How to Give feedback

Giving Feedback is one of the most important tools available to a manager. It’s also one of the most under-used. The majority of employees say they don’t get enough feedback, and the reason for this is that the majority of managers say they’re uncomfortable giving it.

Unfortunately, on the flipside of this, the managers that are comfortable giving it often give it the wrong way and at the wrong times. There are few things more infuriating than a manager who constantly tells you things you already know, or critises you just to make themselves feel better about something going wrong. Striking the balance is important.

In this guide we’ll help you do that by breaking down why, when, and how to give feedback.

Why do you give feedback?

This might seem obvious, but not understanding this is one of the most common problems when it comes to giving feedback.

There are only two reasons to give feedback:

  • You want to change a behaviour
  • You want to encourage a behaviour

A lot of managers fall into the trap of thinking things that are actually just criticism or complaining are feedback.

The moment you consider giving someone feedback, stop and consider two things:

  • Do they know what you’re going to tell them already?
  • Will telling them make anything better?

Let’s look at a quick example. You have asked one of your people, Mark, to create and send an email to all your key clients. He did this promptly, but after sending it he noticed that it contained a few typos. He’s told you about it himself, he knows he made a mistake, and he’s annoyed with himself. He tells you he normally gets improtant emails like that proof read before he sends them, it just slipped his mind this time.

So, should we give Mark feedback?

Mark is already aware he made a mistake. He’s upset with himself about it. He already said he usually proof reads them so there’s nothing useful you can tell him, He obviously knows that it’s bad to send an email with typos in it, or he wouldn’t be telling you about it. Any feedback you give him here will not give him any information he doesn’t already have.

Will telling him make anything better?

In this case, giving Mark feedback wouldn’t just not make things better, it would make things worse. Mark came to you and told you that he made a mistake, if you explain to him why the mistake he made is bad, it’s not going to make him any less likely to repeat it. He knows already. More likely than not when the two of you separate he’s going to be muttering unpleasant things about you. He’ll be annoyed with himself for making a mistake, and when you tell him what he already knows, he’ll direct that anger at you.

Now, let’s imagine a slightly different version of this scenario. The same thing has happened, but this time someone else noticed it. You overheard them telling Mark about it, and he didn’t seem to think that it mattered that much. However, it does matter to you.

  • Does he know what you’re going to tell him already?
  • Will telling him make anything better?

In this scenario, there is absolutely a need to give Mark feedback. You think there’s a good chance he doesn’t realise it’s important not to repeat the mistake, and therefore giving him feedback might mean it’s less likely that he will repeat it.

When do you give feedback?

So, we know why we give feedback. The next question is when.

Do you do it right away?

What I’m going to say sounds a little messed up, but stick with me. There’s a rule when you’re training a dog about when to scold or praise them. Very simply, you have to do it the moment the dog does the thing. If you wait even a few seconds, they won’t make the connection.

Now, obviously (hopefully?) your staff are smarter than dogs, but it’s still a good rule to follow. The less time there is between the event and the feedback, the more effective it’s going to be.

In my experience, if you observe a behaviour and you don’t say anything at the time, you’ve kind of given them feedback already. You’ve told them what they did was ok. If you’re my boss, and you see me do something and you don’t say anything, I will assume you’re ok with me doing it. If you then come back to me later and tell me you actually weren’t happy with it, that’s much more likely to get a bad reaction out of me.

That’s not to say you can’t give feedback on something that happened a while ago, especially if it’s something that you have only just found out about. Just try to avoid seeing something and then waiting to talk about it another time. See something, say something, as the train keeps telling me.

Do we wait to do it in private?

Giving feedback in public shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, if you feel like you can’t give feedback in public, it’s a good indication that you’re not delivering it well. Feedback should never be a telling off. It’s ludicrous to assume that people could know the perfect way to behave without receiving feedback, so it would be equally ludicrous to treat that feedback as a negative. It’s not a negative experience, so it shouldn’t be something you need to do in private. In fact, if you make a big deal of doing it in private, you’re tacitly sending the message that they’ve done something they should be embarrassed about. Obviously use your judgement, but as a general rule, rhere’s no need to give feedback in private.

