The Feedback Primer Series_3x5 Leadership_Primary Graphic

One of the most common feedback comments I’ve received in my career, primarily during discussions about my evaluation or during routine feedback sessions with a boss, has been “keep doing what you’re doing.” While the knowledge that there were no glaring issues in my organization’s or my performance was reassuring, that comment provided no actual feedback. It didn’t educate me on the specifics of things going well or what could still be improved. Hearing this repeatedly over my career has shown me that not only is merely giving feedback hard, but giving relevant and high-quality feedback is even harder! Leaders need to be mindful about sharing their feedback – their “truth in love” – ensuring that it is timely, relevant, high-quality, and well-delivered.

This requires a few things. First, leaders need to ‘get in the arena’ and begin practicing. Like a muscle, to be developed, giving feedback needs to be repeatedly stressed. Research from Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman revealed that no one likes to give negative feedback, but everyone wants to hear it. Essentially, they found that only 1 out of every 2 people are willing to give positive feedback, which is mind-blowing, and only 1 out of 3 are willing to give negative feedback. However, 2 of every 3 people actively desire positive feedback and 5 of every 6 people desire negative feedback. Essentially, we all say we want to be told the hard truth, but are unwilling to share it with others.

So, leaders need to get in the arena of feedback, role-modeling and inspiring their people to do the same, which we discuss in part 3. We need to get in the arena to start practicing and being able and willing to give others feedback (and to receive it from them). But through our practice, and with some education, we need to work on improving the quality, relevance, and delivery of our feedback to ensure it lands well with our people. I hope this part of The Feedback Primer can provide some of that critical education.

Giving feedback in the moment is a very vulnerable and sensitive moment. We must deliver our thoughts well, hope that it is received well and not rejected, and ensure that the relationship is not negatively impacted long-term by it. While the art and science of delivering feedback in the moment is critical, there are many other influencing factors that contribute to feedback being received well or not. It is actually a process that includes considerable preparation, critical considerations of how to deliver your comments in the moment, following-up after, and being thoughtful of how people may process and reflect on our feedback.

This process is iterative. As leaders, giving feedback should not be novel. We provide feedback and help them work through targeted behaviors or issues. But following successful growth and development, we inherently ask the question, “what’s next?” Then, we attack the next obstacle in our effort of life-long learning and leader development.

Now, let’s look at this process of giving and receiving feedback with another person.

Preparation: Earning the Right to Speak Truth into Their Lives

What gives us the right to give another person feedback? How do we know that our comments will be received well, appreciated, and internalized? Is our relationship based on mutual love and respect? Before leaders can ever consider providing hard, constructive feedback, we must ensure that we have earned the right to speak truth into that person’s life. Like trust, that can only be granted by the other person…and it must be earned. Leaders need to earn the right to offer feedback.

Below are some ways leaders can begin to earn that right. Remember that this preparation requires time. Depending on the relationship’s dynamics (personality, environment, etc.), such preparation can take weeks or months. Leaders must be patient and ensure that the relationship affords you the right to speak truth in love.

While much of this preparation requires a lot of action from you, the leader, it also requires something from them – a readiness for feedback. While leaders can really only ever “bring the horse to the water, not force it to drink,” we should consider how we are encouraging a readiness for development and feedback in our people. Simple early actions can include role-modeling a desire for feedback (more on that in part 3), and demonstrating and celebrating a continuous willingness to learn (a growth mindset). Leaders need to be cognizant of, inspire, and develop a readiness for feedback in their people.

Giving Feedback in the Moment

No matter the strength of the bond between team members, giving someone feedback is a sensitive event. Leaders must approach these opportunities deliberately with an abundance of care and concern. To help our feedback land well in the moment, leaders must consider both situational factors and their strategy in delivering the feedback.

Below, I provide some key considerations about providing others feedback in the moment. At the end of this section, I offer an example feedback comment from leader to team member and show how it does or does not meet the considerations described.

Structuring your feedback. Feedback does not need to be long or drawn out; describe what you observed and signal the impact of that observation. A model I encourage you to consider is communicating three main components:

  • Define the situation or context you intend to discuss. This provides tangible evidence to the other person of your comments, not that these are just gross personal opinions.
  • Identify and describe the behavior you observed.
  • Explain the impact that it had on you, others, and/or the environment.

Objective and developmental, not attributional. Ensure your comments are developmental and not personally attributional. That means we must separate the person from their behavior. Provide feedback on specific behaviors and impacts, but do not attribute those to the person or their intentions; don’t attack them and make it personal.

