Two steps for effective feedback


Early in my management experience I had an employee, let's call her "Stephanie," who was - ahem - "challenging" to coach.   No matter how I tried, I couldn't seem to give Stephanie feedback without her becoming angry, defensive, or shutting down. Many times she'd go through all three phases in rapid succession. This frustrated me no end.

I liked Stephanie, but she had rough edges that I knew would be "career limiting." During one particularly difficult meeting, I was going over her presentation and trying to tell her what points didn't work.  She exhaled in a way that communicated utter frustration with me.  I wasn't pleased.  I finally asked her for input.

"I'm trying to help you!   You don't ever seem to accept my feedback, so I don't know what to do.  What do you want from me?"

Then I stayed very, very quiet.  I wanted an answer.

She was stunned by my directness, but after reassuring her of my best intentions, she promised to give the question some thought.  The following week, Stephanie circled back with me with specific input. She made two points, which in hindsight seem obvious, that changed how I gave feedback.

1. Recognize what's working

Stephanie started our chat by saying, "I don't just want to hear the bad; I want to hear the good too."  Of course!  Leadership 101 tells you to give people praise for what they are doing well.  However, what Stephanie was communicating was my positive thoughts weren't making it out of my head and into the world.  Thoughts don't count.  Words count. Say what you like and be specific.

Bottom line: If people don't know what's working, they won't learn how to repeat the performance.

2. Say what YOU would do different

Stephanie's next point was more subtle and insightful.  She asked me to give her feedback less from a position as a boss and more as a coach.  She wanted me to give her guidance in the form of advice rather than a command.  (For you Strength Finder fans, "Command" is one of my top 5 strengths, which means some find me to be a tad bossy! What?! ) She wanted me to step through why I would approach the presentation or situation different from what she was suggesting.  She wanted more context for my suggestions, and she wanted me to honestly SUGGEST (not order) the change.  Fair enough.

Bottom line: Pronouns are important.  Say "I would do 'such and such'" rather than saying, "YOU need to do 'such and such.''"

Since both options seemed rational and I was open/desperate enough to give her approach a try, we made a simple chart for notes  (pictured above). On the left I'd write what worked and on the right, what I'd do differently.

Couldn't have been an easier change.

Do you have approaches you find particularly effective when either giving or receiving feedback?  Please share!