Do we do it over Slack or email?

No. Simple as that. Never. They need to hear your voice, and you need to be able to discuss things. Give feedback in person or on a call or hangout. But never over written messages. There are potentially some exceptions to this - like if you have an exceptionally strong relationship with someone or you’re confident there is no chance they’ll react badly to what you have to say - but I honestly think it’s just not worth the risk. Handling it in a real conversation gives you the best chance of a positive outcome.

How do you give feedback?

So, remember the two reasons you would give someone feedback?

  • You want to change a behaviour
  • You want to encourage a behaviour

These two situations require slightly different approaches to giving feedback.

Adjusting Feedback

When we want to change a behaviour, we use adjusting feedback. The model I recommend for adjusting feedback has the following three steps:

  1. Ask if you can give the feedback
  2. Explain the situation, behaviour, and impact
  3. Agree a different future behaviour

Ask

This step is so often missed off, but it’s the most important one. Taking this step will give you a far better chance of achieving the thing you want, which is changing the behaviour.

Let’s go back to our situation with Mark. You just overheard him being told about his mistake, and you noticed that he didn’t seem that bothered by it.

Imagine you just go over and say “Mark, sending out an email full of typos makes us look bad”. There’s nothing too bad about what you’ve said, but you are coming in a bit hot. There’s no time for Mark to get his head right, and as a result there’s a chance he may react badly. There’s a simple thing you can do first which takes that chance away.

“Hey Mark, can I give you some feedback about that email?”

You’ve not just jumped on him, you’ve asked if you can talk about it. It gives him a few seconds to switch gears, and by the time he answers, you’ll know he’s ready to listen.

One of the reasons often used for not including this step is a worry about giving them the choice. What if they say no - won’t that undermine you?

It’s actually the complete opposite. When we make mistakes we’re often embarrassed and frustrated, and that makes us more likely to get angry with other people. Especially people who point out our mistake. If you just go to Mark and immediately start giving him the feedback before asking him, and he’s in the kind of mood where he really doesn’t want to hear it, he might very well react badly. He might argue with you, or just try to brush you off. That actually is undermining. However, if you ask him if you can give him some feedback and he says no, that’s fine. Just say “No problem, we can talk about it another time”. You instigated the exchange by giving him a choice, so it doesn’t undermine you at all if he says no. You’d planned for it.

And here’s the thing. You probably won’t have to even talk to him later. He would have known why you wanted to give him the feedback, and he’d have filled in the blanks without you even talking. Just the fact you wanted to talk about it was enough. Once he’s calmed down he’ll probably come to you anyway, and if he doesn’t you can talk to him once he’s in a better place if you think it’s still necessary.

Remember the purpose of the feedback is to change his behaviour. If he’s not emotionally ready to listen to you, giving the feedback won’t achieve that. So asking if you can give the feedback is always the right choice.

Situation, Behaviour & Impact

You will often see this step broken down to three seperate steps. I don’t think that’s necessarily helpful, as the chances are you’re going to do this in one short statement. The shorter you can make this, the better. Otherwise it can feel like a lecture.

Ok, so let’s go back to Mark. You’ve asked him if you can give him some feedback, and he’s agreed. What do you do next?

There’s a golden rule here that you absolutely must not break: don’t say anything that you haven’t observed and don’t know to be true.

For example, you can’t say to Mark:

“You sent an email out to our key clients without proof reading it, and that makes us look unprofessional”

Whilst structurally this is good feedback, there’s a problem:

  • Do you know Mark didn’t proof read it?
  • Do you know Mark was even supposed to proof read it? He might have asked someone else to

If you make a statement that isn’t true, you’re going to end up in a conversation about how that thing didn’t actually happen, and it’s going to distract from what’s actually important. The only thing you know is that you asked him to send an email, and that it went out with typos in it. That’s what you know, so that’s what you can say.

“That email I asked you to send went out with typos in it, and I think that makes us look unprofessional”

If you stick to what’s true, there is very little chance Mark can get angry. If you assume anything, you’re likely going to get things wrong, and you’re going to derail the entire process when you do.