Make your message and language clear. While feedback should come from a place of love, that does not mean it becomes ambiguous, weak, or unclear. Be direct and confident in your comments. Avoid providing fluff like the dreaded “feedback sandwich,” where you provide a positive comment followed by your constructive comment, and then end it with another positive comment. That makes your intentions confusing and as the receiver, I become unclear on if I’m doing/did a good job or not; be clear and direct. Additionally, consider using inclusive language in your comments like collective “us/we” pronouns versus individualistic “you/them/me” ones. This helps create a sense of shared ownership and engagement between you and your teammate in their continued development. You can learn more about using inclusive language HERE and HERE.

Self-regulation: don’t stoke the emotional flames. Your level of emotional intelligence will highly impact the effectiveness of your feedback. This particularly applies to self-regulation (also referred to as self-management), or your ability to control your own emotions in the moment. You need to create a safe environment when providing feedback and regulating your emotions and reactions in the moment is critical. It’s not about eliminating emotions, but about regulating so they are conducive to the moment and environment. You can learn more about self-regulation and emotional intelligence HERE.

Turn it into a two-way street. I’ve found the best mechanism to getting the other party to be open to and personally commit to your feedback is by creating a two-way dialog about it, not making it a one-way lecture. Enable them to provide input and their own perspective on the feedback; as Steven Covey states in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “seek first to understand [them], then to be understood [by them].” This can also generate an opportunity to co-create the plan for future improvement with them. If they have the chance to weigh in, they may be more likely to buy-in to the improvement plan following the feedback. Using questions is a great way to create that two-way dialog. Focus on “what” or “how” questions; “why” questions can encourage defensiveness in the other person if they feel accused.

Set the stage. Not all of us are naturally gifted speakers, to include me. I struggle to clearly articulate thoughts, especially if they are not prepared beforehand. To better guarantee our feedback is high-quality and well delivered, we should do some level of preparation before we engage in providing our comments. Some considerations:

  • Write out your comments beforehand. Writing out the 3-part model, provided above (situation, behavior, impact), beforehand on an index card helps me clarify my thoughts. I don’t need to necessarily reference the card when delivering the feedback, but writing it out before helps me clarify my thoughts so I can communicate them better.
  • Appropriate setting. Can your comments be provided informally like while walking back to your offices after a meeting? Or is the feedback a bit more sensitive, where you may need to stage a more formal setting like creating a time and appropriate place to meet?
  • Non-verbals matter. Note the impact that your non-verbal communication is having. Your body language, tone, how much/little you’re talking, etc. all influence your feedback and the overall message.
  • Be present. These moments are important and sensitive. Be fully invested. You cannot be checking your computer, phone, email, or ANYTHING else that is not related to your feedback and the other person. Not being fully engaged sends a different kind of clear message to the other person. That message can be that you don’t care too much about the feedback you’re giving, about their development, or their value on the team…or all of the above.

Again, its truth provided in love. While you should be direct and can be firm depending on the situation, remember that you’re doing this all out of a place of love – love for the other person because that’s what leaders inherently do as well as love for the team. You want to see both get better.

Now, lets look at the below example feedback comment from a team leader to one of their team members (which I adapted from my blog post about psychological safety).

“Joe, the comment you made in the meeting earlier today about our team’s new project was inappropriate and unhelpful. You spoke over Sam, cutting him off; it completely invalidated him in front of everyone else on the team. It was not professional or kind, and it halted the productivity of the rest of the meeting by creating an awkward tone across the room. I know you care deeply about this project’s success, but I also know that you respect Sam and our team members. What were you feeling during the meeting that led you to make that poorly landed comment?”

In assessing this feedback, we can see how it does or does not meet the above considerations discussed:

  • Feedback structure: The leader does a good job providing the situation (today’s earlier meeting), the action observed (Joe’s comment), and the impact it had on the team.
  • Non-attributional: The leader does not fault Joe as a person or question his intentions; she focuses on his specific behavior.
  • Clear message & language: There was no fluff, ambiguous language, or sandwiching in the leader’s comments; she was direct, fair, and firm. I do believe she could have done a better job of using inclusive comments like “we” or “our,” but I don’t think the lack of those was detrimental to the quality or impact of the feedback.
  • Self-regulation: The leader did not bring in personal emotion or subjective opinion into her comments. She did a great job of owning her comments and providing them in a confident, professional manner.
  • Two-way dialog: She does a great job of ending her comments with an open “what” question to initiate a dialog with Joe about his side of the story and co-creating a plan of action for the future.
  • Stage setting: While there are not any clear indicators of the setting, the leader’s statement of the meeting “earlier today” may mean that she called Joe in for a more formal discussion later in the day after she had the ability to prepare and create a more appropriate setting to talk. This may even have helped her allocate more time to the conversation to enable an in-depth exploration of the incident.
  • In love: I think her comments about being passionate about the project and perception that Joe respects Sam and the team is a mechanism to show Joe that she cares about him and is confident in his positive intentions.

