Does the world really need another article about giving feedback?
Well, judging from our conversations with new managers, absolutely! Despite the fact it’s so widely discussed, we consistently find ourselves answering questions about it. So we’ve tried to answer some of those questions here.
The first thing to say is this is a large topic. Feedback takes place in micro-environments of small groups of people, often just two of you. Each of these environments has its own dynamics, history and relationships which impact how feedback can be shared.
So we’re humble enough to recognise that we’re not going to answer every question here. But we are going to try and help with some of the big stuff, particularly facing new managers. And if we’ve missed anything, you can always let us know and we’ll try and find you an answer.
We haven’t provided a summary for this article because it’s broken down into the following questions, each with their own practical tips:
- Everyone talks about feedback, but how important is it really?
- How do I give effective feedback?
- I don’t feel comfortable giving feedback, what can I do?
- How should I give tough feedback?
- How often should I give feedback?
Hopefully you find the answers useful!
Everyone talks about feedback, but how important is it really?
It’s really, really important.
We know that ‘feedback’ feels like a weighty topic to discuss and engage with. What’s your immediate reaction when someone says, ‘Can I give you some feedback?’. It’s probably slightly apprehensive. It shouldn’t be this way.
When we say ‘feedback’, what we’re really talking about is guidance and advice. It’s potentially lost some of that softer meaning because the word is linked to performance reviews, ‘360 Feedback’, improvement plans and many other HR processes which drain you of the joy in life.
Let’s try and forget about those for a moment. Instead, let’s remember that regular feedback is a vital part of how you develop your team and when done well, a deeply rewarding part of being a manager.
Guidance and advice is the way that your team members know the impact and quality of their work so they can improve. Without this, they would have to rely solely on their own experience and mistakes, which is not only a demoralising way to work, but makes it much harder and slower to progress.
So yes, it’s really, really important to think about ensuring your team gets the right ‘feedback’, or whatever you want to call it.
How do I give effective feedback?
So this is the key question.
At this point in articles like this, you usually get a series of bullets about being ‘specific’, ‘timely’ etc. Now don’t get us wrong, those are coming later at the end. But there’s a few things we need to talk about first, so we’ve split this section into three, each with their own tips.
- It’s about making sure your team receives it, not that you give it
- It’s about your relationship
- Delivering feedback
Part One: It’s about making sure your team receives it, not that you give it
Despite the title of the article, the objective of this whole exercise is not to ensure that you give effective feedback (although that’s part of it). It’s that your team member receives the feedback they need to improve. Your job as a manager is to create the right structure and context for that to happen.
Now, in a situation where you’re the only person who manages your team members’ work, you’re best placed to provide advice. So how effective your feedback is will determine how much they receive (and you can probably skip to Part Two of this section).
However, there’s lot of team arrangements where you might be only partially responsible for your direct reports, and others work more closely with them day-to-day. This often happens in workplaces which are arranged into project teams, where groups of employees will be brought together for a period of days/weeks/months to complete an assignment under a project manager (who isn’t their manager).
In these circumstances, if it’s just you giving feedback when you check-in every week or two, it’s unlikely to be regular or relevant enough to be most effective. Others are better positioned to provide it. If you focus too much on just your role, you’ll miss this.
Instead, if you frame the question as, ‘How do I make sure my team receives regular, effective feedback’, you can begin to work on structuring their working life so it happens.
In the case of a project team, that might be working with the project manager to understand their feedback mechanisms and make sure your team member is getting the right guidance. Or it might mean collecting comments from others who are working with your team member for you to discuss when you see them.
In any case, it’s about what your team member’s receiving, not what you’re giving.
- It’s not what you give, but what your team member receives: your job is to ensure your team has regular feedback to improve and grow, not necessarily that you give it all.
- Review patterns of work: consider how your team members work day-to-day, who is best-placed to offer timely advice, and how to make sure that feedback is communicated.
- Ensure expectations are set: if your team member doesn’t know the standards they’re meant to be working towards, then it’s impossible to give constructive feedback on what to improve.
- Ask your team members: check in with your team to see if they feel they’re getting enough feedback on their work.
Part Two: It’s about your relationship
So much of what makes your feedback effective happens before you even open your mouth.
Think about the times you’ve received feedback or advice that you didn’t take well, or wasn’t particularly meaningful. In a significant number of cases, we’d bet that the reasons for that were not due to what was said, but who said it and why.
For feedback to be most effective the receiver should believe:
- You care: for both positive and negative feedback (but particularly negative), your team member has to believe that you’re offering advice from a position of wanting them to improve. That you have their interests at heart.
- You have something valuable to say: feedback is most impactful when it comes from someone whose opinion you respect on the matter.
If these two statements are true, your team members will listen when you say ‘Can I give you some feedback’, because they trust your opinion and that you’re acting in the interests of their professional development.
If not, well we’ve all been on the end of feedback from someone who we believe has an ulterior motive or whose opinion we don’t respect. It falls on deaf ears.
Just being someone’s manager, doesn’t automatically mean you get to deliver effective feedback. It depends on your relationship. This can take months to build.
