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Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

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How Managers Can Deliver More Effective Feedback14 min read

The most important role of a manager is to support the growth of the members of their team and one of the core ways that managers can do that is by providing effective feedback. I define effective feedback as both sharing the positive and negative aspects of what you have seen and ensuring that the employee is equipped to make progress on the issue. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. Feedback tends to be given in ways that do not encourage growth. Feedback often looks something like this:

Manager: Hey, Jim. Do you have a minute for some feedback?
Jim: Uh, sure.
Manager: It has taken too long to nail down the new design on the latest app update. We expected it to be done in a week and now it has been nearly a month. You didn’t make a decision quickly enough. As a result, the schedule is going to be compacted and we have concerns about the quality of the release.
Jim: Well, we had a design after the first week, but it needed some changes and we have been working through those. It is basically done now and development is starting.
Manager: You took too long to make a decision and things are moving too slowly. You have to make decisions more quickly.
Jim: Ok, well the decision is made now.
Manager: Great thanks and let’s do better in the future.
Jim: Sure, I will try.

Or worse this:

Manager: Hey Jim, can we talk?
Jim: Sure
Manager: You have to make decisions faster.
Jim: Ok, I…
Manager: The release is now at risk because we didn’t have a decision on the design until now. This can’t happen again.
Jim: Ok, I will try to make decisions faster.
Manager: Don’t try, do it.

I am sure we have all received, and probably given, feedback that sounded a lot like these examples. The first example does follow the suggested situation, behavior and impact formula for feedback that has been defined by the Center for Creative Leadership that has been widely accepted as a best practice. Unfortunately, this is not enough to make feedback effective.
Four steps that can make feedback more effective are creating a base with compassion, starting the feedback with empathy, sharing your story effectively and coaching the employee forward.

Creating a base with compassion

“To have a good relationship, you have to be your whole self and care about each of the people who work for you as a human being.” — Kim Scott

I define compassion as an active aspiration to improve the hedonic and eudaemonic happiness of another. Compassion is a critical part of leadership. In order for people to choose to follow you, they need to know that you care and are supportive of them and their aspirations. The ability to give effective feedback starts with building a relationship and trust; this needs to happen before you try and give feedback. Without this, it is not possible to provide feedback that will be effective.

Before giving feedback, it is important for the manager to be calm and present and coming from a place of compassion. I have often seen, and I myself, have given feedback out of frustration. In the end, this does not tend to work well to elicit change for the individual.

Richard Boyatzis at Case Western University has been researching how people respond to coaching for compliance versus coaching for compassion. In his article Coaching with Compassion: Inspiring Health, Well-Being, and Development in Organizations, Boyatzis has defined coaching for compassion as focusing on the employee’s version of their goals and aspirations as the starting point and focusing on the individual’s strengths before weaknesses.
Boyatzis has found that “coaching with compassion will lead to desired change, enhanced health, and well-being.“ In contrast, he found that “coaching for compliance (i.e., toward how the coach or the organization believe the person should act) and deficiency-based coaching invoke the opposite state — resulting in a person being defensive, reducing cognitive functioning.”

In further studies with Anthony Jack published as Visioning in the brain: An fMRI study of inspirational coaching and mentoring, Boyatzis found that “the perception of shared vision was the statistically strongest factor in predicting an effective outcome on the dependent variable.” In other words, if you want to see changes in your employees starting with their vision is one of the most impactful things you can do. It is also important to note that positive intentions to help the employee are not as impactful as starting from the employee’s vision.
Work to understand the employee’s vision and ideal self are things that need to happen before feedback is given. This is prior work to establish the relationship and to make sure that the manager is aware of and focussed on the vision of the employee. Without a relationship with the employee, it will be extremely difficult to deliver feedback that leads to real change. It is absolutely critical as a manager to establish relationships with your employees to make sure that you truly understand them as people and their goals so that you can be effective in supporting their growth.

