Article (September-2019)


5 ways to make giving feedback easier

Shraboni Mazumder

Designation : -   Consultant in Strategic OD

Organization : -  Coach and Business Advisor, Bangalore


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In my interactions as a Consultant, Coach and Facilitator, I have come to understand that a lot of people find it as hard or sometimes even harder, to give negative feedback than to receive it. "I don't like confronting people." "I don't want to make people feel bad." "How will I work with her after I tell her negative things?" These are some of the common fears and questions. Consulting firm Zenger Folkman, however, found that while managers dislike giving critical feedback, all employees value hearing it - and often find it even more useful than praise. (HBR, Jun 30, 2014).

While our reaction to the thought of giving critical feedback to another person is often at an emotional level (feeling apprehensive and uneasy), I am suggesting in this article a rational approach to giving negative feedback. Applied consistently over time, thinking through the following 5 interrogatives before and during feedback, can make the experience easier and more effective. 

The Interrogative Approach to Feedback : What, Why, Who, When and How to give feedback

The 5 Interrogative words provide a useful mnemonic device to remember these pointers to giving feedback. 

What is the feedback? 

A fundamental shift in the feedback we give can make the whole process easier and more useful. Concentrate your feedback on the effect of an action, and not on the personality or character of a person. e.g. "When you arrived late for the meeting this morning, it meant we were not able to complete all the agenda items." (Rather than: "You are not punctual" or worse, "You are always late".) In a professional context, feedback should be given on those aspects of behaviour which have a positive or negative impact on another individual, team or organisational objective. Behaviours, therefore, must be measured on the yardstick of their relative impact and feedback given on those aspects which have the most negative impact. Other issues, which seem important (maybe because they are annoying to you or others!), may become irrelevant when the above yardstick is used. Furthermore, focussing on impact of behaviour implies we are not critiquing the person and her personality, making the process more objective. 

Why is it being given? 

An important question to ask and answer is the objective of giving the negative feedback. Is it to stop, start, or change certain behaviour, or to improve performance, or to resolve interpersonal issues? If a common objective is not established in the minds of the giver and receiver of feedback at the time of discussion, sharing feedback may not lead to the desired outcome. This will determine what is at stake for both parties. E.g. "I am sharing feedback on your performance for the last 2 months in order that we improve our order booking, and you are able to meet your half year targets."

Who is the recipient? 

Very often, the style of giving feedback is dependent on who is at the receiving end. In interdependent relationships, for example, sharing of feedback could focus on the impact of the negative behaviour on 'shared goals', which would be high stakes for both parties. E.g. "The poor quality of the materials used at the press release last week, has led the client to consider taking the business away from us to another PR firm." In such cases, the feedback would need to be more detailed than in low stake scenarios, or fairly independent relationships. Then, more specifically, how the feedback is delivered will also depend on the personality of and the nature of your relationship with the concerned person. Furthermore, research has shown that negative feedback can have different motivating effects depending on who receives the feedback. E.g. Negative feedback given to experienced people (who are keen to monitor their progress and who more or less know what they are doing), can help them do what it takes to get to the top of the game. They are, therefore, likely to be more receptive to negative feedback. For novices (who are evaluating their commitment to the job, career or organisation), however, positive feedback is more important to keep up motivation levels and negative feedback should be used judiciously. (How Positive and Negative Feedback Motivate Goal Pursuit: Ayelet Fishbach, Tal Eyal, and Stacey R. Finkelstein. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4/8 (2010)).

When to give feedback?

There's probably no one best time to give negative feedback. However, a few guidelines can help. One, it helps if there are specific or pre-defined points at which people are expecting feedback (e.g. project milestones or calendar based periods) which means people are likely to be more receptive to the process (if not the feedback itself). Two, ongoing feedback (as and when the behavior happens), is better than storing feedback and regurgitating all at once - it can have a strong de-motivating effect and significant points may get lost. Three, and very importantly, don't lump feedback with year-end promotion and increment conversations. This will create more emotional reactions. Keep these discussions separate.

How should feedback be given? 

Once the contextual issues as given above are taken care of, the following tips would help and guide the process of feedback :

Focus on the Action and its Impact : Do not pass judgments and evaluations on personality or character.

2 way process : It may seem counter-intuitive but feedback should be a two way process. Actively seeking to understand the other's viewpoint and the reasons for their behaviour can help them feel understood and give you a broader perspective.

Feedback vs. Improvements : Often, rather than giving straightforward feedback, we couch it as an improvement suggestion e.g. "I think it may be better to remain calm in a client interaction next time." This dilutes the message about the negative impact. Keep feedback and suggestions separate. Give feedback on impact first, and then follow up with recommendations if required.

Language : The language of feedback should be non-offensive. Avoid using words which have strong negative connotations or which are personality judgments (useless, domineering, poor performer, egoistic, not a team player). 

2nd hand feedback : Avoid passing on feedback received from other people. E.g. "I have heard you are not a team player." If you have heard this about an individual, spend some time in observing them in team setting, observe what specifically they are doing that is giving the impression of not being a team player, and give feedback on that behaviour. E.g. "When you shake your head and interrupt others while they are sharing ideas, it conveys a disregard for their contribution."

In conclusion, never view negative feedback in a vacuum. Giving negative feedback is easier if it is part of a process of ongoing dialogue with people with whom trust is constantly being built. This is achieved by having a balanced approach in ones dealings with people-there should be praise and recognition as well as critique (no sandwiches though!) on an ongoing basis.