Giving effective feedback is an essential skill for leaders. It needs to be regular, ongoing and informal- your team members need to know how they are doing, whether their performance meets expectations, and how they can improve.
But giving feedback isn’t always easy. You may worry about hurting the person's feelings, or that they’ll take it the wrong way and become defensive. And with their confidence knocked, you could see a decline in motivation and performance - the opposite of what you intended.
However good your intentions, if not delivered well, feedback can sometimes do more harm than good. So how can we ensure we deliver constructive feedback in a way that is helpful to the individual?
There are many different feedback models - some of which work better than others. We’ve long since ditched the sandwich approach to giving feedback, for instance.
Three approaches that have a higher success rate in practice include feedforward, DESC, and the what/why technique.
Feedforward is a term first coined by Marshall Goldsmith. While feedback focuses on past events, feedforward focuses on possibilities for the future. It’s a shift away from “You talked too fast during that presentation”, to “Next time you present, try taking a pause between each slide, it will help you to re-balance and your delivery will be more effective.”
The idea is that an individual can’t change their past behaviour, but they can modify their behaviour going forward - and this is what is empowering. Feedforward still allows you to tackle the same issues but in a more positive manner. People don’t take it as personally. And as Goldsmith writes, “successful people love getting ideas for the future.”
It’s easy to adopt a feedforward approach. Work together with the individual to identify goals specific to their role and aligned to company objectives, then suggest ideas for how the individual can meet those goals.
Feedforward facilitates a much more dynamic and open relationship between you and your team. This can be extremely beneficial to both individual and team performance, as well as your direct working relationship.
The DESC feedback technique - describe, express, specify, consequences - is a simple and powerful way to express to an individual what you would like them to do more, less, or differently to enhance their performance and maximise their effectiveness.
The first step is to Describe the perceived behaviour. Focus on just one recent behaviour you have witnessed. It's important here that you use an “I statement” - e.g. “I noticed that…” rather than “We noticed…” (so they don't feel ganged up on) or “You did this…" (which can come across as aggressive). For example, you could say, “I noticed that you didn’t seem engaged in that meeting.”
The next step is to Express how this behaviour impacts you. Next, Specify what you would like them to do differently. People aren’t mind readers, so stating what you want makes it absolutely clear to the individual.
Finally, share the Consequences of their behaviour change. It’s natural that they’ll want to understand why you’re asking for a change to their behaviour, and it’s important you can back it up by explaining how it will impact both you and them for the better.
DESC can be a powerful technique to provoke behaviour change. Like feedforward, it focuses on the future, and while it refers to the past, it only does so to provide context.
When delivering feedback, if the person feels that you care about their feelings and aspirations, they are more likely to receive the feedback positively. It’s a good idea to write down and rehearse what you want to say before you deliver it. This will ensure that when you do deliver it, you’ll be clear and to the point, so the individual knows exactly what you are asking of them.
This is a really simple method that's easy to adopt. When delivering positive feedback, you tell the individual what they did and why it was effective. For example, “I feel you answered the client’s question very succinctly, and I could see that they really valued you summarising it and making it clear.”
When delivering constructive feedback, you again tell the individual what they did, but this time, explain why it was ineffective. For instance, “I feel that you didn’t explain that third point as well as you could have, and I could see the client didn’t fully understand what you were saying.” In this instance, it’s also important to follow up with how they could improve for the future; in this case “Next time, why not ask them to confirm whether they’re happy with everything you’ve discussed so far?”
This approach enables you to offer really direct and to the point feedback. And by making it about the situation, there's less room for people to become defensive or feel their personality is being attacked in some way.
Feedback is essential for behaviour change. We can’t just expect people to change their actions or ways of working on their own. How can they, if they aren’t aware they need to in the first place?
But constructive feedback, when not carefully delivered, can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s performance and emotional wellbeing. This is why we need to provide our leaders and our people with frameworks and guidelines for delivering feedback in an effective manner - in a way that will empower people to grow and progress.