Leaders must do a wide range of things well, from goal-setting to speaking in public effectively to setting a vision and drumbeat for their organization. But one often overlooked area is the art of giving feedback. The difference between those who excel at it and those who don’t can be stark. Employees can leave feeling clear, appreciative, motivated, and heard or confused, angry, demoralized and trampled.
I teach feedback in coaching workshops; many overestimate their skill at it and underestimate its importance. I share now the 17 biggest mistakes well-intentioned leaders make in giving feedback (of the corrective and positive sort).
1. Lack of specificity.
Giving feedback in broad strokes, without specific examples, nets only confusion and frustration. And just saying “Great job!” without details makes it less meaningful. Think of good versus bad feedback as the difference between whole grain and white bread. The former is infused with flavor and wholesomeness, the latter is bland and far from nutritious.
2. Bringing others in.
What others told you isn’t fair fodder to bring into feedback. What do you feel or see? Use others opinions as a sounding board, but feedback must come from you. You’re the conductor, not a conduit.
3. Sparse frequency.
In conducting surveys for Make It Matter, I found only 21 percent of employees felt they received feedback often enough. Don’t save feedback for the annual performance review. Share it early and often.
4. Not being timely.
Related to the above, waiting too long to share feedback (again, whether positive or corrective) drastically dilutes its value. “After the fact” feedback means “matter of fact.” It can cause resentment, making the giver seem lazy and uncaring. Drift creates a rift.
5. Not calibrating.
Provide context, especially with corrective feedback. For example, say you give feedback on not being clear enough in a key presentation. The employee needs to know if that kind of feedback is not unusual at this stage of their career or if it’s a sign that they’re off-track from what you expect. Without context, the employee assumes the worst.
6. Not being sincere.
If you’re praising, mean it. Put emotion into it. If it’s corrective feedback, show it’s well-intended and meant to spur their growth. If it comes from the heart it sticks in the mind.
7. Not being commensurate.
Don’t overstate or understate what you’re praising or pushing on. Remember we do far more right than wrong as human beings, and want to be reminded as such. Keep the distribution of feedback commensurate with this reality –my experience and varied research shows at least a 5:1 ratio (five pieces of positive feedback for every corrective one).
8. Not being tailored.
Everyone’s different in how they like to receive feedback. Discover preferences by asking. Some want the tough stuff up front, they can’t enjoy positive reinforcement until they hear the corrective. Others prefer “the compliment sandwich” (good followed by bad then good again).
9. Lack of bravery.
Too often, leaders don’t give hard feedback because it’s too, well, hard. You owe your employees the truth. The most appreciative responses I got regarding feedback came from those who received the toughest versions of it.
10. Making it about the individual, not the action.
As with children, it’s never about them as a human being, it’s about their behaviors and actions. You want employees feeling informed, not affronted.
11. Guessing at motives.
You aren’t a psychologist. Don’t guess at why the person engaged in the behavior or action you’re giving them feedback on. Stay focused on the impact of both.
12. Wrong setting.
Keep corrective feedback private and don’t be afraid to praise in public (if the employee likes to be publicly praised).
13. Too much sugarcoating.
It’s a natural tendency because everyone wants to be nice. But you must get to the point, without masking it. The longer you take to spit it out, the more frustrating and confusing it is. Avoid mixed messages. Which brings us to the next one.
14. Backtracking at the end.
I used to do this. In a desire to end things well, I’d unintentionally water down the corrective feedback I just gave, causing confusion. Stick to your guns. End on a supportive, but clear, note that reinforces the feedback you just gave.
15. Not being prepared.
You owe the employee your clearest, most concise comments, which won’t surface if you haven’t thought the feedback through.
16. Making it one-way.
Employees want a chance to respond to your feedback. Give them that and check for clarity, comprehension, and commitment.
17. Failing to document.
Sometimes you need a paper trail to justify a decision. It’s not fun making notes on what was discussed, but it’s good foresight.
Avoid these traps to make your feedback a gift, not a grudge.
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