How to give effective feedback and avoid mistakes

Giving feedback is a necessary evil to help individuals grow professionally and to ensure an organization’s success. However, most people are uncomfortable giving feedback, and even fewer people like to receive feedback.

“Perhaps we’ve been on the receiving end of unpleasant feedback and there’s some scar tissue about that — we don’t want to make somebody else feel bad,” says Irina Baranov, a Vistage Master Chair, Chair Academy faculty member and speaker. “Another part of it is that we’ve never been taught how to give feedback.”

However, as a leader, it’s your responsibility to give feedback. When handled constructively, feedback can help direct reports and colleagues succeed. Learning how to give effective feedback is crucial to avoid common mistakes and have a meaningful coaching conversation.

Poorly executed feedback leads to conflict, and workplace conflict is costly. Adam Vane, managing partner of Paragon Global Consulting Group, a New York-based firm that focuses on CEO and executive leadership development, points to a 2008 study on workplace conflict by Consulting Psychological Press.

The research found conflict cost $360 billion in paid hours and 485 million lost working days in the United States. And 25% of the respondents said that trying to avoid conflict kills morale and causes conflict and absence at work.

“Feedback is necessary,” Vane says. “When you look at the people expense, there’s a lot of data to support that much of that cost comes from conflict.”

Over the past decade, Vane has spoken to hundreds of Vistage CEO members, asking them to estimate the cost of conflict on their business. The anecdotal evidence he has collected about the cost of workplace tension is staggering.

“Without fail the hands go up and I’ll hear cost amounts ranging from $100,000 to $1 million per year,” he says. “As most Vistage Chairs can tell you, solving an interpersonal conflict is quite often the subject of Vistage afternoon discussions.”

Feedback must be a two-way street, according to Steve Heroux, a Vistage speaker, member and the Founder/CEO of The Sales Collective, a sales process design and training firm based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When you’re open to feedback, take it to heart, and demonstrate you want to improve, you instantly build trust and loyalty with your team.

“That’s going to create a cycle where they’re likely to share even more feedback, and they’ll come to you for just about anything,” he says. “Every person in your company and on your team has a different vantage point, and a lot of times, they’re much closer to problems and opportunities with clients and other staff members than you are.”

What is effective feedback?

Effective feedback is a way of giving input. It can be positive, negative or neutral. Positive feedback is giving a compliment; negative feedback is when a corrective measure is needed and neutral feedback is when a general observation is provided.

“The first place I start is by changing the word negative to constructive,” Baranov says. “Constructive says that I did not like what you did, but also carries the message that I care and want to help.”

If you want to give effective feedback, you should strive to be supportive, encouraging and specific in the direction that’s needed to change and improve performance.

Regardless of the purpose, feedback is always useful to the receiver when it’s delivered correctly because it provides insight or suggestions that contribute to desired outcomes.

“There’s only one person that can tell you that it was effective or not, and it’s the receiver,” says Baranov. “So, as strange as it sounds, sometimes we want to ask for feedback on our feedback.”

Why is giving and receiving feedback important?

In the workplace, providing and receiving feedback can change behaviors, improve productivity and evaluate performance.
Employees and their managers need to know how their strengths are benefiting the position and the overall organization and where there is room for improvement.

The idea is to challenge yourself and your colleagues to perform at a higher level.

Other reasons to give and receive feedback in the workplace include:

Inspiring growth: Employees gain a new perspective when receiving feedback on how their behaviors impact those around them.
“The best of the best want coaching, especially the good ones,” Heroux says. “The best people will say, ‘Tell me what I’m doing so I can get better.’ If you don’t tell them, you’re hurting them.”

Giving people purpose: Feedback helps people feel useful and valued by reminding them what matters.

“You have to ask your people, ‘What can I do to make your life better? What can I do to improve it? How did I mess up last week?’” Heroux says. “Only one out of six companies are doing stay interviews. It is so incredibly valuable to get feedback from your people.

