5 Ways to Ensure your Feedback is not Misunderstood

Feedback.  A ubiquitous word of ‘management speak’, heard every day in organisations and so often misunderstood and poorly applied.  And yet feedback is one of the most important and powerful tools in a manager’s portfolio of leadership skills. A carefully delivered and value-laden comment can make a difference not only to performance, but to self-esteem, feelings of recognition and ultimately engagement.

As I work with global organisations, I often hear a comment or opinion delivered as if it were feedback, frequently doing more damage than originally intended. I find performance feedback is rarely delivered in the everyday business environment.  The perception is that it is better reserved for the formal performance review.  Is it this because it is too difficult? Are we too busy, or culturally find giving feedback awkward?

There are two forms of performance feedback:

  • Reinforcing feedback that strengthens, supports and encourages a repetition of expected performance or behavior.
  • Developmental feedback that highlights and corrects unwanted performance or behavior.

Very often, natural inclination is to focus more on offering developmental feedback to “fix” what isn’t working.  After all, isn’t that what a leader is there to do?

The problem is that leaders seldom get the balance right.  Countless studies show that reinforcing feedback more greatly influences performance than developmental feedback.  Yet, this somehow feels counter-intuitive.  This is compounded by typical training offered by organisations to their managers on how to deliver feedback, which tends to focus on the mechanics or procedure of delivering feedback as the starting point, rather than what it’s like for the feedback receiver.

At AchieveForum, we offer a few guiding tips for leaders committed to improving the quality and effectiveness of their feedback.

Start with the end in mind.  What are you trying to achieve by offering the feedback? If the intent isn’t about enabling the receiver to perceive the feedback as relevant, useful and valuable to them, then best not to start.

Assess the level of sensitivity to the content of the feedback.  This enables the feedback provider to ‘package’ the feedback and demonstrate thoughtfulness in opening the subject.

Always focus on separating the reinforcing and developmental feedback, so the receiver can be clear about what they are hearing.  In a performance review, both areas will be covered in the conversation, so start with all the reinforcing feedback first before moving on to the developmental, making sure that the two forms are clearly unconnected.  Avoid the natural inclination to bridge the two areas with words like ‘but’ and ‘however’, which have the effect in the receiver of discounting everything that was said before the developmental feedback.

Think about timing, surroundings and the personal style and preferences of the receiver. The sensitivity of the subject will help you decide where and when to offer the feedback and knowledge of individual preferences in receiving feedback will help you with how to offer it.  Some individuals will love basking in the glory of receiving reinforcing feedback in front of colleagues, whereas for others the cringe factor will be unbearable.

Hone your observational skills. Without this fundamental skill, the ability to provide high quality, relevant and valuable feedback is diminished.  It’s easy to spot performance that hasn’t met the mark.  It shows in results.  But it is particularly important to notice performance that is meeting or exceeding expectations and provide reinforcing feedback as soon after the event as possible. Over time, the impact of this leadership behavior far outweighs corrective comments.  It builds relationships, a climate of trust and open communication and makes developmental feedback, when delivered in a high quality and effective manner, more acceptable to the receiver.

Feedback.  A ubiquitous word that managed with skill can help transform an organisation into a highly engaged and productive one.


One thought on “5 Ways to Ensure your Feedback is not Misunderstood

  1. Nice article Holly.

    I wonder how many professional sports coaches would survive if they only gave development feedback or reinforcing feedback to their players once or twice a year during formal performance reviews. Not many, that’s for sure!

    The same applies in the corporate world. Strong leaders mimic the practices of great sports coaches, and provide both types of feedback on a continuous basis. Anything less deprives the organization and its employees from attaining full potential.

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