How to Give Effective Feedback—A Communication Superpower

Giving effective feedback is a powerful skill. When done well, it can be a big performance booster. When done poorly, a disaster bringing fear, discomfort, and resentment.

At its best, feedback is a great gift that can build trust and respect. At its worst, a spiral to anguish and despair. So tread carefully.

According to decades of research from Dr. John Hattie (2008), feedback is among the most powerful influences on levels of achievement.*

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”Bill Gates

Unfortunately, few people have learned how to give effective feedback or take the time to do it well, in part because of the fear associated with hurting feelings or damaging a relationship.

Through feedback you can provide information about how someone is doing on the way to reaching a goal. But it can also derail their learning, motivation, and performance if not handled well.

Note that feedback is not advice: “You need more examples in your report” is an example of advice, not feedback. Here are examples of feedback:

  • (Golf coach to a golfer): “Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn’t really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball.”
  • (Reader to a writer): “The first few paragraphs kept my full attention. The scene painted was vivid and interesting. But then the dialogue became hard to follow. As a reader, I was confused about who was talking, and the sequence was puzzling, so I became less engaged.” (Source: Grant Wiggins.)*

Here are some best practices for giving feedback:*

  1. Private Setting: The place where you give feedback should be private and neutral. Make the recipient as comfortable as possible, and avoid whenever possible public scrutiny that will take focus off the issue at hand. In-person feedback is much better than written, because so many important nuances get lost in emails and text.
  2. Mindset: Check your mindset to ensure that you come to the feedback session with a mindset of service, kindness, and openness, and that you’re presuming the best about the person (e.g., that they’re doing the best they can, or there may be obstacles that you don’t know about). Begin with a mindset of wanting the person to thrive and excel while feeling trusted and supported.
  3. Positive Experience: Make it a positive experience for the recipient. The purpose of feedback is to help the person improve. Note that feedback should contain positive and negative information about how their actions are affecting their progress toward goals. Simple praise is not enough. Strive for a high ratio of positive to negative observations to ensure the response is not dejection and thus counterproductive. Be kind and considerate. Developing your emotional intelligence is essential.
  4. Goal-Referenced: Indicate whether the person is on track toward goals or in need of a change. If the latter, brainstorm with them ways to get back on track.
  5. Specific and Actionable: Help the recipient answer the question, “What specifically should I do more or less of next time?” (Thus, “You did that incorrectly” or “Good job” do not cut it.) The Center for Creative Leadership points to the “SBI method”:
    • Situation: Describe the situation.
    • Behavior: Describe the actual, observed behavior being discussed. Stick to the facts and avoid opinions and judgments.
    • Impact: Describe the results of the behavior.
  6. User-Friendly: Feedback must be accepted by the recipient to be helpful. View it from his/her perspective and present it clearly. Note the most important elements (not a long list of items without priorities).
  7. Timely and Ongoing: The sooner the better, so the actions are fresh. Too many managers save feedback for performance reviews, which is way too late. Feedback should be frequent and ongoing.

“A global study of over 1,000 organizations in more than 150 countries found that more than one-third of all employees had to wait more than three months to get feedback from their manager; nearly two-thirds wish they received more feedback from their colleagues.” James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge

  1. Curious and Open: Invite their perspective and input. Search for mutual agreement and be open to their ideas. Ask them what ideas they have for moving forward. Ensure that they maintain a sense of accomplishment, competence, and agency.
  2. Humble: Research has shown that people aren’t good raters of other people’s performance (or their own). We vastly overestimate our ability to do this well. (It’s called the “idiosyncratic rater effect.”) We assume we are clear and correct in our observations and judgments, but this is often much less true than we think.

Why Feedback Gets Derailed. To be effective at giving feedback, we must step back and understand why it is so difficult and dangerous. Think back to when you received feedback from a teacher in front of class, or from an intense and critical boss. Feedback gets derailed when:

  • It focuses on the person and not the actions
  • It comes across as one-sided, with the giver of feedback assuming they are right, they have all the relevant information, or they alone have the key to the only way forward
  • It feels like an attack, not a gesture of solidarity and mutual commitment to improvement

When giving feedback, we’re not just in the land of communication and leadership but also of psychology and neuroscience. Our brains are brilliant at discounting or rejecting feedback. Our egos get engaged. We get defensive. We deflect attention away from our flaws and mistakes. We focus on what we want to hear and block out what we don’t.

“When we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn’t good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn’t good at giving it.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well 

We discredit or attack the one giving feedback, judging them extra harshly to protect our precious and wounded ego. Much of this is unconscious (an automatic triggering of our “fight or flight” response in sympathetic nervous system), so even harder for us to avoid (without strong self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness practices).

