Feedback is indispensable for successful learning. Giving good feedback helps others stay motivated and gives them insight into the effectiveness of their efforts and actions. The line between feedback and criticism can often be very fine, which is why it’s so important to learn how to give feedback properly.
How do you give good feedback? What are the pitfalls? And how do you tell the difference between good and bad approaches? We’ll be answering all these questions in this article with several tips and practical example thrown in.
What does ‘feedback’ actually mean?
The word ‘feedback’ originally had a highly technical definition – the return to the input of a part of the output of a machine, system, or process. Its meaning has become broader over the years and has also come to mean to give information about someone’s behavior, progress, or performance as a basis for improvement. Receiving feedback is valuable if you’re looking to improve yourself, a product, or a service.
Feedback is the explanation that underpins the learning process and pinpoints important learning moments with regard to what went well and what did not. Ideally, feedback leads to improved results in the longer term.
Positive & negative feedback
An important aspect of feedback is that it focuses primarily on behavioral or procedural change.
Positive feedback centers on giving praise and on explaining why you’re so impressed by someone’s performance. Negative feedback centers on mitigating or changing ineffective or undesired behaviors. Both have their place and purpose.
What’s more, it’s important to grasp that negative feedback is not the same as criticism. Criticism involves passing judgment on someone or something. This plays no role in giving negative feedback – you can identify a particular behavior or performance as being inappropriate or below par, but you don’t pass judgment about the person in question. The focus remains on finding a solution to the challenge you’ve encountered.
Giving feedback in practice
Feedback is generally something that managers and other professionals in management positions give their staff. But it also plays an important role in other sectors, for example, education and the media (journalism, editing, etc.).
Feedback is indispensable to evaluating learning objectives, education programs, and the accuracy and composition of articles, news reporting, etc.
There’s an art or knack to giving good feedback. Details and sensitivities often play a key role, and the fine line between feedback and criticism can often become very blurred.
No hard and fast rules exist for giving feedback, but there are definitely pitfalls to be avoided:
- When you’re giving someone feedback, remember that you’re highly influential in his or her learning process. You’re an expert who’s advising and teaching. This role can feel uncomfortable or unpleasant at first. So, prepare yourself well and don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s your task and responsibility to project a sense of engagement and to have a positive impact on co-workers or processes.
- Giving feedback in the wrong way can backfire on you! This is often the case if you fail to formulate issues clearly enough, to go into sufficient detail, or to provide alternative approaches or strategies. Certainly the latter causes feedback to come across as non‑constructive criticism.
- Poor timing can also be highly detrimental. Select the time at which you give your feedback carefully. Opt for a quiet moment and take the time to make your co-worker feel at ease – not during a meeting or just before entering into some other discussion. Don’t give feedback if you are feeling emotional or irritated, as you’ll be inclined to choose the wrong words and set the wrong tone.
- Above all, feedback should always remain objective, never subjective. Whether you like the person in question, or not, should never play any role whatsoever. This may sound logical, but in practice this is often overlooked.
- And feedback isn’t one-way traffic. Give your co-worker the opportunity to respond to the improvements and suggestions you’re offering them.
- A common tendency is to only lay problems out on the table. Giving good feedback also entails providing practical tips for improvement and coming up with solutions together.
10 tips for giving better feedback
Merely avoiding the pitfalls listed above will help you enormously. But you can improve your feedback still further by using the tips, tricks, and techniques below.
1. Use the 3 I’s
Apply the three I’s when giving feedback – incident, impression, implication.
With ‘incident’, describe the behavior you observed in a given situation. It’s vital you stick to the facts and make no accusations.
With ‘impression’, describe the perception the behavior left on you. But don’t overemphasize this critical element of the feedback session. It’s best to avoid terms that have an overly negative impact such as ‘below par’, ‘annoying’, or ‘disappointing’, and to use more neutral wording such as ‘less pleasant’ or ‘could be improved’.
With ‘implication’, describe the consequences the behavior has in practice. Again, stick to actual implications.
2. Remain positive and constructive
Giving feedback also involves discussing positive aspects of behavior, not only discussing areas for improvement. A general rule of thumb states that you should name three or four positive aspects to every area for improvement.
For example, you could state that someone works painstakingly and methodically, and is friendly and pleasant towards co-workers and customers. And that working a little faster wouldn’t be detrimental to any of this. Positivity dominates the feedback, and your co-worker will be extra motivated to work on any areas for improvement.
3. Explain why
Merely saying something is good enough or not good enough is itself not good enough! Part of giving good feedback involves explaining why. Feedback then becomes a learning opportunity that your co-worker can act on accordingly. Explaining why also helps people take advice onboard faster and makes them more motivated to improve matters.
4. Deal with pushback properly
Receiving feedback from co-workers isn’t always pleasant. That’s why you should be prepared for pushback. It’s quite possible they’ll interrupt you or argue a point with you. How they react somewhat depends on their personality. So, always be prepared for debate or pushback.
