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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

This Is How You Give Honest Feedback to Anyone, Anytime—Without Hurting Feelings

people talking

If you’ve been in the workforce for any length of time, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of a disastrous feedback experience.

For me, it was sitting in the Chicago airport, in the middle of the night on an overnight flight to Europe. I got a flaming email from my manager about a meeting earlier that day, in which he disagreed with my strategy. It was one of those “I need to find another job” moments. And, it was a good lesson in the importance of giving feedback that’s meaningful to the receiver and that achieves your purpose for giving it. (His was neither.)

So when it’s your turn to give feedback, don’t be that person. Instead, keep these tips in mind.

Get Clear on the Purpose for the Feedback

In their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, researchers Stone and Heen posit that feedback usually comes into play when you want to do one of three things: appreciate the work someone’s done and acknowledge it; coach someone to improve performance in a specific area; or, evaluate someone, rating him or her with a discrete score or comparing his or her performance to others.

When you’re providing feedback, be clear about your intention. Are you trying to acknowledge someone’s good work? Identify behaviors you’d like the person to change? Or share how he or she ranks compared to the rest of the team? When you know the “why” behind your feedback, you’ll be able to better organize your thoughts, your message, and the conversation.

Ask How the Person Would Like to Receive Feedback

Stone and Heen also say that for feedback to be effective, it must be delivered in a way that allows the receiver to hear it. How do you find this out? Why, you ask the person, of course!

Specifically, you can ask team members or colleagues, “When I have feedback for you, what’s the best way to share it?” For some people it might be a direct, face-to-face conversation right when things happen. Others might prefer to reflect on a situation before they sit down to talk about it. Still others might like something in writing they can read through.

By asking how someone likes to receive feedback, you acknowledge that his or her relationship with you is important and that you care about delivering feedback respectfully.

Identify the Specific Action You’re Recognizing

Obscure feedback isn’t helpful, even when it’s good. For example, when clients tell me their boss said they did “a great job,” I ask, “What part of the job did they think was great?” Often, the answer is silence. Although it’s nice to think you’re doing a great job, that’s a vague piece of feedback. How do you know what, specifically, you did right? If you don’t know, you won’t be able to keep doing it, earning those gold stars.

Imagine how awful it must be, then, to receive vague negative feedback! “Jillian, that wasn’t a great meeting.” That comment gives the receiver nothing specifically to work on. Instead, test your comments by asking yourself, “Will the person know exactly what behavior I’m talking about?” Was Jillian unprepared for the meeting? Did she not manage the timeline well? Did she not facilitate the conversation appropriately?

If your feedback isn’t clear enough to you, it definitely won’t be to the receiver.

Clarify the Impact That Specific Action Had on the Person, the Group, or the Organization

In addition to the specific instance you’re giving feedback on, you’ll want to help the receiver understand why you’re giving it. What’s the impact of the behavior? What’s the impact in the future if it continues? Done well, this isn’t scary or harsh, but instead provides important context that can inspire the receiver to make a change.

For example, Jillian may not think it’s a big deal to let a meeting run over the allotted time. But in reality, she was perceived as a poor facilitator by those in the room—and that could affect her opportunities in the future.

An impact statement might sound like this: “Jillian, in your presentation today I noticed that you ran over your allotted time. Though 10 minutes may not seem like a lot, we had executives in the room who can’t be delayed for meetings. Not paying attention to things like this may affect whether you’re invited to present to the executive team again.”

Provide Specific Steps to Improve the Action in the Future

Now that you’re clear on the specific action and the impact, give concrete steps on what the person can do next time to improve the performance. In Jillian’s case: “Next time let’s do a couple of dry runs so we are sure that you have the right content to fit the timeline, and I’ll coach you on specific techniques to manage the conversation so that we get the executives out on time.”

Now your receiver has a specific action, the impact of that action, and concrete steps she can take to make the next outing better. And you did all this without being offensive, or making the feedback about judging the other person.

By helping to connect action and impact, along with suggestions for improvement, you’ve created a learning environment that allows people the space to grow in their careers. And maybe next time they’ll even ask proactively for feedback because you gave them such a good experience with it!