Emily Marsh

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The do's and don'ts of giving effective feedback in the workplace

November 22, 2018

Research always tells us that people are hungry for feedback at work. We want to understand what we can do differently or better to make us more effective, more efficient and more productive in our roles.

Organisations are recognising that this need for feedback can’t merely be fulfilled by annual reviews. People need more regular and ongoing feedback. And in recent years, we’ve seen a shift in organisations towards developing this feedback-rich culture.

But we need to make sure the feedback we give is effective. Here are some simple do’s and don’ts to remember when giving feedback.

Do’s

Do make sure to be specific

Avoid giving generic feedback. ‘Good job’ can come across as vague or insincere. You can go further than saying ‘You did well in that presentation’ or ‘Your latest report was really good’ too. Tell the person what it was about that presentation or report that impressed you, and why what they did was effective. The same goes for giving negative feedback. Tell the recipient exactly what went wrong, why it was ineffective, and what they could do differently next time that would be better - and why.

At t-three, we call this ‘what/why’: tell the person what they did and why it was effective or ineffective. If you want to encourage or change a behaviour, you need to be specific about what that behaviour is and why it does or doesn’t work. And if you're giving corrective feedback, make sure to point out what he or she needs to do instead.

Do give the recipient a chance to respond

It’s important when giving constructive feedback that you give the recipient a chance to respond. Don’t assume you know why they behaved or did things in that particular way. Ask them for their take on the situation.

There are always two sides to a story, and perhaps they had a good justification for doing things in the way they did. It may be that they didn’t realise they were expected to take charge on an element of a project, or that they needed to behave a particular way in a meeting. Having these open conversations means both the person giving the feedback and the recipient will get much more out of it.

Do consider the recipient’s needs

Consider the emotional needs of the recipient and how they might respond to feedback. Our personality can influence how we react to negative comments, for instance. Some people might react more emotionally than others and take things to heart. Some people may become defensive. It’s useful to think about how you can adapt your delivery for the particular individual to make it more effective.

Do only give negative feedback in private

If you need to have a tough discussion with someone about things that went wrong on a piece of work, a project, or whatever it is, it’s important to do it in private, one-to-one. If you bring it up in front of others, you risk denting their self-esteem and won't be able to discuss it in as much depth as would be helpful.

Positive feedback, on the other hand, can be delivered in front of others. It can also be helpful for other employees to know what the desired performance or behaviour is. Small acts like this can increase motivation and employee morale.

Don’ts

Don’t wait

Feedback shouldn’t be something that is given only at annual reviews. No one wants to hear that for all that time they could have been doing something better.

Learn more about using the Truth Teller feedback tool

In fact, feedback doesn’t need to be given formally. You don’t need to wait until next week’s one-to-one, it can be delivered in the corridor straight after your meeting. If feedback is given as soon as possible after the event then both you and the recipient are more likely to recall exactly what happened, and the feedback will have more impact as a result.

Giving feedback might be difficult, but it won’t get easier if you wait. The sooner you give the feedback, the sooner you can both move forward.

Don’t sandwich negative feedback between positive messages

People no longer believe in the feedback sandwich, or the s**t sandwich, as it’s often referred to. The idea was to start off with positive feedback, then deliver the ‘bad news’ as such, and end on a further positive note. The problem with this was that a) the positive feedback would lose all impact as people would only remember the negative and b) that the glossing over of the constructive feedback means the recipient misses the chance to truly understand what it is they could do differently or better in future.

Research shows that, to almost everybody, constructive feedback is more important than praise, so we shouldn’t be fearful of giving it.

Don’t exaggerate

When talking about something you want the recipient to do differently, avoid saying ‘You always…’ or ‘You never…’. It will only put people on the defensive and get the conversation off to a bad start. This goes back to our earlier point - make sure you give specific examples so the person understands exactly what behaviour it is that needs to be changed.

The vast majority of people want to be successful in their work. Feedback is a powerful tool for enabling that. But to be effective, feedback needs to be timely, specific and given frequently. 

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