This is yet another reason why it’s essential to substantiate your feedback with facts and concrete examples.
5. Proper preparation is half the job!
Off-the-cuff remarks and advice do not constitute giving good feedback. Make sure you’ve prepared all issues carefully and know exactly what you want to say during the conversation.
Structure your feedback well to convey your message clearly and concisely, and to provide your co-worker with a firm foothold. This will help the conversation flow more smoothly and your co-worker take the feedback more seriously.
6. Opt for a personal approach
To give good feedback, it’s vital that you adopt a personal approach. This means that you give the feedback in a face-to-face, one-on-one setting – not by email or on the phone. By making time to provide constructive feedback and paying your co-worker your full attention, you’re letting him or her know that you also take them seriously.
7. Be direct
Don’t beat around the bush. There’s no advantage doing so when giving feedback. Worse still, it will generally backfire on you because issues and problems don’t then get resolved and your co-worker comes away without a clear course of action.
Be clear. Be direct. This may prove challenging but is ultimately beneficial to all concerned.
8. Speak for yourself
Use the first person singular – I – when giving feedback. It’s been demonstrated that conversations take on a less adversarial tone when starting sentences with “I think that …” or “I noticed that …” instead of “You this …” and “You that …”.
9. Watch your non-verbal cues
A conversation is more than just words. Human beings are extremely sensitive to non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language. So, be wary of unintended non‑verbal cues.
For example, don’t sit with your arms folded – instead, adopt an open, active posture, sitting up straight in your chair, your feet firmly on the ground, and your hands on the table. This emanates a sense of self-awareness and genuine concern for your co-worker.
10. Don’t wait too long to give feedback
Feedback is most effective when you give it as soon as possible after the incident occurred or the situation arose. The sooner you give your feedback, the less likely it is that the relevant facts surrounding the incident, which prompted your feedback, are forgotten.
Prompt feedback is also much more powerful than feedback long after the event! If several weeks have passed since a situation arose or an incident occurred, then you shouldn’t be all that surprised when someone responds to your feedback with, “You what? That was a month ago already! You’re only now just coming to me with it?”
The good, the bad, and the ugly – 5 examples
Having examined the main points and pitfalls relating to feedback, it’s time to look at a few practical examples – good and bad, what works and what doesn’t!
Situation 1: Disengaged
A co-worker constantly looks at her phone every few minutes during meetings. You could opt for the following response, “Is your phone more interesting than what we’re discussing here?”
Clearly, an example of bad feedback. By opting for this response, you judge and criticize without being constructive or attempting to resolve the problem.
You’d be better off reiterating how important and valuable her input is and how it’s a pity that her attention appears to be divided.
Situation 2: Too passive
A co-worker is too passive or submissive and never gives his opinion on matters or processes affecting operations on the shop floor.
An example of bad feedback in such a situation would be to emphasize his passivity and bluntly tell him to come out of his shell.
But what would constitute good feedback? Discuss with him why his opinion is so important. Emphasize any occasions on which his input proved really valuable. Give him as much space as possible to provide input by asking open questions.
Situation 3: Error-prone
A co-worker is making a lot of mistakes and seems unable to work in a methodical fashion. It’s obvious that a situation like this is detrimental to a department or an organization’s operations. But how to respond?
Examples of bad feedback would include, “Geez, you’re sloppy!”, or threatening to fire him or impose sanctions if he makes any more mistakes.
Good feedback would address the root cause and lack of accuracy. For example, ask if he’s okay or whether there’s something on his mind that’s distracting him, or whether he’d like help or additional instruction. Give him as much time and space as necessary to get himself together and monitor his progress.
Situation 4: Tardiness
A co-worker is often late for work or important meetings.
Condemning this behavior without probing for the underlying cause (“You’re too late, yet again!” or “Would you mind showing up on time for a change?”) isn’t the right way to give feedback.
Instead, inquire about the reasons or causes for poor punctuality (perhaps marital or household problems) and look for a structural solution together.
Situation 5: Indecisiveness
A co-worker is having challenges with delegating and making decisions. This is having a negative impact on the organization’s decision-making processes. The underlying reasons for this type of behavior are wide-ranging but reside in her tendency towards perfectionism – a trait with many disadvantages.
“Make a decision already, why don’t you?” is an example of bad feedback in such a situation. It is, in part, a subjective judgment that offers no solution.
It would be far better to inquire about the underlying causes and to coach her step by step to becoming more decisive and less controlling. This feedback is better because it’s far more constructive.
The tips and recommendations we’ve given so far are guidelines for improving the feedback you give your co-workers. Use them to your advantage! If you’ve already given your staff feedback, then make it visual by entering the improvements and insights you’ve gained about skills and behaviors into a skills matrix.
Naturally, you could use a spreadsheet such as MS Excel for creating skills matrices, but software such as AG5’s makes recording and keeping track of this information much, much simpler. It also allows you to store all your skills- and competence-related information in a centralized location in the cloud, accessible remotely – anytime, anyplace, anywhere.