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How to Give and Receive Feedback

Some managers find it extremely difficult to give negative feedback to their team members. It is even harder for employees to give such feedback to their boss. How can feedback be made easier?

Managers who avoid giving negative feedback often resort to hints or sarcastic remarks to send a message. Others ignore the offending employee, but the cold shoulder treatment can make things worse. Or, they blow their top after the situation becomes intolerable.

Failing to correct a problem can distract managers from more important issues and undermine their confidence. Further, if other team members see that no action is being taken to improve one employee's performance, morale will suffer.

Hard though it is for managers to give feedback effectively, it is virtually impossible for them to get constructive feedback from their team members.

Fortunately there are a number of practical steps to make giving and receiving feedback easier, not necessarily pleasant, but doable.

How to Give Feedback

Here are seven practical steps for making feedback easier:

1. Schedule regular feedback meetings.

2. Positive first, negative second.

3. Future focus

4. Depersonalize

5. Questions, not statements

6. Receive feedback positively

7. Receiver led

1. Regular Feedback Meetings

Because feedback is hard to give and to receive, it is best to schedule regular feedback meetings, at least once a month between managers and individual team members. Ad hoc, unexpected feedback is the hardest to give and to receive. Both sides need to prepare themselves emotionally to minimize the chances of over reacting defensively.

It is good to praise great performance on the spot, but not so to criticize poor performance with equal spontaneity. People are too easily hurt by criticism and their ensuing resentment and loss of self-esteem can cause lasting damage, both to the employee's performance and to the manager-employee relationship.

2. Positive First

Negative feedback is easier to give and to receive if positive feedback is given first. Managers should say what they like about the employee's performance first, stressing achievements and strengths, before going on to review less positive actions.

3. Future Focus

Negative feedback is easier to accept if it focuses on the future, what the employee could do next time to be more effective. This is more constructive than focusing on the past, how the employee failed. Further, it can be framed in terms of the employee's desire for development and future career success, as an opportunity rather than as a setback. Effective feedback conveys the message that the employee is doing relatively well but could be so much more successful with a little fine-tuning.

4. Depersonalize

Feedback on practical improvement steps is easier to accept than a comment on personality traits and helps to take the emotion out of the discussion. There is nothing gained by dumping on the employee, complaining about how much grief the employee's actions have caused the manager. Placing blame is a lose-lose tactic.

5. Questions, not Statements

Wherever possible, it helps to ASK employees what they might do differently in future. For example, if they mishandled an important customer, it is better to ask how they might handle that customer more effectively in future than to tell them what they should do. Turning feedback into coaching, managers ask supportive questions to help employees think through alternative courses of action for themselves.

Examples of good feedback questions include:

  • "What do you think was the impact on them when you said that?"
  • "What could you have said to make a more positive impact?"
  • "How might you have handled that situation differently?"
  • "What would be a more effective approach in the future?"

When people make a mistake, ask: "What other options did you consider?" "What are the benefits of a different option?" Questions are much less confrontational and less likely to hurt people's feelings or demotivate them. Using questions to give feedback puts you in the role of coach rather than judge or critic.

6. Receive Feedback Positively

To minimize the emotional temperature, it's essential to say thank you for feedback and to stress how it will help you improve. Still, it's OK to ask: "Can you help me understand exactly what I did so I know better how to handle such a situation next time?"

Suppose someone else was at fault. Instead of blaming that person, ask yourself and your manager what you could have done differently. Could you have warned your boss that someone else might be likely to let you down? Could you have asked for your boss's advice earlier?

Even when the situation was beyond your control, it's better to ask yourself what lessons you learned from the situation than to defend yourself angrily to your boss. An angry or defensive reaction rarely does you any good and you might just provoke an equally angry rebuttal and make it harder for your boss to give you feedback in future.

Suppose a project you are managing fails for totally unexpected reasons and you feel it isn't your fault. Asking your boss what you could have done differently might stimulate him or her to realize that there was little you could have done. Such a question is far better than a defensive reaction.

7. Receiver Led

With receiver led feedback, the manager asks team members to list their achievements, everything they are pleased about, since the last meeting before asking what didn't go so well. If the employee can't think of anything the manager can ask a series of coaching questions such as: "How do you think X went? How could it have gone better? How could you handle that issue more effectively next time?"

Good questions, asked supportively, can draw everything out of the employee that the manager needs to address. However, it takes repeated practice over a good deal of time to achieve the required level of trust and openness to make this approach successful.

Encouraging Upward Feedback

Managers can apply the same principles to encourage upward feedback. Fear of reprisal makes it vital to work at building trust over a good length of time. Employees watch their manager closely so it is essential to avoid the slightest sign of displeasure when receiving negative feedback.

But it can be made easier with regular scheduling and by asking for positives first. Managers can also prime the pump by listing some of their own successes first, followed by a disclosure of a few failures, weaknesses or disappointments.

Where managers feel that they might not have handled a situation very well, they can ask a question like: "How would you have handled that?" This might be an easier question for employees to answer than: "How do you think I mishandled that?"

A technique used by some managers is to ask employees to list 2 or 3 things they would like the manager to keep doing, start doing and stop doing.

In addition, employees should be trained on how to give feedback constructively, how to use questions in place of more confrontational statements.

If employees are too intimidated to give negative feedback, asking for it anonymously is a good place to start. A full 360-degree feedback process isn't necessary. One page will do, even simply asking for a few positives and a few areas for improvement.

By thanking people enthusiastically for their anonymous feedback, updating them on how you're trying to apply their helpful suggestions and repeating the exercise regularly, sufficient trust should develop to make direct, open feedback possible in due course.

See alsoEngage Yourself, Should You Always Play to Your Strengths?, The Post-heroic Manager, How's Your Confidence Today?, Cultures of Disengagement, How To Be An Engaging Manager

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