From implementing feedforward interviews, to utilising traffic light systems and feedback sandwiches. These tips, and example phrases, can help you to become a feedback pro.
Delivering precise, effective feedback is crucial for building successful teams – but it can trigger palm-sweating in even the most experienced professionals.
A survey by leadership researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found that 21 per cent of people avoid delivering negative feedback and, interestingly, even more – 37 per cent – don’t give praise.
Why are we so feedback avoidant? The pang of dread may arise because there’s a fair amount at stake.
Dr Nidthida Lin, senior lecturer at Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, says managers and leaders should stay clear on the goal of their feedback: helping someone to improve.
“The question shouldn’t be ‘How can you do better in your work?’ but ‘How can I help you do your job better?’” she says.
Even if you shudder at the mere mention of feedback, the following tips could help you to refine your delivery and work towards a culture that’s more feedback-conducive.
1. Focus on the behaviour or task
When phrasing your feedback, never criticise the person; instead, your suggestions should offer thoughts on the project, behaviour or task in question.
“If you can detach that, it becomes easier to ask the person ‘Is there anything I could do to help you do this better?’ Rather than ‘You did something wrong,’” says Lin.
Dr Joseph Carpini, lecturer at the University of Western Australia Business School, says removing pronouns or the person’s name can help take the sting out of your constructive feedback. He also suggests offering justification and, ideally, a solution.
“You need to complete the loop and say, ‘Here’s a problem – now, what are we going to do? What should it look like in the future and how are we going to get there?’”
Instead of saying this…
“Chloe, you forgot to include a crucial target audience stat in this presentation.”
Try saying this…
“I noticed the presentation left out a useful statistic about the target audience. Including it would help to strengthen the business case. Let me know if you need help finding more resources to include.”
2. Shorten the feedback cycle
There’s been a lot of ink spilled about the inadequacy of the annual performance appraisal, and companies that long championed the practice – such as IBM and General Electric – have ditched it for continuous feedback models.
“One of the global trends we’re seeing, especially in the top Fortune 100 and 500 organisations, is increasing the cycles of feedback so they are shorter,” says Carpini.
“Reflecting on somebody’s performance in general from January and December is really not that constructive. The cycle has just been too long – you lose contextual information.”
“The question shouldn’t be ‘How can you do better in your work?’ but ‘How can I help you do the job better?’” – Dr Nidthida Lin, senior lecturer, Macquarie Business School
Carpini says embedding feedback cycles at more regular intervals can help give employees more relevant, actionable advice.
This could mean blocking out time each week to share feedback with a whole team or with individuals, and setting the expectation that this is going to happen.
“Dedicate time in your diary to giving feedback, whether that’s on a Monday or Wednesday or Friday, or whatever is a useful unit of time for your team,” says Carpini.
“Or maybe it’s when people submit a piece of work to you. Write a note to yourself saying, ‘I need to provide feedback on this’ – and that feedback needs to be genuine, it needs to be timely, it needs to be specific.”
3. Be mindful of offering inauthentic praise
It’s also crucial to remain genuine – even when you’re sharing a positive note. And, where possible, be specific. Otherwise, your praise could have unintended consequences.
“Whether the feedback you’re giving is perceived to be authentic, for example, or valid, will definitely shape how that feedback is received,” says Carpini.
“If you’re giving feedback on something someone’s doing well, if it’s not perceived to be authentic, you can undermine their motivation to repeat that behaviour, because they think you’re just blowing steam.”
But this isn’t a reason to avoid praise altogether. It can be a big motivator when it’s honest, timely and specific.
Instead of saying this…
“You’re the best! We’d be lost without you!”
Try saying this…
“I’m impressed with the level of detail you put into this project to make sure the flexible work framework aligns with our strategy. You executed the stakeholder analysis particularly well, meaning this is going to be a very useful resource for us going forward.”
4. Is a sandwich or traffic light approach best?
The feedback sandwich – layering a positive point, then a negative one, then another positive – is now considered by some to be a contentious method.
In his widely shared article, ‘Stop Serving the Feedback Sandwich’, organisational psychologist Adam Grant argues the technique does more harm than good, as it can detract from what you’re trying to convey, or come off as insincere.
However, Lin says positive framing techniques like the sandwich technique can still be impactful – but she suggests adding an extra step.
“Get them to summarise what you’ve said,” she recommends. This shows your message has been understood and, if not, you can rephrase to get your point across.
As an alternative to the sandwich, Carpini suggests using a ‘traffic light system’ when giving feedback to peers.
This covers something done well, something to consider doing differently, and something to stop.
For example, if giving feedback on someone’s report, it could look like:
GREEN: The information you included in your report was well-researched and on point for the readership.
YELLOW: I thought that some of the data could be presented in graphs or tables to be more accessible and visually appealing.
RED: I found some of the writing to be quite dense. As readers are time-poor, maybe it would be better to use more bullet points.
5. Try feeding forward
For more formal kinds of feedback such as performance reviews, Lin says focusing on an employee’s strengths over weaknesses, and the future rather than the past, can help inspire better performance.
She recommends considering the ‘feedforward interview’, developed by Israeli researchers Avraham Kluger and Dina Nir, which draws on positive psychology and structured interviewing techniques to focus on what’s working for an employee and how managers can support them in the future.
“It’s framed as more of an interview experience in the sense that the supervisor will ask the employee, ‘What is your positive experience of working here?’” says Lin.
“When you ask your employee to think about that, it helps you as a manager to identify the positive aspects of the work.”
Lin recommends a three-step feedforward interview:
STEP 1: Begin by asking questions like:
- What do you most enjoy about working here?
- Could you tell me about a time you felt energised and at your best?
STEP 2: You should then ask about the conditions and context that enabled the positive experience:
- How did you make this positive moment happen?
- What did others do that enabled this?
- What were the conditions facilitated by the organisation?
STEP 3: End by focusing on the future:
- With those conditions in mind, do you think your current actions, priorities and plans will lead to success? And how can I support you to get there?
6. Create a ‘feeding up’ culture
Organisations that normalise feedback can reap the benefits of a more open and innovative culture. But Lin says this needs to be embedded on several fronts.
“A lot of companies say they have an open-door policy – they want to receive feedback from the bottom up – but the reality is it doesn’t happen,” she says.
“You need to look at different components in the organisation – your performance management system, your strategy, your culture. Do they align and reinforce each other in a way that will encourage people to give feedback?”
One way for leaders to create this type of culture is to actively solicit feedback from employees – which “takes people off pedestals,” says Carpini.
“[It makes people think] ‘Well, if I’m giving feedback to a leader, or if my manager is getting feedback, then I as an employee should also expect to receive that feedback and have those constructive discussions.’”
What are your best feedback tips? Let us know in the comment section.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the June 2022 edition of HRM Magazine.
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