Take the time to prepare for the conversation and think of the positive outcome that you want for the individual. Then with this calm and compassionate mindset, you are ready to give feedback.

Start with empathy

“The best way to persuade people is with your ears — by listening to them.” — Dean Rusk

Phrases like “can we talk” or “do you want some feedback” can trigger a fight or flight response in many people. If you imagine your boss saying those words to you and you listen to your body you can feel your pulse quicken as you go into flight or fight mode. This response can impact the ability to listen and respond well to feedback. In order to deliver feedback, well managers need to work around this response. Instead of starting in this way, invite the employee to share their experience.

When you are ready to give feedback start by listening. Rather than going straight to giving the feedback lead with a question: How do you think that meeting went? Or What have you noticed about how your suggestions were received? While this may seem counter-intuitive it is a useful strategy that will help in a myriad of ways. It is important that you are empathetic and listen with a goal to understand. Peter Bregman has defined empathy as “understanding the other’s story, feeling and perspective to their satisfaction.” (Emphasis mine) The goal is to make sure that you truly understand the employees perspective to the point that the employee feels you understand them. “Once someone feels deeply heard and feels social connection and support, then he or she becomes motivated to change” (Boyatzis Neuroscience of Coaching). Understanding is not the same as agreeing, but it is a good first step into getting to a shared perspective.

By starting with empathy you will better understand how the employee views the events you are going to give feedback on. This will allow you to see where you saw similar things and where there are differences in your perspectives and focus your conversation on the differences. This will also minimize the defensiveness of the employee as by having felt heard they are more ready to listen.

Share your story

“We don’t see things as they are we see things as we are.” — Anais Nin

Once you have fully understood how the employee has seen the situation it is time to share your perspective. We each have our own story about what we have seen and each story is limited by our own perspective and biases. It is also important to note that your perception is the reality for you and as a manager that is a reality that your employee needs to respond to.
In sharing your story the Situation, Behavior, Impact (SBI) method is a great place to start. Start by presenting the situation and context as you saw it: what was the context? What was known and what was unknown? What were other people saying or doing to create the situation? Then describe how you saw the employee behave: what did they do or say? It is important to stay away from interpreting what they meant or intended. You cannot know what was in their mind. With actions, it is often easier to describe what you saw without assuming the employees intent. It is equally important when you think you have witnessed emotions to refrain from assuming that you know what the emotion was, it is best to describe this in terms of what you saw and how it felt to you. Rather than saying “you got angry”, say “It felt to me like you were angry. I noticed your voice was raised, your hand was clenched in a fist and your shoulders were hunched as you explained your point” Finally, describe the impact that those behaviors had in that situation for the people around it and for the outcome: People pulled back from you, the room got quiet, effective communication stopped.

It is important to differentiate the behavior from the outcome. As any poker player will tell you sometimes playing a hand perfectly still loses. Our actions are playing the odds. We do the best we can. What we are looking for is the right behaviors that have a positive impact regardless of the overall outcome and, more often than not, like that poker hand, the right behaviors with the right impact will lead to the right outcome.

Coach the individual forward

“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It’s helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” — Tim Gallwey

The last step is coaching. Many people, especially managers, use coaching to mean getting employees to do things that they don’t want to do or rather that their manager does want them to do. Coaching though is really about encouraging self-generation and self-transformation. The goal in coaching is for the individual to take ownership and responsibility for their own actions and transformation and to commit to positive actions to take in the future. People are more likely to follow through on commitments they make rather than those given to them. This commitment is not something that you want them to do and you try to manipulate them into thinking it is their idea. This needs to be the choice of the employee. You may make a suggestion, but they need to be free to not accept it. It can be hard as a manager to not just give an answer, but it will benefit the employee more in the long run. In coaching the employee, it is important to connect them back to their vision and ideal self and allowing them to set a commitment that will move them forward towards that goal. As the studies by Boyatzis has shown, this will lead to the best results.

