank you so much for helping me that time two months ago" just doesn't have as much of a positive impact as "thanks for your help yesterday" does.
3. Be sincere. People can read (and smell) 'fake' from a mile away. Humans are astute observers of nuanced body language signals that convey incongruence. And, when faced with a mismatch between the words and the way they were conveyed, we almost always trust the visual and vocal cues as the 'true message'.
If you're giving appreciation as a 'management technique' or because you 'have to', not because you're truly appreciative, the receiver will pick this up and your positive feedback will have the OPPOSITE effect - it will create distrust and disgruntlement.
The bottom line: if you can't find a way to sincerely feel thankful, it's best you don't give thanks.
[Check out my blog post about positive feedback here.]
6 steps for giving constructive feedback
State the constructive purpose of your feedback.
Be specific and timely; get straight to the point.
If you can’t think of a constructive reason to give feedback, don’t give the feedback. Ask yourself, “How will this help this person improve their performance?”
Ex: “I’d like to discuss…”
Describe specifically what you have observed.
Describe observable behavior. Stay focused on the specific behavior – not the person’s attitude or personality.
Ex: “When you…”
Describe the impact on you and/or others
How does it affect you and/or others, what’s the business impact?
Be specific and avoid judgmental language.
Ex: “I felt/thought...”
TIP: Spend no more than a few minutes on Steps 1 - 3. Otherwise, you are covering too much and diluting the focus of this feedback session. (It might be a sign that you hoarded feedback and didn’t deliver it in a timely manner…)
Give the person a chance to respond.
Remain attentive & avoid interrupting.
Ex: “What are your thoughts on this?” or “Tell me more about what happened/your rationale” or “Were you aware?”
Discuss alternative solutions or next steps to remedy the problem or avoid repeating it.
The more the person is involved in creating the plan for a change, the more committed they will be to implementing it.
Agree on next steps and express your support without removing responsibility
So there you have it: when you’re worried about how your feedback will be received, first check yourself:
Do you have the right mindset? (You need a growth mindset.)
Do you have the right context? (You need an environment of trust and safety.)
Have you tossed the ‘sandwich’? (Separate positive and constructive feedback and have more positive than constructive interactions overall.)
Are you free from superlatives? (No one is ever ‘always’ or ‘never’ anything.)
Then, you can follow my STS Formula for positive feedback or my 6 steps for constructive feedback and your feedback conversations will be much less likely to backfire and much more likely to yield positive change and have the impact you seek!
What did you try and how did it work for you?
What other ideas do you have for better feedback conversations?
Would you like to submit a question for a future “Ask Halelly” episode? You can use the voice messaging widget right here on the website and then I can even play your audio (with your permission, of course) on the episode! Or you can send me an email, or a ‘contact us’ form on this site, or a comment-based question, or a tweet…. You get the picture. Anyway you like it, I would love to hear your question!
About Halelly Azulay
Have we met? I'm Halelly Azulay. I'm an author, speaker, facilitator, and leadership development strategist and an expert in leadership, communication skills, and emotional intelligence. I am the author of two books, Employee Development on a Shoestring (ATD Press) and Strength to Strength: How Working from Your Strengths Can Help You Lead a More Fulfilling Life. My books, workshops and retreats build on my 20+ years of professional experience in communication and leadership development in corporate, government, nonprofit and academic organizations.
I am the president of TalentGrow LLC, a consulting company focused on developing leaders and teams, especially for enterprises experiencing explosive growth or expansion. TalentGrow specializes in people leadership skills, which include communication skills, teambuilding, coaching and emotional intelligence. TalentGrow works with all organizational levels, including C-level leaders, frontline managers, and individual contributors.
People hire me to speak at conferences and meetings and to facilitate leadership workshops, but what I love most is to help fast growing organizations create a leadership development strategy and approach.
I'm a contributing author to numerous books, articles and blogs. I was described as a “Leadership Development Guru” by TD Magazine. I blog, publish a leadership podcast (um, hello?!), and have a popular free weekly subscription newsletter – so you should definitely sign up at www.tinyurl.com/talentgrow.
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