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Leadership Skill: Giving Feedback

Oct 25, 2007
One of the hardest tasks of effective leaders is giving people feedback. "Giving people feedback" is really a neutral description for something decidedly un-neutral - telling people how they could be doing their job better. And because it is a loaded area, with a high potential for ticking people off and alienating them, just when you need them to be "on your side," lots of leaders get confused and inept.

Why is giving feedback hard for us? Probably because people think it has to be done very cleverly - delicately - so as not to offend people. And most of us are not clever, so we despair. And procrastinate. And when push finally comes to shove, and we sit down with the person in question, we criticize crappily.

How do we criticize crappily? Let us count the ways.

We do it too formally. We invite the other person into our offices. We sit across from on another. We refer to reports for information, sometimes hiding behind the pages. Six-month evaluations may be good for record-keeping, but a better way to keep people on point is to evaluate them every single day, with attention, instruction, availability, and acknowledgment of a job well done. Fix a problem informally, and it need never appear in someone's file.

We wait too long. "Harold, it's come to our attention you've been taking 2-hour naps every afternoon since 1994." The time to step in and advise is early, before it becomes a bad habit, and before you become irritated with the behavior's deep-seatedness. Also, workers have every right to protest. They would have been happy to make the change earlier - if someone had only asked. Delaying puts an unnecessary black mark on their record.

We keep it one-way. Feedback is properly described as a loop. You tell them something, they tell you something, and so on. The process belongs to both of you. If it's just you informing a worker - much less, a teammate - that they have failed, doesn't that tell you something about the team? And if the other person's contributions aren't appreciated here, what does that say about their contributions?

We apologize. We mince about. There is no way to tell someone an unpleasant truth and come out of it more popular than you went in. The proper and honest thing to do is say it directly: "Mary Ann, I'm concerned about the quality of your follow-up work. Several times I've had customers complain, and I want to fix the problem right now, before it becomes a real problem." They may not like you more. They may emerge from the talk bruised and a little scared. But they will know what is expected of them. Clarity will help them survive, where friendly gobbledygook could lead them to destruction.

We beat around the bush. We say 19 positive nice things in order to soften the blow of the 20th item, which is negative. In all things strive for clarity. A good meeting has a single purpose. "Jack, I want to talk to you about your absence last week."

We don't think it's feedback unless it's negative. We're not saying to camouflage the one negative observation behind nineteen compliments. But why is it that we only call workers in to see us when we have bad news? Invite them in when you notice something great. What a simple message to communicate: we value your positive contributions, and we want to encourage you to keep trying.

We go in with too much certainty. "Dave, you've not been attentive in your work." Instead, try: "Dave, I'm concerned that you aren't giving your work your full attention. You make a lot of funny remarks at team meetings, but I'm not sure you're kicking in with the right amount of effort. Do you agree with that assessment?"

We put it all on the other person. Maybe Esther isn't meeting quota for reasons that Esther has little control over. Maybe you think Esther has been properly trained, but she hasn't. Maybe there's something you can do that will help Esther perform.

We criticize, but we are vague about future action. Feedback must be action-oriented or it is just blather. State a desired outcome, and slap a schedule on it. Then, if the teammate misses the outcome by the date agreed upon, who can complain about the consequences?
About the Author
A world class speaker, author, and educator, Dr. Robbins focuses on transformational leadership by providing leadership skill training, team building / team leadership training, management development training, and executive coaching. See more on http://www.harveyrobbins.com.
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