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07.01.2022 Company Culture

How to give feedback effectively

How to give feedback effectively

Giving feedback effectively will benefit you and your team. Find out how to give feedback to anyone at work by following these simple steps. Whether it’s to your manager, your employee, or your colleague.

If you want your team to thrive you need a strong collective mindset that isn’t just open to feedback. Feedback should be actively encouraged.

After all, you want your team members to learn from their achievements and mistakes. You want them to constantly evolve and grow. As individuals and as a team. Right?

Giving feedback helps achieve that. In our previous feedback guide, we explained the different types of feedback. Below, we’ll show you what some of these different feedback types look like in action.

You’ll find out how to give feedback, both positive and negative, constructively and effectively. We’ll also show you how to structure your feedback using some tried-and-tested feedback frameworks. By structuring feedback accordingly both giving and receiving feedback becomes a lot easier (and clearer).

General guidelines on giving feedback

How to give feedback effectively is quite a saturated topic, filled with dozens of management theories and feedback models.

Some swear by the Situation, Behavior, Impact (SBI) feedback model while others prefer the Pendleton model instead. For most, however, they end up just serving a simple Feedback Sandwich.

In this guide on how to give feedback, we’re not picking one model over the other. We’ve tried and tested a lot of them internally here at JOIN. And you can check out this separate article with our top 10 feedback models for an in-depth look into how they work and how to use them.

But although we use many of them frequently, we realised the team as a whole was never 100% satisfied with one single model.

So instead, we decided to take our learnings and combine them to create this list of feedback giving best practices. These tips help us give better feedback at work.

1. Stop and think

Before you even consider giving feedback, take a moment to stop and think. Decide what you actually want to comment on, why you want to comment on it, and then prepare what you’re going to say.

Too often someone blurts out feedback, whether positive or negative, without giving it a moment’s thought. The result can be unhelpful and even harmful feedback.

Now we understand you might feel the urge to reply with feedback straight away. After all, isn’t it good practice to give on-the-spot feedback sometimes rather than saving everything for your next one-to-one?

You might be right (although not always, see point 2). But even if you should deliver feedback on the spot this rarely means the feedback is needed that exact second. Instead, take a few minutes to reflect.

At this stage, you want to answer questions such as “why do I want to give this feedback”, “is my feedback justified” and “how will this feedback help them”. Example answers could be:

  • I want to give feedback to help them improve their time management skills
  • They have failed to deliver several tasks on time
  • This feedback will help them to deliver work in a more timely manner

Clearly define your motives and the purpose and intent of your feedback.

2. Pick the right time

There’s a time and place for everything. And that’s certainly true for feedback.

Say you want to give an employee feedback on a specific task they just completed. Since they just finished it, it would make sense to give them feedback straight away. Why write it down and wait a week till your next meeting if you can just compliment them right then and there?

In fact, an Industrial and Organizational Psychology research shows that providing direct, informal feedback in real-time helps drive performance. And ad hoc and unplanned feedback should certainly be an integral part of your feedback culture in the workplace.

But say you want to give an employee feedback on their general performance within the team. Feedback like this assesses more than just one specific action. It looks at personal development, behaviour, and output over a prolonged period.

You wouldn’t give this feedback casually and unprepared during a water cooler chat, right?

Instead, this kind of in-depth feedback is better suited for a review or assessment meeting, such as a monthly one-to-one or a yearly performance review.

There are no clear-cut rules or one-size-fits-all guidelines about when to best provide feedback. But you’ll notice that often the smaller the task and the time spent on it, the closer to the real-time moment you can give your feedback.

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3. Pick the right place

You don’t want to (constructively) criticise someone in the middle of a team lunch. That would just be rude and hurtful, embarrassing someone in public for no reason!

But even if you’re giving praise you should still be mindful of where to give it. You might mean well, but it could be that the recipient dreads nothing more than being the centre of attention. So that well-intentioned shout out on Slack might actually cause them a lot of anxiety.

Equally, having to give feedback to a colleague or, worse, a manager can be stressful too. So pick your place strategically so both you and the recipient are comfortable.

4. Give feedback regularly

You should decide at what time and place to best deliver a certain piece of feedback. But what’s important either way is that you provide feedback regularly.

