Say This, Not That – How to Give Associates Meaningful Feedback

If you are gearing up to deliver developmental feedback to a colleague, here are some quick ideas as to how you can do it effectively.

A feedback conversation has three overarching goals:

  1. To communicate your feedback. This includes your assessment of the associate’s performance, your observations on the impact(s) their behavior or actions had, and your expectations for the future, including any changes that you would like to see.

  2. To listen to the associate’s response. This enables you to ensure that your feedback is valid, to check that they understand it and to confirm that they are on-board with making any changes you recommend or request.

  3. To develop a plan. Finally, for the feedback to have any effect, it’s critical that you and the associate come up with a plan for their development and/or any action that may be required to implement the changes you’ve recommended.

With these goals in mind, let’s look at some examples of specific performance factors and less and more effective ways for framing and delivering the feedback to ensure it is most successful.

Initiative and ownership

Less effective: “I would expect an associate at your level to show greater ownership.”

More effective: “When you are faced with an issue, think through the possible solutions and give me your thoughts on what you think the best solution would be. Also, please think about what needs to be done next rather than wait for me to tell you. If you anticipate possible next steps, you can then proactively reach out to me, let me know what you plan and check with me if you need approval to proceed.”

Excellence in writing

Less effective: “Your writing needs to be much stronger.”

More effective: “On assignments that require you to organize a lot of information and explain complex issues, the way you present the data often makes it hard to understand. As a result, I am hesitant to give you more challenging assignments.” [What’s the next step? What could the associate do?]

Client service

Less effective: “I would like you to instill greater confidence in clients.”

More effective: “In our last two meetings with the client, I sensed that you were unprepared for their questions about your work. You couldn’t answer their questions about your research and you appeared confused. The result was that undermined the client’s confidence in you. I think it would be helpful for me to see your preparation for our next meeting with the client. If I understand better how you have prepared, we can figure out a strategy to ensure that you are sufficiently prepared when we get to the meeting.”

Team building and inclusion

Less effective: “You need to make more effort to support the team.”

More effective: “There was a lot of work to do on this project and we were on a tight deadline. You were the only associate on the team who didn’t take on any additional work when you finished what was assigned to you. That meant that the other associates who took on extra had to work the weekend. When we’re in the middle of a “fire drill”, you’re expected not just to do your part of it but also help out with additional work to make sure the project is completed on time, even if that means you also have to stay late or come in on the weekend.”

As you can see from these examples, it’s easy (and tempting) to simply tell the associate what they’re doing wrong, without giving detail or explaining the impact. But if you don’t provide specific concrete examples of how the associate’s behavior impacted the situation, the associate will likely leave the conversation not knowing what you meant or what they can do to improve. By taking the time to set out how the associate failed to meet your expectations, you can provide a solution or plan for them to do better next time, giving the associate clarity as to what they need to do to improve. In short:

Say this…

  • Be clear as to the context

  • Use specific examples (if possible) to identify the associate’s relevant actions or behaviors

  • Explain the impact of those behaviors

  • Share ways in which the associate can improve

..not that

  • Keep small-talk or build-up to a minimum. It will be a distraction and will seem insincere.

  • Steer clear of labels, generalizations and assumptions

  • Avoid mixed messages. Be clear and direct. Avoid room for mis-interpretation.