Just to make it even more challenging, it also depends on the topic. The more complex and personal an issue (e.g. someone's management style, their personal performance), the higher the level of trust required for you to give effective advice. For more routine work (e.g. how you delivered a presentation), the trust stakes are much lower.
This dynamic can be challenging, particularly for new managers, as building trust takes time. The tips below outline some of the things you can do whilst your relationship develops.
- Be aware of your relationship: feedback is measured not at your mouth but at the listeners ear. For it to be received effectively, your team needs to trust that you’re working to help them improve, and that you have sufficient perspective to give them advice. Just being aware of this and not assuming authority is a good first step.
- Acknowledge your trust level: if you’re a new manager, or it’s a new relationship, don’t just assume the right to give feedback, acknowledge that you’re still getting to know each other, but that nevertheless you have some thoughts on their work. Be humble.
- Reiterate that you care: assuming you do actually care (if you don’t, there’s larger issues…), let your team know that that’s why you’re giving feedback - both positive and negative. Celebrate wins together and be invested in helping people improve.
- Judge topics against level of trust: be aware of when your relationship might not support the discussion you need to have with your team member. If it’s a long-standing issue, and you’re a new manager, you may be able to bring others into the conversation who are more familiar.
- Show you’re qualified (if necessary): this won’t always be needed, but particularly as a new manager, or on new topics, it may help to demonstrate to a team member why you’re well-placed to comment. Either because of previous experience, or context you’re aware of that they may not know about. Sometimes you won’t feel qualified. That’s fine! Again, that’s where getting someone else to help may also be a good idea.
Part Three: Delivering Feedback
Ok so finally we’re here! The bit where you actually give some feedback.
It may seem like we’ve taken the long way round, but by now we’re really starting to set your team up to receive the right advice. You’ve ensured they’re getting regular feedback in their day-to-day work (of which you’re a part), you’ve considered the state of your relationship. Now you’re ready to offer some advice on a particular topic.
(A quick disclaimer, whilst this advice is cribbed from lots of places and our own experience, the relevant chapters in Kim Scott’s Radical Candor are excellent on this topic).
So for it to be most effective, your feedback should be the following.
As much as possible, give feedback soon after the relevant event occurs. And when we say soon, we mean essentially immediately, whilst the circumstances are fresh in everyone’s minds.
In some cases you’ll be commenting on a trend in behaviour rather than a one-off occurrence so you may not want to raise it after one instance. But as soon as you notice the trend, you can step in.
One of the worst approaches is to ‘save it up’ for formal performance review processes, rather than giving it in the flow of work. This is always a disaster, as the employee feels blindsided, and let down by colleagues who didn’t offer their opinion earlier.
‘If you wait to tell somebody for a week or a quarter, the incident is so far in the past that they can’t fix the problem or build on the success.’ Kim Scott, Radical Candor
General feedback, whether good or bad, is always unsatisfactory.
‘You were great today’.
‘That project wasn’t good’.
‘Kommon’s content needs work’.
Specific feedback enables people to understand which areas they’re strong in and which to improve.
The ‘Situation’, ‘Behaviour’, ‘Impact’ framework is useful for providing feedback to people which is specific enough to help them improve, and focuses on actions rather than individuals, so as to avoid becoming too personal.
- ‘You were great today’ vs. In the presentation today [situation], you used more graphics than usual [behaviour], which meant the material was much more digestible for the board [impact].
- ‘That project wasn’t good’ vs In the final phase of that app design project [situation], you sent the final designs a day late without telling the client [behaviour], which compromised the quality of the overall service even thought the actual designs were well thought-through [impact].
This is also applicable when talking about trends in behaviour.
‘Although it was hard to hear it was really powerful to me because it was feedback on specific behaviour, on a thing that i’d done’ Kommon Customer Interview
In most cases, feedback is most effective when given one-on-one, not in a group setting. Even positive feedback. Whilst praise in front of a group is valuable, together you’ll have more space to dig into the details together and demonstrate why you really thought someone did a good job.
For critical feedback, group settings are often a disaster. There's just too many ways things can go wrong. How will the individual react to receiving feedback publicly? How will the other people in the room react to you giving it? It doesn't generally go well unless there's an incredible culture of psychological safety, a familiar team, and receptive personalities.
In terms of how to deliver feedback one-on-one, the more personal the better so you can read the other person’s reaction. We accept that for critical feedback, the reason you might be tempted to use a less personal method is to avoid the person’s reaction, but please try not to do this).
That means something like the following hierarchy of communication methods:
- In person
- Video call
- Telephone call
- Email/chat app/text
In a world of remote work, it can be easy to relegate feedback to Number 4, but really try not to.
Linked to their development
You can demonstrate to your team that you’re invested in their professional growth by making it clear how your advice will help them progress.
Sometimes that’s self-evident from the topic you’re discussing. ‘I’m giving you this feedback on improving your sales technique because as a salesperson you need to improve your sales’ is… not helpful.