It is also important to help the employee create confidence that they can follow through on the commitment. Many times people will know the right thing to do, they know that they should not yell at someone, but there is something preventing them from being able to change. Helping to build confidence so that they will not be blocked in the future will help make sure they can really get traction on the change.

Final and important note: This will work for both positive and corrective feedback. If an employee is doing something well this is a great way to reinforce it and to help them learn what is working about what they are doing and how they can build on it. If there are things that are not working it is an opportunity to find a new behavior to try that can create the change that is required.

Given these four steps, let’s see how the conversation could have played out. You will notice that this a much longer conversation. Giving effective feedback takes time and effort, but that time is well worth it. Having this conversation once will be far better than having multiple ineffective conversations.

Manager: Hi Jim, how are you doing?
Jim: Good, we just made a decision on the new design and are moving it forward.
Manager: That is great news. I am glad to see the team hit that milestone. How did that design process go?
Jim: I think it went well.
Manager: What do you think went well about it?
Jim: I think we reached the right decision and I am happy with where we are going.
Manager: I am glad to hear you approve of the decision and path forward. How do you think the process for making that decision went?
Jim: It went ok, it took a while to get everyone on the same page.
Manager: What do you think made it take so long?
Jim: Well, I kept having to go back and forth between the designer and the Lead Dev. I wanted to make sure that the design could work technically, but also that the design was right it took a lot of iterations to make that happen.
Manager: That makes sense. Jim, I understand that you wanted to get the designer and the dev both onboard and it sounds like that took a lot of time.
Jim: Yeah.
Manager: It sounds like you were meeting with them individually?
Jim: I was. I like to be able to hear them out and understand their perspective.
Manager: It makes sense that you wanted to hear their perspective. In this case, it seems that the back and forth cost you some time on the schedule.
Jim: It did.
Manager: It also sounds like the team now has a tighter timeline than they would have if we could have made this decision more quickly.
Jim: Yeah.
Manager: Jim, I think this is an area where you could improve your ability to make these types of decisions more quickly. What I saw was that when you were in the design process there was already a hard deadline for the project(situation), at that point you went back and forth for multiple weeks with the designers and the dev lead (behavior) and as a result we have a great design, but the timeline for implementation is going to be very tight. Does that seem to be accurate?
Jim: Yeah, that is what happened.
Manager: What do you think you could have done differently?
Jim: I could have done fewer iterations and just made a decision.
Manager: That is one option, what else?
Jim: I don’t know, I could have talked to the designer and dev lead together.
Manager: Great, any other ideas?
Jim: I could have just had the designer and dev lead work together without me, but this was important I think I needed to be involved.
Manager: I agree. This was an important decision for you to be involved in. I think the first two options are good ones. What do you think would work best the next time?
Jim: I guess if I see that we are going back and forth between the designer and dev lead I can just call a meeting and decide in that meeting.
Manager: That is great. Do you think that would have kept us on schedule in this case?
Jim: I do.
Manager: What do you think has prevented you from doing this in the past?
Jim: I just feel more comfortable with folks one on one. In a meeting, I feel like I lose the connection to people that I have one one one.
Manager: Jim, I know that your vision is to be a product leader and I want to see you get there. I think one thing you do really well is that you create great close relationships that help you move work forward and that is a real strength. I think sometimes you may overuse that strength and as a result, focus on those individual relationships to make decisions which is what we saw in this case. I think there is an opportunity here to expand your strength with people from one on one to a group and use it to bring a group together, set a vision and get the team to rally behind it.
Jim: Yeah that makes sense.
Manager: What next steps can you commit to?
Jim: We are about to have to come up with an implementation plan that makes this timeline work. I can use this as a time to get the head of engineering and QA together and try it then.
Manager: How confident are you that you can make that happen?
Jim: Very, 9 out of 10.
Manager: That is great. I can’t wait to hear how it goes.

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