Heroux recommends conducting stay interviews frequently to find out what’s going on, to get the temperature of the team, and to be aware of the things you’re not aware of.

“They will tell you everything if they trust you and if you’re transparent,” Heroux says. “Then, you do those things or explain why you can’t because sometimes you physically can’t.”

Improving employee engagement: According to a 2022 Gallup study, employees are more likely to get involved in the workplace if they receive feedback at least once a week. Regular communication and feedback nurture a culture of clarity and mutual growth that encourages a stronger commitment to the workplace.

Building and maintaining working relationships: Peer-to-peer feedback allows for open communication and can help solve issues before they become unmanageable.

Improves talent development: Feedback helps managers and individual leaders influence and develop talent. Managers can also give employees good reasons to be engaged, work effectively and build their skills.

“If you want to be a real pro, a true sales leader, this is where you should look to see how you can tie the feedback to an area they have interest in or to their career goals,” Heroux says. “For example, ‘Listen, Tom. I need you to improve upon your client retention if you want me to advocate for you to get that next promotion.’”

7 tips for effective feedback

Mastering the art of effective feedback requires a thoughtful and purposeful approach. Consider these seven tips to improve your delivery.

1. Know your purpose

Be clear about why you are delivering feedback and the outcome you hope it leads to. Whether it’s encouraging improvement, acknowledging a job well done, or addressing a specific issue, understanding your purpose for feedback allows you to frame it appropriately.

2. Focus on behavior and not the person

“Effective feedback is one in which you are tough on the problem but easier on the person,” Vane says. “You focus more on the behavior than a person’s identity. When you challenge a person’s identity, they may not take the feedback and feel bad about it.”

3. Focus on how the behavior affected you

Focus on the specific behavior and its downstream impact. Vane offers this example of an employee forgetting to lock a call center.

Instead of stating what consequences will occur, Vane suggests asking open-ended questions that lead to the employee verbalizing and subsequently realizing what happens next. For example, not locking up will trigger a call to the police, then the big boss, then their direct boss.

“Once a person understands how their behavior circles back to impact them, they are more likely to see the bigger picture and make the behavioral adjustment their manager is requesting,” Vane says.

4. Ask questions

Open-ended questions create an opportunity for dialogue and can diffuse tensions that may arise out of giving/receiving feedback.

5. Be specific

Vague feedback is often unhelpful and can lead to confusion. To make your feedback specific about the observed behavior or performance and actionable in terms of next steps.

6. Be timely

Timely feedback is crucial. Delaying it for days, weeks or months can not only leave the receiver feeling blindsided but also allow issues that may hurt the team or organization to continue.

However, it’s also essential to recognize an individual may not be ready to hear feedback at the precise moment you want to give it. Before giving feedback, Baranov asks, “Are you open to constructive feedback or observation right now?”

“They should feel allowed to say no, not now,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘No problem. What’s a better time, later today or tomorrow?’”

7. Be aware of the moment

Often, leaders are unclear about what the moment calls for, says Baranov. Is it time to offer a compliment or does the moment call for constructive feedback?

“It’s important to think of categories for feedback,” she says. “Coaching is a kind of feedback, mentoring is a kind of feedback, compliments are a kind of feedback. Then when you ask the question of ‘what does this moment call for,’ you can go to that category.”

Avoid these 10 common mistakes:

Leaders are only human. Making mistakes is part of the process of learning to deliver effective feedback.

Knowing these common missteps can help you avoid the most common errors leaders make:

1. The feedback focuses on the person, not behaviors.

When feedback is presented in a judgmental manner, people become defensive and internalize it as meaning they are a bad person. This is especially critical in sensitive situations that must address an individual’s hygiene — a conversation Baranov has had to have in the past.

She shares how she frames difficult feedback discussions to avoid focusing on the person.

