To be effective, feedback conversations should be empowering. They should provide useful, timely and constructive guidance to help the individual to change their mindset and behaviour. Yet, many managers struggle with feedback conversations, especially those that involve providing constructive or corrective guidance. They fear stirring up conflict and worry about undermining their relationship with the individual. They often end up falling into one of the following traps:
Avoidance – they avoid the conversation in the hope that the problem will resolve itself or won’t cause too many problems. However, avoidance often leads to problems becoming amplified and resentment arising from inaction growing among other team members.
Using the popular “sandwich approach” – they dilute constructive feedback by layering it between two ‘slices’ of positive feedback, at the outset and end of the conversation. This typically results in an ineffective performer selectively hearing only the positive messages and leaving the meeting believing they’ve got little or nothing to improve.
Over-criticism – they use an autocratic, critical tone. They generalize their critical feedback to the person’s performance, and even personality, rather than focusing it on the behaviour that needs to be modified. This is very risky, as it can leave people feeling angry, insulted, and demotivated. At worst, it can lead to a messy termination process involving claims of bullying and unfair dismissal.
A 6-step process for effective feedback conversations
Based on decades of experience helping managers and leaders deal with challenging feedback conversations, I recommend applying the following 6 steps:
1. Use a framework to guide your feedback – Follow a straightforward process like our AIM Feedback Framework™ (see below) to ensure your feedback is candid, concise and maximizes the likelihood of achieving lasting change.
2. Focus on the behaviour, not on the person – Ensure you don’t criticize or judge the person. Be specific and clear about the behaviour that you would like to see modified.
3. Keep it brief – Feedback receivers prefer crisp and clear messages so don’t overtalk, or provide lengthy, rambling justifications.
4. Give the person an opportunity to clarify – Ensure you check that the person understands the feedback. Invite them to summarize what they’ve heard and give them an opportunity to clarify anything they don’t understand.
5. Acknowledge the person’s concerns – Calmly allow the person to express their point of view and any feelings triggered by the feedback. Don’t react if they express anger or defensiveness; listen empathetically and acknowledge their concerns. If their anger persists, invite them to take a break to reflect on the feedback for 24 hours before reconvening.
6. Invite and provide suggestions – Invite the person to come up with options that will improve their performance. Explore these in an open, constructive way, without passing judgment or allowing your preferences to dictate the course of action agreed. Provide specific suggestions to help the person improve. To encourage ownership and commitment, ask the person how helpful these ideas are and whether they can think of any other options that might be better or build on the suggestions provided.
Use feedback to magnify strengths and positive behaviours
Most of us are conditioned to focus more on the negatives we see rather than the positives. This is what psychologists call the “negativity bias”. It is therefore important for managers to consciously learn to spot and magnify strengths and effective behaviours.
By giving positive feedback and praise, managers will promote progress, excellence, and employee engagement. When people feel they are valued and their progress and achievements are recognized regularly by their manager, they are more likely to feel motivated and exert higher levels of discretionary effort (i.e., effort over and above the required level).
AIM Feedback Framework™
What action did they take and in what situation did it happen?
“In the project meeting yesterday, I noticed you interrupted Joe several times.”
What was the impact of the person’s actions (on their RESULTS, RELATIONSHIPS, and REPUTATION)
People don’t intend to act in a way that undermines their results, relationships and/or reputation. Remember that their intentions are typically positive, even when their behaviour causes unintended negative consequences. Unless the evidence points strongly in favour of malicious or negative intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they intended to act positively in the first place.
“I was frustrated that Joe couldn’t make his points fully and we missed out on his valuable input.”
What does the person need to modify/magnify to strengthen their effectiveness and results?
Thinking about what the person can magnify is especially important when giving positive feedback on how the person can build on their strengths and effective behavioural patterns.
Offer specific suggestions and guidance to help the person modify/magnify their behaviour.
“When we meet with the team in future, it would be great to see you give Joe an opportunity to make his points without interrupting. You could also encourage him to contribute his opinion from time to time as we both know he is an introvert.”