How do you give effective feedback?

Six specific suggestions can help you become more effective in providing feedback. We summarize in the Exhibit below:

Suggestions for Effective feedback

1) Focus on specific behavior
2) Keep feedback impersonal
3) Keep feedback goal oriented
4) Make feedback well timed
5) Ensure understanding
6) Direct negative feedback toward behavior that the receiver can control.

Focus on specific behaviors: Feedback should be specific rather than general. Avoid statements such as you have a bad attitude or I’m really impressed with the good job you did. They are vague and although they provide information they do not tell the receiver enough so that he or she can correct he bad attitude or on what behaviors to repeat.

Keep feedback impersonal: Feedback particularly the negative kind should be descriptive rather than judgmental or evaluation. No matter how upset you are: keep the feedback focused on job related behaviors and never criticize someone personally because of an inappropriate action. Telling people they are incompetent lazy or the like is almost always counterproductive. It provokes such an emotional reaction that the performance deviation itself is apt to be overlooked. When you are criticizing remember that you are censuring job related behavior, not the person. You might be tempted to tell someone he or she is rude and insensitive (which might just be true) however that is hardly impersonal. It’s better to say something more specific such as you’ve interrupted me three times with questions that weren’t urgent when you knew I was talking long distance to a customer in Brazil.

Keep feedback goal oriented: Feedback should not be given primarily to dump or unload on another person. If you have to say something negative make sure it is directed toward the receiver’s goals. Ask yourself whom the feedback is supposed to help. If the answer is essentially you (I’ve got something I just want to get off my chest) bite your tongue and hold the comment. Such feedback undermines your credibility and lessens the meaning and influence of future feedback sessions.

Make feedback well timed: Feedback is most meaningful to a receiver when only a short interval elapses between his or her behavior and the receipt of feedback about that behavior. For example a new employee who makes a mistake is more likely to respond to his or her manager’s suggestions for improving right after the mistake or at the end of the work day rather than during a performance review session six months from now. If you have to spend time recreating a situation and refreshing someone’s memory of it, the feedback you are providing is likely to be ineffective. Moreover, if you are particularly concerned with changing behavior, delays in providing timely feedback on the undesirable actions lessen the likelihood that the feedback will be about the desired change. Of course making feedback prompt merely for promptness sake can backfire if you have insufficient information or if you are upset. In such instances, well timed could mean somewhat delayed.

Ensure understanding: Is your feedback concise and complete enough that the receiver clearly and fully understands your communication. Remember that every successful communication requires both transference and understanding of meaning. If feedback is to be effective, you need to ensure that the receiver understands it. As suggested in our discussion of listening techniques ask the receiver to rephrase the message to find out whether he or she fully captured the meaning you intended.

Direct negative feedback toward behavior that the receiver can control: little value comes from reminding a person of some shortcoming over which he or she has no control. Negative feedback should be directed toward behavior that the receiver can do something about. For instance criticizing an employee who’s late for work because she forget to set her alarm clock is valid. Criticizing her for being late for work when the local train she takes to work every day had a power failure, stranding her for 90 minutes, is pointless. She was powerless to do anything to correct what happened — short of finding a different means of traveling to work, which may be unrealistic In addition when negative feedback is given concerning something that the receiver can control it might be a good idea to indicate specifically what can be done to improve the situation. Such suggestions take some of the sting out of the criticism and offer guidance to receivers who understand the problem but don’t know how to resolve it.

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