How To Give Effective Feedback When You Don't Want To

It is part of the human condition to assess and evaluate others. As a result, in working with colleagues, we often have an internal dialogue monologue in which our thoughts and comments on their performance surface. And yet, that’s more often than not how we leave things – internal and unspoken. Our inside voice may be loud. But our colleagues can’t hear us.

It may sometimes be a good thing that we don’t share our inside voice. But, for multiple reasons, despite the potential benefit to the individual or to the organization or to ourselves, we avoid offering constructive (i.e. developmental) feedback. We would rather live with the status quo than effect any change in ourselves or in others by participating in giving feedback. Thanks and praise are easy enough to give (although they too can be in short supply) but they are not developmental. “Thanks, you did a great job on that project” is nice to hear but, in practice, we are left none the wiser as to what we did well and where we could make tweaks to do even better next time.

So, if you want to take on the challenge of giving quality feedback effectively, you may want to start off by using this simple formula:

Situation + Behavior + Impact = Feedback

This will give you a practical framework for planning and having a feedback conversation.

Be sure to think about when and where you give someone feedback. Don’t spring it on them. Giving the other person a heads up that you would like to give them feedback is key. It enables the other person to shift gears mentally and to gather their thoughts. Think about it from their perspective: How (when and where) would you want the conversation to be if you were in their shoes and this were about your professional development or success? In any event, a feedback conversation needs to be had privately, preferably somewhere neutral and comfortable for both of you.

In starting, what was the situation, the context? What’s the big picture? What did the other person actually do? What specific behavior(s) did you observe? And, what was the impact and the outcome of what they did?

When giving feedback effectively, the goal is to communicate your message without making the other person defensive. Also, avoid the temptation to be “right” regardless of what they have to say. You are setting up a dialogue not a debate. Be sure to focus on the specifics of what you saw and what its impact was. Use an example to illustrate. By deconstructing an example, you can demonstrate your general comments with specifics and develop a meaningful dialogue.

Avoid making assumptions about why they did what they did. Be open to the idea that there may be circumstances or factors hidden from your view and which would put your colleague’s performance in a different  perspective. There may, after all, be context you are missing.

Talking of perspective, be sure to explain how significant the feedback is. If the feedback relates to something relatively minor, you don’t want to discourage them. So be clear: Is this a one-off or a trend? Is a simple tweak required or something more significant? Don’t minimize the impact to save someone’s feelings but, by the same token, don’t make something bigger than it needs to be. When giving developmental feedback, be sure to lead with strengths before getting to the adjustments required. If however, the feedback is negative, just get straight to it. Don’t try to sugarcoat negative feedback.

Having shared your observations, allow the person to reflect and ask them if they have questions or comments on what you have shared. Assuming positive intent on the other’s part helps to keep the conversation neutral and leaves space for the other person to engage in the conversation.

To ensure that feedback is a powerful development tool, be sure to take a future-looking perspective. The key is to avoid evaluation (leave that for the annual appraisal) and to focus on how the person might best approach a similar task, project or situation in future. To finish up the conversation, agree what the person you are giving feedback to will do with the feedback. In brief: What should they continue doing (strengths) what should they do differently and what should they start doing?

This framework works well for both positive and constructive (mixed and negative) feedback. There are of course more developed/nuanced frameworks for giving constructive feedback but if thus far you have avoided giving constructive feedback, the above will stand you in good stead. Try it out and help others to maximize their performance.