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5 Tips for Giving Effective Feedback

Drea Zigarmi EdD

September 6, 2017


Feedback is a skill! All great performance is shaped by good feedback, but how we deliver that feedback may impact our future ability to influence others in a positive way. Great leaders are intentional about how they deliver information about performance and realize the effective feedback is an essential skill for leaders to learn and develop others to higher levels of excellence.

Behavioral Scientific research reveals that feedback can, and does, result in having a positive impact on work-related behaviors when done correctly. Progressive organizations are relying more and more on People Analytics, a data-driven approach to evaluating specific elements of individual and organizational performance. As this shift to a more analytical approach to performance evolves, the need for effective and real-time feedback methods are increasingly more prevalent in the workplace. While technology is generating new methods for delivering feedback, it is important to understand how feedback should be given to incite positive and effective change throughout an organization.

Definition of Feedback

“Feedback is information about past behavior, given in the present, which may influence future behavior.” - Charlie Seashore

Watch a short video on the definition of feedback: 

In this definition, the act of giving feedback is a broad concept. Feedback can be given through many different mediums such as surveys, face-to-face or virtual conversations, etc. Also notice that the definition implies that feedback may or may not influence future behavior. The probability of how effective the feedback is will ultimately be up to the receiver. 

Here are 5 tips to consider the next time you are delivering feedback to a leader, direct report, or a co-worker. When consistently applying these five tips, you should see an increase in positive change of behavior toward desired outcomes, and ultimately better overall individual and team performance.

Tip 1: Understand Whose Choice It Is to Implement the Feedback.

The first misconception about feedback is that people assume that if they give someone feedback, the receiver is obligated to do something with it. Feedback should be considered a gift, not an expectation for immediate change—or any change at all. No matter how specific the feedback is delivered, how sincerely it’s delivered, or how relevant the feedback is to the receiver, it is still the choice of the receiver of the feedback as to whether they will do anything with it.

Tip 2: Be Clear On Whose Needs Are Being Met When Giving Feedback.

The effectiveness of feedback is reduced when you assume that the receiver needs to hear this feedback. Ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you have the receiver in mind before giving feedback:

  • Why do you need to give this person feedback?
  • Is it your role to give this person feedback?
  • Is it because of your needs that you’re attempting influence their behavior?
  • Is the desired behavior change because it will make you happy?
  • Are you delivering the feedback because you believe the receiver can become a better performer?
  • What emotional needs of yours will be met just by giving the feedback, no matter what the receiver does with the feedback?

After considering these questions, if you sense that only your needs are being met by giving the feedback, you probably should rethink the feedback you are about to give. Only when you know that there is a clear benefit for the receiver, then consider delivering the feedback.  

Tip 3: Set the Context of Your Feedback.

Have you ever received feedback from a boss or loved-one on an outcome you didn’t even know you were responsible for achieving? People have a psychological need for relevance, and that includes the feedback they receive from others and their environment. Feedback that seems to be coming from “left field,” or doesn’t seem relevant to what they’re trying to accomplish may create friction or distrust for those delivering the feedback. Effective feedback should be delivered in the context of trying to achieve an outcome or a goal that was agreed upon by both parties.

Before you give feedback, be sure that the information you are discussing is in the context of a goal or outcome you’ve both agreed you should be pursuing. This type of feedback is not only received more openly, it builds trust and respect for the person giving the feedback, and is more likely to produce higher performance when consistently given in context of an agreed upon goal.

Tip 4: Prepare to Give Quality Feedback.

Do you sometimes feel ignored when you are giving feedback? Or do you feel like feedback from your manager is completely unrelated to the focus of your meeting?  

The quality of feedback is often lacking, not only in context, as explored in Tip 3, but also in important information about the progress or challenges related to the goal being discussed.

*Research demonstrates that when feedback is thought through and even prepared in writing or notes before the meeting, the receiver is more likely to use the feedback to modify actions and behaviors toward their desired outcomes, naturally increasing performance over those who receive no feedback at all.

In order to give quality feedback, good leaders prepare feedback before giving it to the people they are trying to influence. Preparing to give good feedback includes:

  • Focusing on an agreed upon goal, project, or outcome the individual is attempting to achieve.
  • Gathering the relevant information on progress toward the goal needed to make the feedback worth listening to.
  • Assess the needs of the individual you are preparing to give feedback to, and determine if your feedback is aligned with their knowledge and ability to achieve the goal they are pursuing.
  • Make sure you keep the outcome of the goal in mind, without getting lost in the details of all of the urgent tasks related to making progress on the goal.

Tip 5: Use Descriptive Feedback.

Most people believe that to give effective feedback you need to make a statement about a behavior and then a judgement on whether that behavior is good or bad, fair or unfair, acceptable or unacceptable, etc.

Instead of giving personal feedback, try using pure feedback that is less evaluative and more observational. Pure feedback is the descriptive, non-judgmental delivery of objective, verifiable information, about the past performance or behavior of the person receiving the feedback. It communicates “just the facts”, and nothing more. Pure feedback allows the receiver to examine the facts, rather than trying to process personal feelings that come from judgment or evaluation, better enabling the individual will improve overall performance.

Pure Feedback Example:

According to the latest updates you’ve generated, you have submitted three of the five reports that you’ve committed to complete by the end of this quarter. I’ve noticed that of the three reports you’ve submitted, two of them appear to be incomplete. According to our timeline, you have two months left to submit all five completed reports.

Once you’ve delivered the pure feedback, be sure they agree with your assessment of the feedback you’re providing. If the perception of the feedback matches your description, you could proceed to asking them how you can help them move toward the desired outcomes. If their perceptions of the feedback do not match your description, review the facts or available data, review the goals, or discuss any motivational issues or roadblocks that may have arisen since the last time you’ve reviewed progress on this goal. Decide if you want to address any problem-solving activities or if they feel comfortable making progress on the desired outcome based on the observation.

In a knowledge based economy, regardless of what medium you use, it’s more important than ever to deliver quality feedback that helps individuals grow, learn, and thrive. Quality feedback is an essential, but misused leadership skill in today’s workplace. By following these 5 tips for giving effective feedback, you will increase employee engagement, have higher levels of internal and external customer service, and improve overall productivity toward your desired business objectives.