How Successful Leaders Give Honest Feedback That Inspires People and Does Not Hurt Their Ego



Leader’s are the most scrutinized, misinterpreted and misunderstood people in the world. As a leader, you must be cognizant of your tone, body language and your word choice. You have to be firm but not overbearing, assertive but never aggressive, friendly but never to familiar…and the list goes on. Good leadership is akin to walking a tight-rope while juggling knives and being chased by a lion.

Communicating as a leader is never easy.

Effective communication and good leadership are synonymous. They are espoused. If the two ever divorce, efforts, organizations, and vision become orphans struggling to survive in a dysfunctional home.

One particular aspect of communication trips up more leaders than anything else…and that is providing feedback to those they lead. It’s tricky terrain to navigate. There are so many extremes and variations of feedback, from the angry boss that no one can please, to the leader who provides no feedback whatsoever. Understanding and appreciating the value and importance is one side of this important coin. The other side is truly understanding how to use feedback and criticism as a tool[1] that corrects and empowers those you lead.

Understand that different feedback has different effect on people.

The first step in providing proper feedback is to understand what it is. The best description that aptly frames the concept of feedback is Kevin Eikenberrry’s four types of feedback model.[2] His model breaks feedback into four distinct categories:

  1. Negative feedback: corrective comments about past behavior (things that didn’t go well).
  2. Positive feedback: affirming comments about past behavior (things that went well and should be repeated).
  3. Negative feedforward: corrective comments about future behavior (things that shouldn’t be repeated in the future).
  4. Positive feedforward: affirming comments about future behavior (things that would improve future performance).

His approach encourages leaders to establish a balance both positive and negative with emphasis on providing advice on how to improve in the future. This is the primary component that is largely missing from the feedback repertoire of most leaders–focusing on the future or feedforward.

Helping those you lead understand what worked and what didn’t and how they can move forward without repeating negative behaviors should be the goal of feedback. Simply providing negative–or even positive feedback isn’t enough. Feedback should be a tool that teaches, enhances and moves people forward. Feedback that isn’t accomplishing this is ineffective.

The key to an effective feedback is not skipping negative feedback, but balancing both positive and negative elements in it.

Now that we have a clear picture of what balanced feedback looks like, let’s turn our attention to the “how” of providing feedback. One of the most ineffective, insincere forms of feedback is the blanket praise that is vague and insincere.

“I’d like to thank the team for the great job and all of their hard work on that project.” It sounds nice and it technically is positive feedback but it doesn’t point out which behaviors were good and should be repeated and what they should do to improve performance on the next project. It also may feel disingenuous to some team members who may feel they carried more of the load than others. Everyone is aware that a leader is supposed to say “great job team!” and be encouraging, however, feedback should never have a “check the box” feel.

Below are a few things to consider as you are providing balanced, yet feedforward focused feedback:

1. Make sure your feedback is objective and not emotional in nature.

This is especially critical when dealing with massive mistakes that have been made. It’s important to take some time, cool off, evaluate the situation and choose your words carefully. Try to take a step back from the situation and view it from an objective standpoint. You want to provide feedback that is helpful, actionable and that builds the team.

2. Target behaviors, NOT the person or the team.

Personality conflicts are a part of human interaction. As a leader, you are not going to like everyone on your team–but you should respect and value them. Don’t let personal feelings and preferences cloud your judgment and lead you to attack a person’s personality or character. Make sure your feedback is always authentic and that it is designed to bring about positive change and is never used to inflict wounds.

3. Keep the feedback balanced and always affirm positive behaviors you want to be repeated.

Always try to balance the negative with the positive. Giving too much negative feedback or feedforward can leave those you lead feeling disillusioned and that you are never satisfied. When giving positive feedback, make sure that it is about specific and reproducible behaviors.

For constructive feedback, make use of the 70% rule. Make sure you have 30% positive feedback if you’re having 70% negative feedback which focuses on what needs to be improved.

4. When giving negative feedback, be sure you provide suggestions and guidance on how performance can be improved in the future.

We’ve established that providing negative feedback is essential for growth, however, pointing out the negative without providing suggestions for corrective actions can leave your team feeling hopeless. For example, if an employee is constantly interrupting and cutting people off in meetings, let them know what they are doing and how it affects others. Then, provide suggestions on how they can improve that behavior–such as signaling/gesturing they have something to say and would like to comment once their cohort has finished speaking in lieu of cutting them off mid-sentence.

5. Focus on the strengths of your team and show them how to leverage their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses.

Chase negative feedback with positive feedforward. If an individual is constantly late to meetings and the meetings are unable to begin on time, run over or information has to be repeated, let the person know that being on time is critical to the effectiveness of the team. You could then assign them a task that plays to one of their strengths and requires them to get to the meeting ahead time–such as prepping the meeting space, recording the minutes, moderating the meeting or calling the meeting to order.

6. Engage in dialogue, not a monologue.

The more personal and engaging the conversation is the more effective it will be. Allow your team to know that you care about them and are personally invested in their success. Encourage them to participate in the feedback process and to find ways to shore up weak areas and to improve their performance. Help them to be accountable and responsible for their own progress. Talk to them, not at them. Simply broadcasting your message ad nauseum will not have the same effect as engaging in meaningful conversation–and not a lecture or a monologue.

7. Timing is everything when it comes to giving feedback too.

The best leaders know when to speak and when to shut-up. Feedback–positive or negative–that is targeted, well framed and delivered at the right moment can make or break your team. You never want to kick a man when he’s down–but you shouldn’t just step over him and keep going either. The ability to discern the proper time and place to deliver feedback is a skill that must be mastered in order to be a great leader.

As a leader, communication is not about you, your opinions, your positions or your circumstances. It is about helping others. Your job is to provide guidance that meets needs, understand concerns, and add value to your team’s world. It’s about pushing them picking them up and pushing them forward.

Featured photo credit: Flaticon via flaticon.com

Reference

[1] Hill Writing & Editing: Handling Criticism and Harnessing the Power of Feedback
[2] Kevin Eikenberry’s Blog: Using the Four Types of Feedback Correctly

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