7 essential rules for giving a good feedback

Feedback is critical for our professional growth and development, so it is crucial to learn how to deliver it properly.
It is hard to name any other aspect of professional life where people struggle more than when they are giving and receiving feedback. The nature of these struggles varies - some find it hard to express their thoughts and deliver critical feedback, others take all the feedback too personally and get easily upset.
However, feedback is critical for both our professional growth and development, as well as the climate in the team, so it is really important to learn how to deliver it without hurting anyone’s feelings and how to use feedback for personal development and not as an excuse for an extra large glass of red or a pack of doughnuts.

Today I would like to look at the process of giving feedback. No matter what your role is - manager, team member or coach, I am sure you would find the tips below useful, especially if giving feedback is your weak spot.

Understand why you are giving feedback

Please promise me that if your only goal of giving feedback is to tell someone how annoyed you are by them, you will never ever do it. It is counterproductive, it will create a long-lasting conflict and it will backfire at you at some point.

In my opinion, we should give feedback only when we are orientated on supporting people’s growth. Positive feedback would be focused on encouraging your peer to keep doing what they are doing well, and any kind of negative feedback (although I don’t like this word and normally prefer “constructive”) would help them to understand how to change their behavior and do things better.

Regardless of your role in the organization and relationship with your peers, please don’t take a patronizing tone and don’t teach them. Unless you are a leader of a cult or a motivational speaker, and all the others are blindly following you, this kind of feedback probably won’t work.

Think that people are acting out of their best intentions

Of course, there are villains and psychopaths in this world, but the ultimate majority of people are trying to be good. They are not looking to annoy others, let them down or cause major havocs. They do the best they can with the knowledge, skills, experience and resources they have. Your peer might be new to the job, be tired from sleepless nights with a new baby or be clinically depressed, and those factors would, of course, affect their actions. However, chances are high they are not trying to damage your reputation or sabotage the project - they just made a mistake or said something without thinking.

So whenever you are giving feedback (even if you are extremely annoyed by someone’s actions), assume they tried their best and failed for whatever reason. Your goal is not to scold them or explain why they are bad, but rather help them not to make the same mistake again. People are good (or, at least, are trying to be) - believing in this makes life much easier, trust me!

Avoid sh*t sandwich

When we need to deliver some critical feedback to a person, but also want to “be nice”, the first instinct is usually to wrap the feedback in a few positive comments: “You’re such a great team player! Just wanted to let you know that your sales results are terrible this quarter and we might need to fire you if this continues. But you’re also such a talented baker - that cake you brought last week was fantastic, can you share the recipe?”

Yeah, maybe this is a bit exaggerated, but you get the idea. Jam the bad stuff between a few overly positive comments and you get yourself a sh*t sandwich. No one likes that because people can smell and taste the fake. Your counterpart will not think of you as a nice person - they would think that you are an asshole who doesn’t have enough guts to have an honest conversation about their performance.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t combine positive and negative feedback in one discussion, just don’t use the positive feedback to camouflage the true purpose of conversation.

Use examples

Regardless of the nature of the feedback, try to make it as specific as possible. When you are generalizing, it is hard for the feedback receiver to internalize it and make conclusions. Say you tell them “you’re always complaining” - what kind of reaction do you think it would cause? Most likely the person would think of the time they were not complaining and use it to defend themselves.

Last thing we want is getting in the fight, and the moment one side gets defensive, it is a fight. Compare with “hey, remember at the last retrospective you complained about Bob not helping you in front of the whole team? I feel it might have created hostile environment in the team. Maybe next time you could start by explaining your workload to everyone and engaging them in prioritization exercise so that you get the help you need?” The example is specific enough for the person to reflect on their behavior, and the nudge to alter their actions is gentle enough, so they are less likely to get into a defensive mode. Even if they complain at every single meeting, pick up one specific example and use it - it will be much more powerful than generalizing.

Don’t attribute qualities to people, focus on actions

How would it make you feel if someone called you stupid? I am quite sure, it won’t make you start looking into ways to get a degree, read more books or enroll in some professional course. If anything, you will get angry, upset and annoyed with the person who said that. Believe me or not, same goes for other qualities. If you call someone lazy, disengaged, rude, loud etc, they will get offended, will ignore your feedback and probably will hate you for the rest of your life. Even if the quality might sound like a good one in your head, chances are it would be perceived not so well by your peer. Avoid using qualities, focus on the actions and impact, and most of all the impact their actions have on you.

For example, instead of calling someone rude, tell them about that comment they made last week when you entered the room and how it made you feel. You see, when you talk about your own feelings (or impact someone’s actions had on you), it is almost impossible to disagree.

Think about it. Imagine you called me stupid and now all my efforts are focused on proving to you that I’m not stupid and you are a liar and generally bad person. Now let’s say that you told me, that my mistake in the materials I prepared for you caused a lot of embarrassment when you were presenting it to CEO. I can’t take that embarrassment away from you, I can’t prove that you are wrong. Instead (if I’m an okay human) I will probably have empathy for you and will feel sorry for the mistake. Now we can have a constructive dialogue about ways to avoid it in the future - feedback worked!
Give them space to reflect
People will often disagree with the feedback you give them. Sometimes they might be right, sometimes their vision might be obstructed and their perception of reality might be not adequate. If your goal is to help them improve and support their growth, you would need to make an effort and either clarify some aspects or allow them to ask questions. Don’t rush to deliver everything you wrote down in your notebook in one go - instead focus on getting the message through and making sure your peer understands what you are talking about. Make pauses, invite them to ask questions and clarify.

I know what you’re probably thinking. If I start giving them spaces to clarify, they will just start protecting themselves and we will end up in a fight. And that brings me back to the previous point. Make it about your perception of their behavior, your emotions and your reactions. Your peer might have done everything right, but the result of their actions caused some problems - help them to understand what was missing and what could have been done differently. I promise you, if you stir the conversation towards the impact on you (and/or the rest of the team), you will not end up in the fight. Worst case scenario, they will walk away thinking they did everything right, but next time will have to send an extra email so that you don’t get upset again, whatever.
Give advice and provide support. As long as it’s welcomed
So we have aligned above that we are giving feedback because we want to help people to become better and avoid making mistakes. Or, in case of positive feedback, we want them to know they are doing great job and should continue doing it. We also know that most people are acting out of their best intentions, so they probably did the best they could in the given circumstances.

Your goal as a feedback giver is to help them to understand how exactly they could alter the behavior in order to get better or avoid making the same mistakes. You might even offer your help - mentoring, providing support with project or teaching them to use a new tool. But this will only work if your support is welcomed.

If you followed the pieces of advice above, chances are high your peer would become curious about ways they can get better or change their behavior. However, if you were patronizing, called them names (“you’re always so lazy!”), were not specific in your feedback or tried to disguise it into a sh*t sandwich, the opponent is likely to get defendant, shut down and focus on ways to get away from you ASAP. Consider it a failure - you will need to adjust your style next time, but there is nothing you can do here.

We live we learn, and while the concepts of feedback giving are quite simple, it doesn’t necessarily make it easy to apply to real life situations. Observe other people giving feedback and think how you could have done it differently, empathize with people to whom you give feedback (in some situations you might even ask to give you feedback on your feedback!). Each time you will learn something and get a little bit better.
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