As mentioned, feedback giving shouldn’t be tied to just pre-planned monthly meetings. But you should still have these regular intervals in place. The best way is to give feedback regularly in multiple different formats and settings.

5. It isn’t all about you

Before structuring and giving your feedback, remember that you’re generally not the focus of this feedback. Giving feedback is rarely a “you thing”.

Whether it’s constructive feedback to help them improve a skill. Or just a positive shout-out to let them know you appreciate the work they put in.

Whenever you give feedback it should benefit the receiver first. After all, it’s their action or behaviour you’re assessing. So your feedback should be aimed at them.

6. Be specific and concise

OK, it’s time to actually formulate your feedback. What you want to avoid at all costs is the message you’re trying to convey being misunderstood.

This is extra important when giving someone negative feedback. Your message shouldn’t be vague and confusing, but crystal clear and specific.

Here’s an example of how not to give feedback: “I don’t like what you wrote in the second paragraph of your blog, can you please improve it?”

You don’t explain what you don’t like about the paragraph, nor how your employee could improve it. Feedback like this is vague and nonspecific. Chances are you still won’t like the revised paragraph. And that’s all on you.

Instead, you could say something like: “The point about vegetarianism you made in your second paragraph could do with more research and explanation. Could you please find one or two reputable sources backing up your point that not eating meat is better for humans and the planet? Please rewrite the paragraph based on your findings.”

Conversely, another common trap that people fall into is that they try to over-explain their feedback. But that’s also not the way to go as you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

And then there’s the feedback sandwich method, where you give your one piece of corrective (negative) feedback sandwiched in between two pieces of positive feedback.

Although this method can sometimes be helpful, you often risk the chance of the recipient not fully unpacking what you just served up and misinterpreting the actual message. After all, two-thirds of the feedback you gave was positive. Instead, just stop waffling and get straight to the point.

Short and concise yet specific and clear.

7. Make it actionable

In most cases, you’ll want your feedback to be constructive and encourage change. That’s why your feedback should be actionable. Your recipient should have a clear understanding of the next step(s) to follow from the feedback you’ve given.

If you don’t equip them with the tools they need to action your feedback they will be left lost and, in most cases, annoyed. After all, you tell them something is wrong but you don’t guide them in the right direction. That signals one of two things:

  • You don’t know how to do it better yourself. So who are you to give them that feedback?
  • You know how to do it better yourself but you don’t share this information. So you purposefully set them up for future failure?

Either way, you’re the one who’s not doing a good job.

8. Be factual and performance-focused

Always give factual feedback based on someone’s performance, not on their personality or your gut feeling.

When you give feedback, it should highlight a certain behaviour or action they’ve taken that can be improved. Compare these examples:

  1. “You lack confidence. You should do something about that.”
  2. “During the meeting this morning your body language signalled that you were quite nervous and you avoided eye contact with the clients. In the future, try to make eye contact and perhaps practice presenting a few extra times, focusing on being mindful of your posture and body language.”

The feedback you provide should always be based on concrete facts, not personality traits or feelings.

9. Be empathetic

Don’t equate the previous point with lacking empathy. In fact, showing empathy is crucial when delivering feedback.

Although giving feedback helps people grow they probably won’t be jumping for joy when you deliver it to them. No matter how factual, performance-focused, specific, or actionable your feedback might be. Chances are it still evokes an emotional response in people.

They might feel frustrated or disappointed in themselves. They might be shocked or upset as they didn’t see it coming. They might acknowledge they’ve been performing poorly due to something in their private life.

Whatever the reason for the performance or the response to the feedback, giving and receiving feedback frequently triggers emotions. As the person delivering the feedback, it’s your duty to show empathy and kindness.

Give them space if they need it to process the feedback and always be prepared for defensiveness. It’s a natural human response and it doesn’t mean they don’t accept or appreciate your feedback.

10. Create a dialogue, don’t give a monologue

Finally, you should aim for your feedback to be an open dialogue rather than a monologue.

Give the receiver time to digest the feedback and reply to it. Talk them through the feedback you’ve given and work together to find a satisfactory solution. By turning a static remark into a relevant dialogue, you are more likely to achieve the desired outcome.

