The Art of Giving Feedback

Honestly speaking, giving/receiving feedback has become as common as the common cold. And like the common cold, it often leaves us feeling miserable. In fact, sometimes it’s even difficult to tell what’s worse – giving it or receiving it? Which is why we are here to talk about the art and craft of giving feedback.

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Well, let us first talk of the reason why giving/receiving feedback often feels like a futile exercise. It is simply because we have never been taught “how” to give proper feedback. In fact to quote Mark Darcy, most of us in typical Bridget Jones’ style, tend to let whatever’s in our heads come out of ours mouths without much consideration of the consequences. This IS appalling since words are incredibly powerful forces of nature…After all, who amongst us has not felt both the warming glow of praise and the cold icy sting of criticism…that unmistakable feeling of warm acceptance and ruthless abandonment…or how it makes us soar to the greatest heights of paradise or how it flings us into the deepest darkest recesses of hell.

In fact, so important is this lesson that it was taught through folklore and Panchtantra stories way before the advent of modern education system. The moral of the story is, in fact, contained in a simple sentence:

बात ही हाथी पाइए , बात ही हाथी पाँव

[Literally: Words can either get you the elephant or the elephant’s foot]

In other words, “words” can be used to either motivate someone to action or demotivate someone from action. Truth be told, our words require much more thought and censorship as compared to our films.

While at the workplace, it is the responsibility of managers/team leaders to give individual feedback to subordinates/team members, almost all of us give/receive feedback on a daily basis. For we do not just give and receive feedback in our professional lives, but in our personal lives too. For example, when couples “talk” about their relationships – that’s feedback! And if you have been privy to such “talks” in the past, you know that this type of talking [aka feedback] requires skill and dexterity in order to sidestep relationship land-mines (whether personal or professional) like ‘defensiveness’ and ‘resentment’.

So, what’s the solution?

Simple! You need to learn how to give feedback. First of all, feedback in its simplest sense refers to giving information/opinions to the other person regarding his/her performance, given with an aim to encourage positive behaviour and improve performance. In order to make your job simpler, we have thus broken it down into simple ‘easy-to-follow’ tips.

Tip #1: Judge the action, not the individual.

Never personalise the feedback. You must always remember that it is the action that is in the spotlight and not the individual.

Tip #2: Do not be vague when giving feedback.

When you give someone vague statements, they are left clueless as to the correct course of action. Hence, it’s important to be specific. Therefore, it’s not enough to tell someone, ‘You’re not working properly.’ You need to point out (in concrete terms) aspects of his/her work performance that has not been up-to-the-mark and requires modification.

Tip #3: Take ownership of the feedback given.

NEVER use sentences like, ‘Mr. X feels like you’re not being a good team player.’ Do not be a chicken when it comes to feedback. Own up! Imagine if your better half made the same mistake by saying: ‘Honey, my friends feel you are not paying enough attention to this relationship.’ Well, you’ll not only be seething in anger, you’ll probably want your spouse to get better friends.

Tip #4: Do not sugarcoat the negative feedback.

Honestly, there’s nothing good about negative feedback. And while you are expected to be sensitive while giving negative feedback, it is never a good idea to sandwich the feedback between positive messages. For example: ‘You are the greatest guy I know blah blah blah … but you are falling behind on your targets … But otherwise you are an immense asset to the firm blah blah blah.’

Tip #5: Do not exaggerate feedback with generalities.

It is one thing to give negative feedback, it’s quite another when you use it as a generalised statement against the individual. For example, using a sentence like ‘You are ALWAYS late,’ is a bad idea when you want to get the employee to make a positive change to his behaviour. Instead, use concrete examples of specific instances where he/she was late to work and its corresponding impact. For example, a lost deal or a delayed project report.

Tip #6: Do not psychoanalyse their motives behind their behaviour.

Well, let’s admit it. You’re a manager, not a psychologist/psychiatrist/detective. NEVER make the assumption that you know why a certain individual is behaving in a certain way. Hence, do not offer your “own” explanations about “their” behaviour.

Tip #7: Do not go on and on endlessly…

Most of us love the sound of our voice, especially when we are in top positions. After all, which subordinate is ever going to tell us to ‘Shut up!’ Especially when he/she is sitting in our room, waiting for his/her performance review. However, exploiting your position to grab maximum air-time is the worst mistake you can make while giving feedback. Be objective. Stick to facts and figures. And keep it brief. [Tip to remember: KISS – Keep It Short and Simple!]

Tip #8: Do not use implied or covert threats.

Telling someone his/her job is in jeopardy (“Do you want to work in this organisation?”) does not reinforce good behaviour or illustrate bad behaviour. It only creates animosity. Hence, do not use threats (overt or covert) when discussing job performance.

Tip #9: Do not use inappropriate humour.

If giving feedback is uncomfortable to you, or if you sometimes speak before thinking, you might use sarcasm as a substitute for feedback. But saying “good afternoon” to a colleague who is 10 minutes late for a morning meeting does not tell that person how that behaviour affected you or provide them reasons to change that behaviour. Hence, avoid humour altogether when offering feedback. After all, feedback’s an important exercise and must be taken seriously. It’s no time to be making ‘Knock-Knock’ jokes.

Tip #10. Use statements, not rhetorical questions.

Phrasing feedback as a question (“Do you think you can pay closer attention during our next meeting?”) is too indirect to be effective. It may also be interpreted as sarcastic, to which the recipient may respond defensively; or rhetorical, to which the recipient may respond with indifference. Hence, use statements while discussing work performance.

It is, therefore, important that you keep the above points in mind while giving feedback. And remember, feedback is constructive and must be given with a positive mindset. You must, further, allow sufficient time for the other person to take in and respond to the feedback. Of course, the most important tip to remember:

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

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