But in other cases, it may be worth making it clear that addressing a certain area is important because it’s fundamental to hitting a goal/earning promotion etc.
If someone isn’t used to receiving feedback, it may initially seem like a big event, but it shouldn’t be. Over time you want to get to a point where giving and receiving feedback, for the most part, is a quick and informal process that just happens in the flow of work. It ensures people receive feedback constantly, and avoids the dreaded building up of feedback which has to be dealt with all at once.
Kim Scott again:
‘Try thinking of it as brushing your teeth instead. Don’t write it in your calendar; just do it consistently, and maybe you won’t ever have to get a root canal.’
Across the five areas above, we also have a few further tips:
- Ask permission: in some situations, often with those who are less receptive to feedback, it can help to ask permission: ‘Can I give you some feedback?’ or similar. It helps break the ice, and means your advice isn’t wholly unsolicited.
- Tell a story: if you’re trying to communicate why you’re giving advice on a certain task/behaviour, and its importance, try telling a story about other times you’ve seen the same behaviour and the impact it had. It may illuminate the point you’re trying to make, and make the recipient feel better that they’re not the only one who’s had the same issue.
- Invite reciprocal feedback: to normalise the process in the flow of work, make it clear that you’re open to feedback too if your team has any. Michael Lopp, an engineering leader at Apple, asks for feedback from his team every time he gives some. Most of the time they don’t say anything. But it demonstrates commitment to the practice.
- Adapt to your team: people appreciate feedback in different ways. Over time (and by asking) you can get to know how each team member wants to receive praise and criticism and consider adapting your practices accordingly.
- Practice! For certain cases where you’re still unsure, practice with a peer or another manager. Ask them how they’d feel if you told them your planned feedback. You could learn a lot, and just the action of saying the words out loud to another human will help you with your delivery.
I don’t feel comfortable giving feedback, what can I do?
Even with all this advice, we understand that giving advice might still feel like an awkward thing to do.
Where does this discomfort come from? Usually from being worried about how the other person is going to react to what you have to say, particularly if it’s critical.
First thing, it’s ok to feel uncomfortable. You’re right, people often don’t like to be challenged, and can react badly to it. So what to do?
We’ll return to Part Two above. Assuming your comments are factually accurate, a lot of the time people react badly to feedback is because they:
- Don’t believe you care, either about their career or personal situation (‘why are you telling me this, I worked my ass off on that etc).
- Don’t believe you know enough to offer valuable advice.
- Aren’t used to receiving critical feedback, and the challenge is a surprise.
Now you know, hopefully you can manage some of these issues before delivering your comments (see Practical Tips elsewhere).
‘When I started to give people critical feedback on my first engagement, it was quite interesting, because people felt I was absolutely tearing them to shreds, and i was like no, I care about your development.’ Kommon Customer Interview
How should I give tough feedback?
The good news is there’s nothing too special about giving tough or difficult feedback. All the lessons we’ve addressed above should set you in good stead.
Often the reasons feedback is ‘tough’ have nothing to do with what’s being said but with other dynamics we’ve discussed. Perhaps you’re trying to have a complex conversation when you haven’t taken the time to build up the requisite trust? Or perhaps expectations weren’t set properly, so the ‘blame’ for a lack of success is shared. Or perhaps no-one gave the team member feedback in ages, so there’s a lot to discuss. All these situations are avoidable.
The bad news is that there are still some specific traps people fall into when delivering ‘tough’ feedback, so we’ve tried to help you through these in our tips below.
- Don’t sugarcoat it: assuming the critical feedback you have to give is valid, say it directly and communicate the impact. Attempting to ameliorate it by saying ‘it’s not that bad’, or feeling like you have to give positive feedback at the same time (the famous ‘shit sandwich’) just muddies the message and makes it less likely that the person will respond positively
- Own it: if you’ve decided the feedback is valid, don’t hide behind phrases like ‘others are saying’. Again, it muddies the message. Own it as your own opinion.
- Don’t be too worried. If critical feedback is delivered directly, in the right managerial relationship, by someone they respect, it will almost certainly be appreciated rather than rejected. Ultimately most people want to be told when they’re making a mistake, even if they instinctively don’t want to accept it.
- Practice! As we’ve said elsewhere, if you’re not sure about how to approach a conversation, run your potential feedback past a colleague or peer and see what they think.
How often should I give feedback?
If you’ve read part one, by now you’ll know the first part of the answer to this question… it’s not about how often you give feedback, but how often your team members receive it. So how often should they get it, whether from you or others?
Pretty much every piece of work someone does - every report they write, every presentation they give, or every piece of code they commit - is an opportunity to let them know strengths to build on and areas to improve. In practice, this means people should be getting task-based feedback most days, if not every other day. The effects of feedback compound, so the more people receive it, and the earlier they get it, the faster they can improve.
In addition to feedback in the normal flow of work, you may choose to take a longer-term perspective and give your team members feedback on trends you’ve seen in their work. This usually occurs on a fortnightly/monthly/quarterly basis, whenever you have a valuable observation to make.