How to Give Your Employees Effective Feedback

Even critical feedback can yield results when it's presented the right way.

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Giving feedback can be one of the most effective ways to help employees and build a productive team. In addition to helping people improve their performance, well-delivered feedback can be a gift of powerful insights that can help an employee grow.

Yet how to provide feedback—along with when and how often—is a subject of much debate, leaving even the most experienced managers confused. According to Marcus Buckingham, a leadership expert and author, and Ashley Goodall ’02, SVP of Cisco Systems, in their recent article, “The Feedback Fallacy” in the Harvard Business Review, “Managers today are bombarded with calls to give feedback. But it turns out that telling people what we think of their performance and how they can do better is not the best way to help them excel and, in fact, can hinder development.” How should leaders navigate what seems to be a minefield of advice for giving feedback in order to build more creative, effective, and productive teams?

Understand Brain Science

Multiple studies show that critical feedback actually impedes learning by invoking a fight or flight reaction. That’s right. When you criticize someone, a primal part of their brain senses danger and switches into survival mode. This in turn shuts down the part of the brain most needed for creativity and receptivity. In other words: the criticism shuts down the very thing needed to learn from criticism.

Start by Caring

It might sound touchy-feely, but many leadership experts believe that you can’t provide solid feedback unless you care about the person you’re providing it to. In her bestseller Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) coach and author Kim Scott argues, “It’s not enough to care only about people’s ability to perform a job. To have a good relationship, you have to be your whole self and care about each of the people who work for you as a human being.” What you say will only resonate if you can be authentic when you communicate an underlying belief in the employee’s ability to succeed.

Build on Strengths

To help people learn, leaders must focus on what their employees already do well. Buckingham and Goodall explain: “According to brain science, people grow far more neurons and synaptic connections where they already have the most neurons and synaptic connections. In other words, each brain grows most where it’s already strongest.” Reminding people of what they do well can help them call upon these resources to address new challenges. For example, you might say: “You have great relationships with the marketing director. What made you successful in that relationship? Could you envision using those skills to improve your relationships with the operations director?”

Connect to a Person’s Goals, Hopes, and Dreams

In Radical Candor, Scott describes how to “understand people’s motivation and ambitions to help them take a step in the direction of their dreams.” In Resonant Leadership (Harvard Business Review Press, 2005), authors Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee describe how connecting to the “ideal self” is a powerful motivator. Helping employees envision their future professional selves and plan how to get there puts feedback conversations in a more compelling context. Boyatzis also points out that thinking and talking about your goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities, whereas once the conversation shifts to what you have to do to fix yourself, you shut down.

Watch Your Language

It’s important to pay attention to language nuances and timing when giving feedback. First, feedback should be given as close as possible to the event you want to correct. Your feedback should describe behavior, not impressions of behavior. For example, saying, “You seemed bored during the meeting” describes an interpretation and leaves little room for another version. However, saying, “It seemed to me you were on your cell phone for much of the meeting” is specific, doesn’t judge or interpret the behavior, and leaves the door open for conversation. Your language should also acknowledge that what you’re saying is from your perspective, say Buckingham and Goodall. For instance, instead of beginning the conversation with “Can I give you some feedback?” Try, “Here’s my reaction.” Even a “good job” isn’t that productive. Instead, say, “Here are three things that worked for me.”

Think of Yourself as a Coach

Use a coaching approach when you can, posing great questions to help people discover their own answers. For instance, you might ask, “When things went well, what was your approach?” Leaders who use this coaching technique foster an environment where employees take responsibility for their growth. “Feedback” has become a word that everyone knows but few people understand. Once you understand how it works and the best way to use it effectively, you can harness your employees’ potential and bring out the very best in your team.

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