Bywater Consulting Group, LLC
Liz Bywater, PhD

May 2012

Five Tips for Feedback That Makes a Difference

It's an unfortunate fact of corporate life. Too often, valuable feedback is delivered but once a year. The “discussion” goes something like this: Here's where you met expectations, here's where you exceeded and — last but most assuredly not least — here's where you failed to reach your goals.

Of course, there are real shortcomings to this approach. For starters, it's simply too late! Projects, initiatives and individual behaviors are discussed in the past tense. By the time feedback is given, it may be too late to fix errors and get things back on track. Moreover, during a formal performance review, people may be anxious, as they steady themselves to hear their “ratings” and associated compensation. In such a setting, it can be difficult to listen openly or thoughtfully to any sort of critique.

If feedback is about improving performance — and it should be — it's got to be done right. For greater impact, try the following five tips:

Make it timely. If there's something worthy of discussion, then go ahead and discuss it in real time. If one of your team members is failing to meet expectations, let him know right away. What is the problem? What can he address immediately to get things back on track? Does he need to be more forceful and assertive with business partners? Does he need to present more concisely when addressing senior management? Is there a need for greater cross-team collaboration? Tell him what you're observing, so that he can adjust his approach right then and there.

Make it specific. All too often, employees are given vague critiques, such as “You need to be more engaged.” Although that may be accurate, it's also far too imprecise a statement to be of much practical use. Try to make your feedback as specific and behavioral as possible. Here's an example: “You would appear more engaged in departmental meetings if you were to close your laptop… put away your smart phone… ask questions… speak up when you've got an idea or a different perspective to offer.” When feedback is specific and behavioral, it becomes actionable. And isn't that what you're trying to achieve?

Call out the positive. If all you ever do is point out problem areas, you're making a mistake. When your team members brace themselves before every meeting with you, preparing to get hit with criticism, they're going to become guarded, discouraged and ultimately disengaged. The fact is, providing kudos for a job well done — and offering specific feedback on what went well — isn't “soft” and it isn't a luxury. People develop when they build on their successes and their strengths. Don't forget to acknowledge the good stuff.

Give it to your top performers. Speaking of calling out the positive... Remember, your stars need feedback too. These folks are the bedrock of your organization. They may be incredibly capable and independent — but that doesn't mean they won't appreciate some words of recognition. What's more, they can't possibly be doing everything right. Help them see where there is room for improvement. Push them to keep on growing. Give them the insights that will help them go from good to great to exceptional.

Make it a dialogue. The best leaders know that when delivering feedback — to their team, peers or business partners — they've got a great forum for open communication. Be cognizant of your style here. Do you come across as lecturing, preaching or scolding? Are you making blanket pronouncements about what you've observed? Or are you engaging the other person in an open dialogue about what's happening and why? Are you taking advantage of the opportunity to brainstorm new approaches that may be even more effective? Remember, great leaders talk less and listen more.

Giving feedback needn't be a daunting task. These few simple tips will help you engage and develop a team of successful high performers. And while you're thinking about feedback, don't forget to seek some of your own. You'll be a better leader for it.

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