INsight/ Giving Effective Feedback

Manila, 16 August 2017 — Many leaders struggle to give effective feedback. Judgmental and negative comments rarely work. The best way is easier than you think. So what is the secret?

Asking and giving feedback is one of the most important leadership behaviors. It takes courage to ask someone else for feedback, yet the rewards can be big, especially if the other person is skilled in giving feedback effectively.

Most people, however, struggle to give feedback effectively, and that makes asking for feedback more challenging. We fear to get critical comments that sound more like judgments about who we are than about what we have done. Quite often, our fears come true, as we endure criticism without appreciation.

On the other extreme, we might get feedback in the form of superficial compliments and praise, which can also come across as judgmental when it is more about how we are perceived than about what we have done. 

The most effective way to give feedback is to be non-judgmental, and this is easier than you think. In a nutshell, it is about acknowledging what the other person has just done, rather than saying generalities about how great or poorly he or she came across to you.

Since I learned this years ago from Mattison Grey in her book The Motivation Myth, I have been practicing to give feedback by simply acknowledging what people just did, and I have been surprised by the results. 

An effective feedback can be as short and simple as "I acknowledge you for showing up 10 minutes before the start of the meeting," or "I acknowledge you for making eye contact with your audience during the presentation." I encourage you to practice this simple formula and acknowledge a person for what she or he just did, and stop yourself from saying more. Then observe what happens.

The power of such feedback lies in the observation and acknowledgment of what actually happened, rather than in implying the quality of the person and what happened through praise or criticism, which is by definition subjective and therefore not necessarily credible.

The Center for Creative Leadership, a great source of research and tools on developing your leadership, has gone a step further with their SBI Feedback Tool.

In SBI, the S stands for a situation when and where something took place, the B stands for the behavior you observed (something that the person did), and the I stands for the impact that the behavior made possible for you and/or how the behavior made you feel.

Using the SBI tool, you might simply say "In your presentation this morning [S], I observed how you made eye contact with me and the others in the audience [B]. This made it easy for me to connect with your message, and I felt appreciated and empowered to take action [I]."

When you practice giving feedback this way, it takes a bit of unlearning at first, and you might make best progress when you start to do it with a buddy or group of friends or colleagues together. Soon, it will become a new habit.

So far, we have covered how to give feedback in a simple and effective way.

How about making it easier to ask feedback from someone who may or may not be skilled in giving it effectively yet? Here is where the power of questions is your friend.

When asking for someone's feedback on your presentation, for example, it is easy to ask about some things that worked well, and then about an area for improvement, like in "I would love to get some feedback from you on how I did my presentation. What are two things you saw me do well, and what is an area where I can improve?"

When asking for feedback this way, you already provide the structure for the response, even when the other person is not yet trained in giving feedback effectively. And when the response is too general and does not touch on what you actually did, you can still probe for that in a follow-up question.

The secret to giving effective feedback is to acknowledge the other person for something he or she has just done. Focus on what the person has done, instead of on the person and his or her perceived qualities. Be as specific as you can in describing the situation and the action. And add, optionally, how his or her action made you feel.

Such a simple feedback statement is enough. Leave it at that, and observe how the feedback is received. 

Once you discover the power of this simple feedback tool, please share it with others, so that they can also learn the secret of giving effective feedback.