“I start with honest vulnerability, authenticity and by saying, ‘This is so hard for me to say, please hear it as coming from a place of care and concern about you,’” she says. “I don’t know if there’s a medical thing going on. I don’t know if you are so stressed and busy that you haven’t had time for self-care. But there’s an odor coming from you and you’re in a small office space with 20 other people. I don’t want them to have a bad impression of you.”

2. The feedback is too ambiguous.

“For someone to be willing to listen and internalize the feedback you want to give them, you must have facts,” Heroux says. “A behavior isn’t something you observed one random time, but something you can point to that shows their pattern of doing that behavior consistently.”

3. The feedback ignores how people want to receive feedback.

Some people prefer direct, candid conversation. Another person might want to receive feedback in written form. So, understanding how people want to receive feedback is essential.

“The Achilles’ heel of leaders is that they practice the Golden Rule,” Heroux says. “Don’t ever do that. You never treat people how you want to be treated — you treat them how they want to be treated. That’s called the Platinum Rule.”

He suggests starting with these questions:

  • “How do you prefer to receive feedback?”
  • “Do you feel you’re getting enough feedback? Why or why not?”
  • “What’s a recent situation you wish you handled differently?”
  • “What would you change?”
  • “What’s an area of your work you want to improve?”
  • “In what aspect of your job would you like more help or coaching?”

4. The negative feedback gets sandwiched between positive messages.

Often called the SH*T sandwich, giving positive feedback on either side of negative feedback confuses people, damages trust and is manipulative, according to Baranov.

“It elongates the conversation, and it doesn’t feel good,” she says. “Let’s be clear and acknowledge that a hard conversation is needed. Tell them their job is safe and that you want them to improve.”

Vane adds that when he gives feedback, he finishes with a compliment unrelated to the behavior he is giving feedback on.
“This is important. If you compliment them on something else, it lets them know it’s not about their identity or them as a person,” he says. “They are less likely to retaliate via conscious or even unconscious sabotage.”

5. The feedback does not include facts or specifics.

Generalities are too loose and often include words like “always” or “never,” when in fact, it may be a one-time occurrence. Get agreement on the facts using neutral language, Vane says.

“Saying, “I noticed,’ is very powerful,” he adds. “It can’t be escalated and then you’re pulling information from them, getting the facts, asking questions and understanding what led them to take this decision.”

This is called the pull strategy and is constructed around asking open-ended questions that pull answers out of the other person using empathy.

The next step, Vane says is to agree on a solution.

“I’m a big proponent of managing by agreement,” he says. “Because when you manage by agreement you don’t have to legislate the next time. You can go back and say, ‘Hey, we agreed on this, what happened?’ People naturally want to keep their word, so by having an agreement, you’re managing from the inside out.”

6. The feedback focuses on dissecting the motivations behind the behavior.

Making assumptions or judgments about the motivation behind behavior is off-putting and puts people on the defensive.
“If we could replace our assumptions with curiosity, that would solve a lot of problems in our personal and professional lives,” Baranov says.

7. The feedback is too detailed and drawn out.

Give feedback quickly, in private and face-to-face, Vane says. Make it brief and focused on the point. People need time to process what you’re telling them.

8. The feedback makes an indirect threat.

Unless someone’s job is on the line (which is important to acknowledge if true), be clear that you need to have a difficult conversation but their employment is not at risk, says Baranov.

9. The feedback is delivered with humor.

Sarcasm and humor often emerge when we’re nervous or in uncomfortable situations. Don’t make light of a situation or crack jokes when giving feedback.

10. The feedback is delivered as a question, rather than a statement.

It is ineffective to phrase feedback like a question. Furthermore, the receiver can take it as sarcastic.

A two-way street

Heroux reminds leaders to remember that truly effective feedback is a two-way street.

“You’re not perfect, I’m not perfect, none of us are. For someone to take your feedback to heart, you must be willing to hear their feedback for you,” Heroux says. “Otherwise, we become dictators, and we don’t need to go over why that’s not a good perception if you’re a leader.”

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Category : Leadership

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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