The best feedback results in a meaningful conversation, characterised by collaboration, appreciation, and a motivation to grow.

Two men sitting at a table facing each other, one providing feedback to the other
Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

Tips on how to give feedback to anyone at work

In an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter who you’re giving feedback to. It should be the same for everyone. But realistically, you will approach the topic differently when it’s your boss than when it’s your workmate.

Here are some tips on how to effectively give feedback to anyone at work.

How to give feedback to your manager

Giving feedback to your manager or team lead can be difficult. Even if you work at a company with a 360-degree feedback system and a relatively flat hierarchy. You’ll probably still struggle to be truly honest in your feedback to your manager.

Your boss decides whether you stay in the business or not, so you don’t want to risk jeopardising your job. But there’s an increasing call for the normalisation of upward feedback in the workplace.

When giving feedback to your manager, you should still follow the principles outlined above. However, it’s advisable to apply a bit more tact when it comes to the time, place, and tone of your feedback.

Some bosses aren’t very open to feedback. If that’s the case with your boss, try to save your feedback for your next performance review, such as a monthly one-to-one, rather than giving on-the-spot feedback.

Further, ensure you mind your tone and keep it professional and formal. This should be in line with the general level of formality between you and your manager. Also note that even when you have a super informal relationship with your manager, it still doesn’t mean you can just throw some terrible feedback at them over a Slack message.

When it’s your first time giving feedback to your team lead you might want to start off small. Perhaps only give positive feedback first. Or in this instance, the feedback sandwich might actually be a good idea.

You’ll still give two positive pieces of feedback alongside the constructive one, so they are more likely not to overreact or become too defensive.

How to give feedback to a colleague

Giving peer-to-peer feedback might seem easier than giving feedback to someone higher up. In reality, that’s often not the case. There are two main reasons for that:

  1. You feel as though you are “on the same level”, so what gives you the right to judge their work?
  2. You are friends and you don’t want to hurt their feelings

So when giving feedback to a co-worker you should, aside from the 10 main steps described in this article, pay extra attention to being factual and showing empathy.

By focusing on factuality, you reduce the risk of your colleague questioning your authority on the matter. After all, if you clearly lay out the facts of what went wrong, and show them that you in fact know from experience how to do it better. Then, they can hardly argue with you!

And since you are friends it’s important to show enough empathy. Be mindful of their personality and provide feedback accordingly. For some, bluntness is alright, for others, you have to soften the blow a bit more.

How to give feedback to (highly) sensitive team members

It is estimated that 15 to 20% of the population can be classified as highly sensitive people (HSP). And even when generally not classified as a sensitive person someone can still be highly sensitive to receiving feedback. For many of us, receiving feedback is simply a sensitive topic, no matter how well-intentioned or delivered.

If you notice your employee or colleague is highly sensitive you might want to slightly adapt your feedback giving strategy.

For starters, step 3 in our list above, location, is even more important when giving feedback to sensitive people. Not only should you provide constructive feedback privately, but even positive feedback might be better given when one-on-one. The receiver might not enjoy being the centre of attention, so private feedback should be your default.

That said, public praise can help boost someone’s confidence so when appropriate it can have a positive effect. We advise reserving the public compliments for the moments and achievements that really matter, like finishing a 6-month project.

Just like when giving feedback to friends at work, empathy is incredibly important when giving feedback to a sensitive person. Show them you care about their development, that your intentions are just, and that your feedback is in no way a personal attack.

Lastly, ensure you create dialogue and walk the recipient through the feedback you gave. Explain clearly how they can improve and give them all the tools they need to handle the situation. Together, create a plan of action following the feedback.

Reach out to them after a few days to see how they’re getting along, to offer your help, and to reaffirm how this feedback is well-intentioned and how you value them.

Give and receive feedback

How to give feedback effectively always depends on the recipient. No two people are the same and you should tailor your message to their unique needs, personality, and position in the business relative to yours.

Do you think you’re ready to give feedback? Then don’t forget to prepare yourself to get some in return. After all, effective feedback works both ways.

But before you get to our guide on how to receive feedback we have one more article first that will help you truly master the art of giving feedback. So check out the next article in our feedback series: The 10 best feedback models to use at work.

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