The art of giving feedback

January 31, 2014

feedback (1)One of the key supervisory skills needed by every leader is the ability to give feedback to their team on individual performance. The reason is simple, if the team don’t know what you expect from them, you are unlikely to get the performance you need. If someone is doing the ‘right thing’ they need to know it’s ‘right’ and be encouraged to continue. If someone’s not doing what’s required they need to have their efforts redirected.

Feedback is different to motivation – a highly motivated worker producing the ‘wrong thing’ quickly and efficiently has the potential to do more damage than an unmotivated worker producing very little. The ideal is a highly motivated team, all doing the right thing and all knowing they are doing exactly what’s required. Effective feedback is one of the keys to achieving this nirvana.

The starting points are effective delegation, making sure each team member knows what they are expected to achieve and why; and a constructive team environment where people understand the ‘rules’ and are willing to help each other. Delegation is discussed in our White Paper: WP1091 The Art of Delegation. Aspects of team leadership are discussed in a range of posts at

Once your people are busy working, the opportunity to use feedback effectively cuts in. As a starting point all types of feedback need to be genuine. The purpose of giving feedback is to improve the behaviour of the other person and to bring out the best in your team and this won’t happen is the feedback is seen as disingenuous. There are essentially three types of feedback and all three have their place:

  • Positive reinforcement where you acknowledge good work.
  • Constructive feedback where you suggest improvement.
  • Negative feedback where you highlight unacceptable behaviour.

Negative feedback
Negative feedback should be rare, and generally used only where there is some form of unacceptable behaviour. The key with this type of feedback is focusing on the behaviour not the person – you are dealing with an unacceptable behaviour, not an unacceptable person. Geoffrey James suggests these 10 rules for giving negative feedback:

  1. Make negative feedback unusual. The ratio is five or more positive feedbacks to one negative; and this may mean you need to plan to ‘accidently find the person doing something right’.
  2. Don’t stockpile negative feedback. Feedback is best given real time, or immediately after the fact; there is no ‘best time’.
  3. Never use feedback to vent. It creates resentment and passive resistance.
  4. Don’t email negative feedback.
  5. Start with an honest compliment. (Discussed below)
  6. Uncover the root of the problem by asking open questions.
  7. Listen before you speak. (See more on active listening)
  8. Ask questions that drive self-evaluation. (See more on effective questions)
  9. Coach the behaviours you would like to see. (See more on coaching)
  10. Be willing to accept feedback, too.

The vast majority of your feedback should either be constructive feedback where you help someone improve or positive feedback where you reinforce desirable behaviours:

  • Positive feedback includes praise, reinforcement, and congratulatory comments to reinforce and encourage the current behaviour or performance to continue essentially unchanged.
  • Constructive feedback includes suggestions for improvement, explorations of new and better ways to do things, or indicating the ‘correct way’ to do something that was done in a less than optimal way.


Positive feedback
This is by far the easiest feedback to give, helps develop moral and commitment and most people appreciate recognition for a ‘job well done’. The challenge is to make sure this type of feedback is distributed evenly and fairly across the team. If someone feels they are being ignored and ‘others are getting all of the praise’ the feedback can be counterproductive.

Constructive feedback
Done well, constructive feedback is even more valuable than positive reinforcement. A recent survey by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman has found that 57% of people preferred corrective feedback; compared to 43% who preferred praise/recognition. But how the feedback is delivered really matters 92% of the respondents agreed with the assertion, “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” The challenge is to make sure your feedback contains information that is useful in a way that can be used.

In this respect, constructive feedback and coaching are very closely aligned. Coaching is discussed in more depth in my post Developing your team.

