Designing Constructive Feedback Discussions for Success

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If it’s not about pursuing high performance tied to the mission, it’s personal, and that’s lousy feedback.

No wonder managers struggle with feedback. This seemingly simple communication and performance development tool is surprisingly challenging to get right. In my experience teaching and helping many managers and executives with feedback, I’ve observed success when they think of and plan for these discussions as a function of four distinct processes: design, delivery, management, and reinforcement.

  1. Design: The focus here is on identifying the key ingredients essential for quality feedback and assembling them in an opening sentence. There’s a good deal involved in this step, as I outline below.
  2. Delivery: How you present the feedback, particularly in the opening sentences, determines the trajectory of the discussion. Of course, you must take into account issues of location, vocal tone, body language, and other nuances that impact the communication experience.
  3. Management: Effective feedback situations are discussions, not monologues. And, when things head down the wrong path as they sometimes do, you’ve got to be prepared with approaches to re-center the discussion.
  4. Reinforcement: Your discussion isn’t the end of the situation, but the beginning of coaching and additional feedback discussions.

It’s important to remember the purpose of feedback. Your goal is always to create value for all parties in a feedback discussion.

The purpose of feedback is to strengthen and extend those behaviors that support high performance and change or eliminate those that detract from performance.

Feedback discussions are never personal indictments. They must meet the spirit of my purpose statement above. If it’s not about pursuing high performance tied to the mission, it’s personal, and that’s lousy feedback.

1. Design Discussions for Success

I counsel feedback givers to design the discussion for success by thinking through (and writing down), the key ingredients or components, developing a discussion opener, and orienting on a general direction for the discussion, all before uttering a word.

Yes, it’s a fair amount of work, but prior planning prevents poor performance.

To qualify as effective feedback, the content must be timely, observed, behavioral, and tied to business performance. If it fails any of these tests, it’s not relevant or quality feedback.

Watch the Timing

Timeliness is obvious but often abused. Most feedback is best delivered as close to the observed, behavioral, performance impacting issue as possible. If the situation is emotionally charged, let things cool down for a few hours or a day. I also am careful about giving feedback on presenting or speaking performance, preferring to delay it until the individual is planning for their next presentation. Note: saving up or banking feedback for the performance evaluation is a miserable habit.

Location, Location, Location

Careful attention must be paid to the plan for the location of the feedback discussion. I prefer to find a neutral, quiet place, or make sure I am going to the individual versus having them come to me.

The issue of behavior is a tripping point for many feedback givers. By this, I mean the item of focus must reflect something someone did, not something you might have construed or intuited.

Behavioral Feedback Only, Please

“You’ve got a bad attitude” isn’t behavioral, so it fails the test.

“Great job on the presentation” isn’t behavioral, and it fails as well.

A recent statement I overheard: “You’re not into this assignment, are you?” also fails. You cannot read minds!

“You’re late a lot” is in the zip code, but it fails the specificity and clarity test. It’s also described as an indictment. Try instead:

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been late three times in the past thirty days. When you are late, it impacts your team and requires them to borrow a resource from another group. Your tardiness affects the productivity of two teams and jeopardizes quality and quantity, potentially impacting our customers adversely. How can you strengthen your on-time performance in the future?”

Note: I recommend focusing on just one behavior per feedback discussion. Any more than one and the discussion becomes muddled.

OK, that’s a lot more words, but it passes the filters described above and sets the stage for dialog.

Provide Direction 

And finally, before I pre-write my opening sentence(s), I focus on my perception of the general direction for the discussion. Is my early hypothesis that this is a training (able/willing), counseling (able/unwilling), or empowering (able/willing) situation? For unable/unwilling scenarios, it’s time to dial up H.R. as part of your planning.

Armed with all of the information mentioned above, it’s time to craft your opener by pulling the pieces together. As needed, practice your opener until you are comfortable with it, and then it’s time to engage. As needed, use this article to create a pre-session checklist and planning document.

2. Choreograph for Success with Your Feedback Delivery

If you’ve followed the above guidance, you’re prepared for the discussion. Now, it’s time to put the pieces together and engage.

Rules for Success

Prepare your tone and body language to match the situation. If your non-verbal cues are dissonant with the message, the receiver is going to default to what they perceive coming from you physically and facially, and tune-out your message.

Use your pre-planned opener. Remember, success or failure of the discussion is tied in large part to how you open it. You pre-planned the opener for a good reason. Use it.

Move quickly to a discussion. Many feedback givers remain in monologue mode too long, in part out of nervousness. I like to bake in a question to my opening sentence to force myself to open up and start a discussion.

Confirm clarity. Are you on the same page with the individual? Skip this step at your own risk. There are all sorts of sources of noise in feedback settings that interfere with the signal. In spite of your best efforts, the individual might feel as if they are being attacked; in which case, they are shutting down and heading into defend mode.

Shift to the future tense. I love Marshall Goldsmith’s concept of feed-forward. We cannot move back in time, so instead of preoccupying on the minutiae of what happened, start talking about what can or must occur in the future. A simple, “How do you propose to handle this the next time you encounter it?” is a great transition.

3. Manage the Discussion for Mutual Gain

All sorts of things happen in feedback discussions—some of them unexpected. It’s incumbent on the giver to be prepared to steer the conversation back on course if things go awry.

Maintain a calm demeanor, no matter the response. For constructive discussions, regardless of your best planning, some individuals perceive them as indictments and react emotionally. It’s imperative to remain calm and to reiterate your opening feedback statement. If the emotions turn to crying, allow time for the individual to recompose themselves.

Watch for sudden turnarounds. I worked with one employee who was a master of maneuvering every feedback situation into an indictment of my effectiveness as a manager. (Hint: he didn’t think I was effective!) Again, return to that critical opening sentence. I’ve used some variation of, “That may or may not be, but for now, our focus is on… .”

Time-travel. As mentioned in the prior section, shift the focus to what the behavior must look like in the future. The past cannot be changed. It serves as a learning tool for future actions.

Avoid the everyday bad habits of watering down, sugar-coating, sandwiching, or mixing multiple behaviors — none of these support quality feedback.

Agree on the behavior change, next steps, and a follow-on process.

4. Follow Up for Success

In my experience, many managers happy to escape the stressful situation of the feedback discussion drop the ball on the critical follow-on steps. The initial discussion isn’t the end of the feedback situation, but rather the beginning of a coaching process.

Agree on a date when you will sit down and discuss overall progress and the experience around the behavior change. It’s good to punctuate every feedback situation with a period that signals closure.

Immediately seek opportunities to observe the individual in action and to offer coaching guidance, much like the athlete’s coach. After all, your team member benefits from real-time observation and suggestions for refinement. Just remember to make them a dialog and position the coaching as supportive. It’s easy to have the receiver perceive they are being criticized. Don’t fall into that trap.

The bottom-line for now: Yes, that’s a condensed course on designing and delivering feedback in an article. If your goal is to promote high-performance, it pays to learn to master this tool. The components, processes, and tips become muscle memory with a bit of practice. And yes, the same rules for positive feedback apply, although those discussions are decidedly less challenging than the constructive type. Now, it’s time to put the approach to work. Use the ideas and tools in excellent feedback health.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with top executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. Art writes the Management Excellence blog.

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