What we're talking about

In basic terms, giving feedback to someone consists of saying: when you act in this way, this is the effect. That can either be positive stuff (AKA reinforcing feedback), or more negative (AKA redirecting feedback). The aim in both situations is to have an effect on someone's future behavior: to encourage something that's working, to start something new or to stop an existing behavior. 

Feedback should generally be about relatively small things and the conversation can be super short, too. It's not an argument, a discussion or a personal attack – it's about specific behaviors and should be delivered pretty promptly after that behavior occurs. 

Why it's important

Despite knowing how important giving feedback to people is, plenty of managers and leaders find it tricky and avoid it; they're afraid of demotivating people and putting them down. Gradually, small things become long-standing issues. But the truth is that the vast majority of people want info on how they can improve their work. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that 72% of employees thought their performance would improve if given corrective feedback. But how it's delivered is the crucial part: 92% of the same respondents agreed with the statement ‘negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance’. 

That's where creating a simple structure, which lets you address issues early on, comes into play. In contrast to one-on-ones, which are more a platform for the employee, this is primarily to help you as a manager. You're looking to create a culture of continuous feedback that lets both parties get more out of the relationship.

Things to note

There's a simple framework to follow. The best way to provide feedback is to lead with the specific situation or example, outline the behavior demonstrated and then explain the impact that had. For example, you might say to someone, ‘When you turned up late for our weekly meeting, we had to repeat ourselves and it cost everyone some time.’ That should lead to a clear path for future behavior. In this case, ‘Can you make sure that you turn up early for future meetings?’ It's not about being harsh and looking to elicit a reaction; generally, that makes people defensive and isn't great for motivation. 

It's about specific behaviors – not intangible things like attitude. Feedback only works if you focus solely on the specific behaviors of people. That includes the words they use, their body language, the output of their work (eg, meeting deadlines or overall quality) or their interpersonal relationships with others in the team. If you focus on things that are more vague and subjective, like attitude, it opens up room for debate and argument – which isn't what you want.  

It's not about dwelling on the past. One of the big mistakes of the feedback process is to focus too much on previous mistakes and successes. You obviously can't change what happened (unless you're working in the time-machine sector); feedback should always be future-looking.

How to give effective feedback 

1. Get clear on what you want out of it. Before you lead with the feedback, clarify why the person in question needs to hear it. Think about the specific examples or situations you have in mind that you need to talk about (whether they're good or bad), what impact that had on their work and what future behavior you're trying to encourage. Be specific. 

2. Find the right place and time. As mentioned, feedback should come quickly after the behavior occurs, ideally within a day or two. It should also be at a time in the day when neither you nor the receiver is distracted, and when they're in a neutral mindset to hear what you have to say. Place is also important – it should probably be in private, unless it's positive and there's a benefit to doing it in public. 

3. Ask the receiver if they want it. It might sound a bit counter-intuitive, given the fact you're probably their boss or manager, but it's important that you initially ask them whether they would like to hear the feedback. That can be as simple as, ‘Can I give you some feedback?’ or ‘Can we debrief on that project?’ First and foremost, they might not have the headspace to take on feedback, but they also need to make an active choice to receive input, so they're not distracted and are less defensive. 

4. Give the feedback. Using the simple model outlined above, provide the specific feedback for that person, keeping it as short and succinct as possible. Remember: you're focusing on a specific behavior. Focus on a tangible future action – whether that's to continue doing what they're doing, or how they can do something differently or better next time. 

5. Get their commitment. The future behavior you land on needs to be actionable and agreed upon between both parties. Again, keep this simple and straightforward – it isn't a debate. It can be just agreeing to be on time, to not miss another deadline or to continue helping others in the team. 

6. Make it regular. Providing feedback in this manner should become a regular, consistent part of your relationship. There's no good waiting for an annual review or appraisal; feedback only works when it's built into the fabric of your interactions. To this end, you'll want to keep it going, with a particular focus on offering positive and reinforcing feedback, so that it's not all negative. 

7. Practice patience. If the person's behavior doesn't immediately change, repeat the feedback – but be careful to not let your emotions ramp up. As you're using this opportunity to discuss small aspects of your employee's behavior (and, hopefully, doing so regularly), feedback should be delivered in the same way, even if it's the same feedback. Indeed, the excellent Manager Tools podcast in the Perspective section below suggests repeating the same feedback at least six times before you take more serious action.  

Key takeaways 

• Ongoing, structured feedback is an essential part of management and critical to the way your business operates – and to an employee's personal development. 

• There are two core types of feedback: reinforcing (positive) and redirecting (negative). It's important that you don't solely focus on the negative stuff. 

• It should be kept brief and follow a simple structure that focuses on specific behavior – and looks to the future, rather than the past. 

Level up

Perspective. The exhaustive Manager Tools podcast digs into every facet of feedback in real detail, including when not to give it. Also, check out this piece from US news site NPR on how to receive feedback. 

Example. Business coach Dave Bailey digs into the language to use when you're giving feedback in difficult situations – and also how to deal with someone saying no. 

Tool. Culture Amp is a platform that allows for direct, ongoing conversations between managers and employees – it can make a big difference to the employee experience.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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