Giving Constructive / Negative Feedback
As already mentioned in the ‘negative feedback’ section the key to having your suggestion/criticism listened to is to start with an honest complement. One of the easiest is simply to say “Thank you for your hard work on this…” and then provide some feedback or even criticism immediately after. This approach is effective because:

  • It acknowledges the person’s hard work – Right or wrong, chances are good that the person worked hard on whatever it is that you are providing feedback for. It makes the person feel good at the start, because it tells them you noticed.
  • It doesn’t throw everything out of the window – It acknowledges that there is a good base to start from and with just a few tweaks and revisions it will be just fine.
  • It comes from a supportive angle – By verbalizing your position of appreciation and support, feedback will sit much better with someone who feels as if you have their interests in mind.
  • It is non-threatening – The person receiving the feedback immediately understands that you are not gunning for them, that your only motive is to help them and the deliverable to become better.

There are two caveats:

  1. If they didn’t work hard don’t use this opening, a different conversation is needed with a different complement to start the discussion (nice hairdo… / how are you feeling…. / I like your poster….). Honesty and integrity are key components of effective feedback and that starts from the very beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use ‘but’ or ‘however’ after the complement! “Thanks for all of your hard work, BUT…” simply means please ignore everything before the ‘but’. Use a construct similar to: “Thanks for all of your hard work, do you think we could make you job easier / quicker if …….”.

    It may old fashioned English grammar but (ie, ignore the beginning of this sentence), but is an exclusionary word similar to or;  “You can go to the cricket or the tennis” means pick one. And is an inclusive term. “You can go to the cricket and the tennis…” and in this context “Thanks for all of your hard work the outcomes are great and we can get even better…” (similar constructs exist in Spanish, and I suspect most other languages).

Why feedback is hard
One of the other interesting findings in the Zenger Folkman survey was people who don’t like receiving feedback don’t like giving feedback. And those who are open to feedback also find giving feedback easier. As a starting preposition, one of the easiest ways to gather ideas on how to improve your business is to have employees give feedback to managers, both in their own unit and in other units on options for improvement! But it is still not easy.

There are a number of reasons why feedback and certainly criticism are hard to administer and swallow at the same time:

  • People think you are attacking them personally.
  • People think you don’t have the right to offer feedback.
  • People think you think you are better than them.
  • People think everything they do is terrible.

The antidote is a strong team culture, showing you care and making sure you focus on the problem, not the person (unless the feedback is positive).

The ability to give corrective feedback constructively is one of the critical keys to leadership, an essential skill to boost your team’s performance that could set you apart.

It’s OK not to know!

October 10, 2013

You do not need to know everything! Unfortunately, to maintain their authority many project managers and other leaders feel they need to be the expert that has the answer to every question.  They think is a sign of weakness to ask for help or information or simply admit they ‘don’t know’. Rather than asking for input from their team, they burn energy trying to work out the answer themselves, even when it’s clear that this is not possible. Rather than being upfront with their team and managers, they either hide and don’t tell anyone they’re wrestling with a problem; or simply hope the issue goes away.

The simple fact is that if you don’t know something and waste your time trying to find the answer, or worse still make an expensive mistake based on incomplete of false knowledge, no-one benefits least of all you; particularly if you have pretended to be the source of ‘all knowledge’! Once your bluff has been exposed your credibility is destroyed and with it your ability to lead effectively (see more on effective leadership).

Strangely, most people are happy to offer help when someone else asks for it, but are shy or embarrassed to ask for help themselves. Strong leaders, managers and team members have the ability to overcome this ‘shyness’, take the time to clearly understand what they don’t know and then proactively seek help to build their knowledge and capability.

Everyone wins by asking for information or help when needed, rather than wasting time and energy trying to solve the problem themselves. The key is asking the ‘right questions’ in the ‘right way’ (see more on the art of effective questioning) – the combination of engaging with team members through effective questions and making them feel important through active listening makes you a better leader and will also show your team that it is OK for them to ask for help as well. Then as a bonus, all of the energy that was being wasted wondering, researching and struggling to solve the problem can be used for positive purposes and the team moves forward.