The activation of this part of our brain reduces our ability to take in new information and impairs our learning, thereby defeating the very purpose of feedback. Professor Richard Boyatzis summarizes research noting that critical feedback engages strong negative emotion, which “inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment.”*

The key is avoiding these negative triggers and taking care to engage more productive parts of the brain: the parasympathetic nervous system, associated with “a sense of well-being, better immune system functioning, and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness.” (Boyatzis)*

The way to do this is to notice what people did well, encourage them to reflect on and continue it, and add nuances or ideas to the understanding of the drivers of positive performance. Note what worked and ask the person what they were thinking or doing at the time. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall say in “The Feedback Fallacy” in Harvard Business Review, “replay each small moment of excellence to your team.”

“As a leader, part of your job is to consistently let people know what they are doing well to reinforce those positive behaviors and to build emotional capital. Positive feedback makes work more enjoyable and more productive.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

The other problem is that some people walk around giving unsolicited advice. The assumption is that they’re right, others are wrong, others need correcting, and the act of doling out advice is like a gift from above. More often, though, it trounces on people’s feelings and makes things worse. People don’t want to be fixed. They want to feel supported and valued as they go through their own journey, including wins, losses, and learnings. We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

Receiving Feedback. Feedback is a two-way street. It must also be received well. That requires an ability to listen well: focusing intently on what the other person is saying (not using the time while they’re speaking to think through your counterpoints) and being open to their point of view (not getting defensive). When listening well, we ask questions, share our feelings, and summarize points while checking for accuracy and understanding. The conversation builds naturally as we go to new places together.

“Really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. … Hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful… Constantly seek criticism. A well thought out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold.” -Elon Musk

“On the Leadership Practices Inventory… the statement on which leaders consistently report engaging in least frequently is ‘asks for feedback on how my actions affect other people’s performance.’ Openness to feedback, especially negative feedback, is characteristic of the best learners.”James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge

Giving and receiving feedback well is a communication superpower. Use it wisely.

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*Sources:

  • Leo Babauta, “How to Give Kind Criticism, And Avoid Being Critical,” Zen Habits, undated
  • Ken Blanchard Companies, “Take the Fear Out of Feedback,” Perspectives, 2016
  • Richard Boyatzis, “Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights,” Ivey Business Journal, January / February 2011
  • Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, “The Feedback Fallacy,” Harvard Business Review, March 2019
  • Center for Creative Leadership, “Immediately Improve Your Talent Development with the SBI Feedback Model,” Leading Effectively articles, undated
  • John Hattie, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (Routledge, 2008)
  • Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone, “Why Even the Best Feedback Can Bring Out the Worst in Us,” BBC, March 8, 2017
  • Grant Wiggins, “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback,” ASCD: Educational Leadership, September 2012

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

The Power of Empathy in Leadership

These days, we ask much of our leaders. Organizations and governments are under great pressures to perform, and these days leaders are responsible for crisis management during a pandemic with its attendant economic destruction and social and emotional anxiety.

More and more we are realizing that empathy is a powerful aspect of leading well.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position). Researchers have identified several types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s mental state.
  • Emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states, including a concern for others when they are suffering.
  • Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in our nervous system that entails physically feeling someone else’s pain (e.g., getting a sense of physical pain when you see someone else get hurt).

According to the research, when managers exhibit the most empathy toward their team, they are viewed as better performers. What’s more, when we exhibit empathy as leaders, we build trust with others because they see that we are paying attention to them and recognizing their issues and concerns.

When we empathize, we relate to and connect with people, and that contributes toward building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

According to Roman Krznaric in Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, empathy “is not just about seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s the cornerstone of smart leadership. The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships….”

Great leaders focus not just on vision and execution but also on building healthy and close relationships with people they work with.

Empathy shows up in several modern leadership frameworks. For example, it is one of the ten characteristics of a servant leader and one of the components of emotional intelligence (and its social awareness aspect).

In our “triple crown leadership” model for how to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, it shows up in our “head and heart” practice, with leaders hiring, developing, and rewarding people not just for “head” skills like knowledge and skills but also for “heart” factors, including empathy. What’s more, we can view leadership as a quest (e.g., to achieve a higher purpose). But as entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn notes, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”

Recently, we have seen troubling examples of narcissism in leaders, including an excessive need for admiration as well as a disregard for others’ feelings, interests, or safety.

That is a real shame, because it keeps the focus on the leader as opposed to the larger purpose and the people in the organization and those they serve.

The best leaders leverage empathy to understand their customers much more deeply and thus lead their teams in creating products and services that solve real problems—and in seeing opportunities for innovation that others miss.

Empathy is an essential aspect of effective leadership and a powerful human trait that binds us together in the ups and downs of life and work.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change.

Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.