Keys for Helpful Feedback

feedback peeople




Years ago – before the rise of webinars with comment boxes – I gave seminars via a conference call line. Eighty or so participants would call in, I would put everyone on mute, and then “present” for the next 30 minutes.

I’m an experienced speaker, and I had notes in front of me, but I would sweat my way through these calls, feeling exhausted afterward. It felt stressful and hard because I had no feedback – visual or verbal – from the group so I had no sense of how I was doing.

I could’ve adjusted or clarified, and improved on the fly if only I had some information to go on. Instead it was like speaking into a black hole.

Sometimes our jobs can feel that way if we aren’t getting feedback from our leaders, clients or co-workers.

Feedback is absolutely essential for improving performance, increasing accountability, establishing desired goals, recognizing strengths and achieving wanted results.

Here are three keys to the art of giving good feedback.

1) Positivity 

In addition to direction on what or how you’d like to see someone change or improve, also provide information on what they are doing well.

Aim to give them a “feedback sandwich” – a positive praise, followed by the points where they could improve and suggestions for improvement, followed at the end by another positive praise or your vote of confidence.

Positive feedback stimulates the reward center in the brain, leaving the person happy and open to taking new direction. Negative feedback, on the other hand, tends to trigger the threat response and defensiveness can set in.

You can be tough as a leader without being negative or mean. Stay positive.

2) Specificity

People generally operate best when given specific direction. Rather than saying, “I want you to be more talkative in meetings,” try, “You’re a careful thinker, which I apprecaite, so I’d like to hear at least one idea or opinion from you in each meeting.”

If you are too vague in your communication with others, it forces them to guess what you want. If they don’t know what they should do – or how you what it done – they may not ask for clarification for fear of looking ignorant or inattentive. Considering asking them if you have provided enough specific information about the goal, process, procedure, desired behavior or deadline at hand.

When giving feedback, give specific examples of when/how they have not met expectations, and offer what they can specifically do to improve. The need for specificity on feedback and direction is going to be especially high for systematic thinkers like conformists on the Forte scale. While non-conformists may not crave as much specificity on the how-to part, they too need clear information about what you want to see improved.

3) Immediacy 

The adult brain learns best when feedback is given at, or shortly after, the time of performance. If you wait weeks or months to tell someone their performance on something was average or sub-par, they likely won’t fully grasp the changes you’re wanting to see as they won’t adequately recall the details of their performance.

Immediate and frequent feedback provides more opportunities for adjustment, allowing employees to accelerate their growth on the performance learning curve. Immediate feedback allows adjustments “on the fly” before ineffective habits are created. When employees do not get feedback they will assume what they are doing is working, or at least is acceptable, and likely will continue the behavior.

Like positivity, immediacy in feedback also increases people’s motivation for improvement – particularly on tasks they will be repeating either soon or often.

Better Your Employees’ Performance by Bettering Your Feedback

According to Columbia University neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner at the NeuroLeadership Summit in Boston, people who receive feedback only apply it about 30% of the time. So be prepared to address the issue again if progress is not made – but remain positive and specific and give feedback as immediately as possible.

Staying mindful of these three keys will increase the odds your feedback will lead to improved performance.

The Forté Institute’s Rachel Olsen is on faculty at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Rachel is a communication specialist, and a trained and certified coach. Call at The Forté Institute at 910-452-5152.