The power of ‘not knowing’ will generate all sorts of efficiencies and open up two way communication within the team. A couple of examples include:

  • You can use your lack of knowledge to delegate (see more on the art of delegation). There are some tasks that are simply better delegated to an expert who knows precisely how to do the job quickly.  I’m sure everyone could learn to use pivot tables in Excel – but is it worth several hours of struggle when a knowledgeable expert can solve the issue in a few minutes – even if the expert is the most junior member of the team?
  • You can use your lack of knowledge is to engage team members. Go to a team member and get them to talk you through the challenge they have been working on. Tell them you haven’t really been across it and would like a briefing. You’ll get the lowdown on the task they are attacking and some good insights into how they work.

Finally, by actively demonstrating to your team that you ask for help when needed will encourage them to do the same, and as a consequence reduces errors, frees up communication and enhances the flow of information in a positive way. This may seem obvious, but it won’t happen without a push in the right direction.

Things you can do as a leader:

  1. First, stop talking to yourself and decide that you are going to talk to someone else.
  2. Decide who that person will be.
  3. Craft the conversation. Write down what you are going to ask them and how you hope they will respond.
  4. Schedule a meeting with the person and promise you will ask them for help and be open to their suggestions.
  5. Tell someone of your intentions; someone who will hold you to account for having the meeting and asking for help.

Then be pleasantly surprised; most people are honored to be asked to assist their friends and colleagues and by asking for help you are showing them you respect their knowledge and abilities. This approach will even work with your boss and other stakeholders provided you ask intelligent questions in the right way, at the right time.

So in summary, it really is OK to know what you don’t know and seek help! The skill is being able to ask effective questions that get the right answers and then having the knowledge needed to appreciate and use the information once you have received your answer.  Remember, as a leader and a manager, in the end you are measured by what you actually achieve, not what you claim to know!

Leading Knowledge Workers

August 8, 2013

Peter Drucker announced the passing of the ‘command and control’ style of business leadership in the 1950s. He and others recognised it is an act of futility to tell a person she MUST come up with a bright idea to solve a problem; but this does not stop a lot of ‘C’ and ‘D’ grade mangers from exacerbating failure by trying to control everything and blaming everyone else when the inevitable happens.  Knowledge workers need motivating, guiding and inspiring by their leader so they feel empowered to deal with the issue or challenge.

This is not a new concept, the military developed the concept of auftragstaktik at the beginning of the 19th Century (see: Command or Control).  Ever earlier, Laozi said “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled they will say ‘we did it ourselves’.”   Laozi’s Tao Te Ching underpins Daoism, which in modern China is both a philosophical tradition and organized religion. He advocated humility in leadership and a restrained approach to statecraft. His emphasis on ‘naturalness’ translates into a way of life characterized by simplicity, calmness, and freedom from tyranny.

One way you can translate these concepts into the modern workplace is through the effective use of questions.  Christine Comaford, an executive coach and author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together advocates asking five ‘teaching questions’ for every one piece of advocacy or instruction.

If you continuously give detailed orders, you are teaching your team dependence. Whereas asking questions encourages learning and development, and frees up your time as your team takes on the new skills.

The type of discussion recommended by Comaford goes like this: ‘George’ comes to you and says, “Hey boss, how should I process this order?” And you say, “Well, what would you do? … Okay, what else? … Who should we loop in? … What could go right? … What could go wrong?”

She has found that if you ask that person the five questions on three separate occasions; by the end of the third inquiry session, they are going to ‘get it’ and start to forge a new pathway, and they’re going to go, “Wow, whenever I go and ask the boss for orders, he actually asks me what I would do”. ‘George’ will come to you for one or two more validation sessions – then he’s off and running. He owns his area of responsibility.

The most effective intrinsic motivators are autonomy, authority and achievement (see more on Motivation), and the skilful use of effective questions is one effective way to crate these factors in your team (see more on Effective Questions).

And the really good news is that by teaching your team confidence and competence with questions rather than dependence with orders, they are more likely to have the ideas and skills that will help you succeed.

So what’s your ratio of orders given to questions asked?