Also notice that you don’t have to stick rigidly to the situation, behaviour, impact structure. That’s why I think of it as one step. It’s clear from that statement what happened, what Mark did, and what the result was. The more rigid you are, the less successful you’ll be.

The model is there to show you what information you need to convey, and you should do that in as few words as possible in language that’s natural to you and fits how you usually speak to the person in question.

Future behaviour

This is where you’ll see the benefit of only talking about what you know to be true in the previous step.

Let’s say you’d made the assumption that Mark hadn’t proof read the email, and you’d given him the feedback like this:

“You sent as email out to our key clients without proof reading it, and I think that makes us look unprofessional. Can you make sure you proof read it next time please?”

Again, structurally this feedback is acceptable. Situation, behaviour, impact and new behaviour have all been communicated. But what if you’re wrong, and he did proof read it. He’ll just say “Yeah, sure” and nothing will improve.

When you don’t assume you know anything, you’ll realise that you probably need to ask questions before you can agree on a new behaviour. For example:

“That email I asked you to send went out with typos in it, and I think that makes us look unprofessional. What happened?”

Now, let’s say Mark explains to you that he did proof read the email, he just did it too quickly and mistakes got past him. Now you have some options?

“Are you generally good at proof reading?”

“How do you go about proof reading?”

“How much time did you spend on proof reading?”

If you haven’t assumed you know why the thing happened to begin with, you can have a productive conversation with Mark to get to the bottom of it.

“For important group emails, would it be helpful to get another person to proof read them before they go out?”

“Do you think we need to do something differently to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Agreeing a new behaviour can almost always be done with questions. You can ask Mark if he thinks anything needs to change, and again, it’s fine if he says it doesn’t. If the answer is “Nope, it was just a one off mistake, it will be fine next time” that’s great. He’s promised he’s on top of it. Or you can agree on a new behaviour together. But either way, the process of giving feedback has not been in any way confrontational or negative. You asked for a conversation about a thing that happened, and you agreed what to do to try to stop it happening again in the future.

Affirming Feedback

It’s easy to overlook affirming feedback. but it’s extremely important. Just as much as you want to make sure people change the behaviours that you don’t want, you also want to make sure the ones you do want happen more often.

You can do this with affirming Feedback.

Imagine you have a new starter, and he’s in that timid new starter mindset where he isn’t talking much and is a bit nervous still. Work is carrying on as usual and conversations are kind of going on around him, but he’s not in any of them. Mark works in a different team entirely. He notices that the new guy is nervous, so he goes over to say hello and invite him to lunch.

You like that behaviour. That’s how you’d like people to treat new starters here, and you wish other people had done it too. If you’re a controlling manager, you’ll make a rule that directs people to go and be nice to new starters. That’s kind of weird though, and it stops it being a nice gesture when people do it and just a creepy corporate policy. There’s a much simpler and more effective way to handle it.

Thank Mark.

The next time you’re in a situation where the new guy isn’t around, go over to Mark and say “Hey, I really appreciate you taking the time to welcome the new guy. It’s difficult finding good people and it’s always worrying when they’re not settling in. I felt much better knowing he was being taken care of. Thanks!”

If other people hear you say it, that’s a bonus. You’ve given them adjusting feedback by proxy! They know it’s a good thing when people do what Mark did, so they’re more likely to do that good thing next time.

Notice that the middle of the model is very similar to adjusting feedback:

  • Situation
  • Behaviour
  • Impact

The only difference with affirming feedback is that the first and last steps are just replaced with a thank you. You don’t need to ask, and you don’t need a new behaviour. Just say thank you, and explain why what they did mattered to you.

Remember, every management tool is precisely that - a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. You don’t have to use the tool just because you have access to it. Over time, you’ll build your relationships to the point where you can instinctively tell how much of the model you need to use when you give Feedback. My CTO and I have reached a point where we can just say “You know that thing you did…well it sucked” and that’s all we need to do. We know and trust each other enough that the thinking behind the model is implied.

The tools you learn here can help get you comfortable managing people, but the most valuable thing you can do is build strong and genuine relationships with them.

If you’d like to ensure everyone on your team regularly gets relevant work based feedback, without you having to be responsible for all of it, check out how DoThings can help with this.

If you found this useful, please share it.