Now, giving feedback “up the chain of command.” While much of the content provided above focuses on you being the more senior leader in the relationship, it is important to think about how to provide feedback “up the chain of command” to your boss. Ideally, they have created a genuine openness to feedback from others with mechanisms for junior leaders to actually provide that (addressed in part 3 next), but many of us don’t have that. So, how do we provide feedback up? While many of the above considerations absolutely apply, some other ones that may be relevant include:

  • Don’t make feedback to them novel. Providing valid positive feedback and gratitude/appreciation to your boss over time can make them open to constructive comments too. With some repetition, it becomes how you do routine business between you and your boss.
  • Focus on the two-way dialog and provide your feedback through questions. If you want to provide feedback on a meeting or decision, consider asking “what” and “how” questions to your boss about their perspective and thinking. This can look like, “Sir, I think am unclear about your intent behind the new policy you just issued in the meeting earlier today. Can you help me understand your perspective and thinking on this guidance?” Leveraging open-ended questions can send a message to your boss that things are unclear or may not be landing the way they intended.
  • Know when to walk away. As the more senior leader in a relationship, you may own the boundaries of feedback conversations more easily, being able to take the conversation where you want and having it last as long as you want. You do not have that autonomy in such conversations with your boss. Recognize when your questions and/or comments are having diminishing returns and be able to walk away. Often, the enduring relationship with your boss is more important than this specific feedback or moment.

Follow-Up: It’s Not a One and Done

Just like many things in life, love, and leadership, feedback should be a process enacted over time. As stated earlier, offering the gift of feedback to others should not be novel. But beyond that, once we provide that feedback, the process is not over. Leaders must continue to attend to and be in-tune with the relationships with their people, especially following sensitive events like feedback. I believe there are a few reasons why it’s important to check-in with our people after providing them feedback:

  • We need to check-in on the relationship and ensure that it has not been negatively impacted long-term. As we see in the below section, some can internalize the feedback in an unhealthy way and allow it to compromise the relationship with the other person.
  • Assess the outcome of the feedback received. How did it land? This can be an opportunity for added clarification and more discussion following some time for them to reflect on and process the feedback.
  • Show that you still care for them as a person and valued teammate no matter what, which can often be communicated in how you conduct your follow-up.

While there is not necessarily a right or best way to do this follow-up, there are a few thoughts on how leaders can so they appreciate the potential fragility of the interaction:

  • I think how you follow up should reinforce your care and concern for them as a person and valued teammate, showing them that this feedback does not define them. Entering the conversation with high love and empathy can create the safe environment for some important processing and further discussion.
  • I’m a big fan of Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, especially his first “kickstart” question, which is: “What’s on your mind?” Starting with this can create an opportunity for them to share where their head and heart are at. It lets them set the tone of the conversation based on how they are thinking and feeling.
  • If you’re more comfortable in the relationship and how the other person is responding to the feedback, you can prefer to be more direct in your follow-up, asking targeted questions like, “Joe, how are we feeling about our conversation after the meeting yesterday?” Again, note the inclusive language and trying to leverage a ‘how’ question over a ‘why’ one.

On Receiving Feedback – It Feels Like the Stages of Grief

While looking at delivering feedback as a process, it’s important for leaders to recognize that receiving feedback is a process as well. It’s a process for us when we personally receive it and for those that we provide it to. We need to appreciate this fact so we can respond thoughtfully and appropriately. If we are more educated on that process, we better value the importance to follow up with others as well as recognize the feelings we experience ourselves when receiving feedback.

The process of receiving feedback, as I’ve seen and experienced it, is very similar to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief model. People that struggle with internalizing others’ perceptions, and/or lacking the professionalism or education to view feedback as a gift, they may enact a cycle of any of the following responses in the hours, days, and weeks after receiving feedback: shock, denial, anger, rejection, depression (or internalizing it in an unhealthy way and being defined by it), and potentially acceptance.

Even with some education and experience with feedback and moderate professionalism, others may initially accept the feedback well and show genuine appreciation for it. But with some time to process after, they may come to deny or reject it. I’ve certainly done that myself.

Leaders need to be aware that someone can respond across that wide horizon of thoughts and feelings. Responses may not be consistent too. We may have a great history of professional, effective feedback over our relationship with someone, but a newly recent comment may have not landed well at all. It could be that we delivered it poorly or it could be that it touched a more sensitive issue within the other person. We can never be absolutely sure. This is why viewing feedback as a process, especially with the follow-up step, is so important. It’s also important for leaders to be cognizant of this wide array of possible responses to feedback.

Ultimately, though, the goal is to achieve acceptance and genuine appreciation for the feedback we receive. As stated, this takes education and practice, both for us and our people. While acceptance means able and willing to receive feedback, it does not necessarily have to equate to agreeing with. We will discuss this in part 3 next. But, at the end of the day, imagine the power of our team where every member is able to offer routine and quality feedback to others and willing to receive it well – accepting it with sincere appreciation for the expressed truth in love.


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