As a leadership development coach, I have tons of conversations about feedback. And though I love to offer helpful tips on how to have better feedback conversations, I occasionally have, “Please tell me you/they didn’t actually say that” moments in my coaching sessions. (Don’t worry – I keep those thoughts to myself!) With those disastrous scenarios in mind, I’d like to offer five things to never do when giving feedback.
Don’t give them a sandwich.
Many of us were taught the “feedback sandwich,” a popular idea in management circles a few years ago. The idea was that you should soften critical feedback by “sandwiching” it between two pieces of positive feedback. This is just, well… nonsensical. First, it assumes the person has to be coddled before hearing critical feedback. Second, it puts you in the awkward position of saying something you don’t really mean in order to say something you do really mean. Third, and most importantly, it’s confusing to the person receiving the feedback. Let’s assume they are motivated to do a great job and continually improve their performance. To do so, they’ll need to listen to feedback and determine which behaviors they should repeat and which they should avoid in order to achieve success. So if they hear three pieces of feedback, which are they supposed to focus on? Should they be doing more of X? Doing less of Y? Does Z even matter? In addition to asking them to improve, we’ve now given them the task of sorting through three pieces of information to find the one that will make a real impact on their performance. Instead, focus on being direct but empathetic. Say what you mean. Your team members will appreciate it.
What if you do give direct, constructive feedback and your team member doesn’t receive it well? Stand firm with the feedback you’ve delivered and don’t backpedal. Don’t let the awkwardness or emotion of the moment make you say, “Well, you don’t always do that,” or “It doesn’t always happen.” Of course it doesn’t! But that doesn’t mean the feedback isn’t worth sharing – especially if you’re a people manager. It’s your job to be clear about your expectations and inform your team members when they are not meeting them. If your team member does have a negative or emotional reaction, simply say, “I know this may be hard to hear. I’m sharing this with you because I want you and our team to be successful. Would you like to hit pause on this conversation and resume it at a later time?” If you can’t move forward with the conversation in a way that will lead to actionable growth, it’s best take that pause and revisit the conversation once your team member has time to process their initial reaction.
Don’t give them a laundry list.
Don’t overwhelm them with a laundry list of things they’re doing wrong. Before you begin the conversation, think about this – what are the top one or two most actionable pieces of feedback you can share? Which will make the most positive impact on their performance and the success of your team? Deliver these and only these. If you find that there are additional issues you need to address, schedule another time to discuss them. This is one of the many reasons why feedback should be shared frequently – not just once or twice a year at performance review time. We can only process so much information at one time, especially if it’s critical or emotional for us. Give your team members a chance to address discrete issues and improve upon them when needed.
Don’t be a bully.
This should go without saying, but don’t yell, scream, insult, demean, or degrade your people. It is absolutely possible to share areas for improvement without being insulting or mean. I’m reminded of a leader I once worked with that would say, “Feedback is a gift,” then proceed to launch into a tirade of insults directed at her team. Don’t do this. It’s demeaning, ineffective, and does not motivate or inspire action. So how do you make feedback both kind and objective? Share specific instances of behavior and the impact they have on the team or on the work. For example, a bully would say, “You always dial in two minutes late to client calls – you’re so unprofessional!” But you, being the fantastic and kind manager you are, would say, “I noticed you dialed in two minutes late to that client call on Thursday. I’m concerned that being late affects our reputation with the client. I want them to see our whole team as professional and buttoned up. How can we make sure you can be on time for the next call?” Presenting feedback as part of a specific situation and then asking your team member to help find a solution creates a true partnership – one that will make their work better and help them feel invested in the process.
Don’t make it about you.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this – feedback isn’t about you. Feedback conversations can’t be about making sure you don’t feel awkward or guilty. They can’t be about you unloading everything you think is wrong or venting your frustration. Put your team member first. Give them the benefit of hearing exactly what they need to do more or less of to be successful. Then ask for their perspective – be open to the circumstances or choices that might be causing them to show up as less than their best.
In the words of Brené Brown, being clear is being kind. Say what you mean. Be specific about the problematic behavior and the impact it’s having on the business or on the team. If you consistently provide clear feedback designed to help your team member improve, you will become known as a leader who approaches their people with respect, dignity, and kindness… a leader who inspires growth and positive impact.
That’s what great leadership is all about.