Not long ago, I was in a meeting with the leadership team at a new client. The company is an industry leader in their specialized market, and they have a new boss. The new CEO joined the company to lead the company on a dramatic growth plan. This plan includes doubling the size of the company in two years. And remember, they’re already an industry leader.
The new CEO came in with the belief that in order to achieve this goal, the leadership team was going to have to pull together and be more effective in the way that they lead the company together. That’s why I was there with one of my partners, helping to provide a structured and organized approach to making this leadership team a better leadership team.
As the conversation moved from one topic to another, we eventually landed on the topic that nearly all of these types of conversations bump into: how can I be better at providing more real-time feedback in order to help people I work with achieve more?
Although that was the nature of the conversation, the way that it came out was a little more pointed and frankly a lot more skeptical. At one point, one of the senior executives asked something pointed like, “But how do I give negative feedback, because they just don’t want to hear it.” He then turned to my partner and me for the answer, and then the rest of the team turned to us for the answer, and I said something like, “First of all, there isn’t one way to do this, there are A LOT of ways to do this, and second, you know how to do this. Even if you don’t do it all the time, you’ve given good constructive feedback before. And others have given you good constructive feedback that taught you things and made you better at your job. So, you definitely know how to do this.”
And I went on to tell them I could prove that they already knew how to give good, constructive feedback. So to prove it, we came up with a list of all the ways we could think of that we can give feedback to help the person getting the feedback (the feedback-ee) hear it and do something valuable with it.
This whole exercise took 10 minutes and at the end, this is more or less what the list looked like:

  1. Make sure that you make your critical feedback about the behavior, not the person. Go the extra step and let them know that you think well of them (assuming you do), but have concerns about some aspect of their work.
  2. Give your colleague the benefit of the doubt. Don’t approach them like you expected them to blow it, approach them like you are surprised that you have to give them this feedback.
  3. Approach the feedback as a way to make them better rather than a way to punish them. Let them know that you believe they can do better.
  4. Think about who you are giving feedback to and tailor it so that they can best hear the feedback. Do not change your feedback, but the way that you present it to them. You know your people; don’t let this change that.
  5. Show that you are open to their point of view on the topic, and if they are being defensive, help them see they are being defensive. Getting mad at their defensiveness will almost never help them see that they are being defensive.
  6. Be willing to be vulnerable and show the person to whom you are giving feedback that you can be self-critical too.
  7. Tell the person you’re giving feedback to that you believe in them and their skills. It doesn’t hurt to be surprised by their error or underperformance if you are really surprised by it. But if you’re not surprised, don’t focus on the fact that you might have expected their error.
  8. Turn the feedback meeting into a two-way dialogue. Determine whether they feel that the expectations they are being held to are realistic and achievable (and also that they know the expectations they are being held to).
  9. Offer support and show them that you are “in it with them,” without doing their work for them. It’s ok to provide additional resources or to help clear unanticipated hurdles that are in their way but don’t do their job for them.
  10. When you can, give critical feedback in a 1:1 setting, rather than in a group.
  11. Also when you can, give your coworker a “heads up” that you are going to bring up a topic in a meeting that might not reflect on them so well. Do this individually before bringing up the topic in front of a group of people.
  12. Manage the strength of your emotional reaction. If you go too far in your feedback or get too worked up about it, be sure to apologize.
  13. At the outset, let the person know that you have some critical feedback and that you would like them to try and stay open to the conversation and do what they can to avoid becoming defensive.
  14. At the end of the conversation check in with the person you give feedback and see if they have been tracking your input. Use active listening techniques for this. Or to make it simpler, ask them what they heard.
  15. Check if the feedback has damaged your relationship. This is can be referred to as an “are we good” conversation.
  16. As often as possible, do not give highly critical feedback via email. It is much better to give highly critical feedback in person. If you’re not in the same location, you can use the phone, but Skype or FaceTime are much better.
  17. Let past problems and mistakes go. Use the past to instruct in the feedback conversation, not to pile on or punish.

In the end, the leadership team seemed satisfied by their own work.

They understood that they really did know how to give good constructive feedback and that their next task was to do it consistently.

You might think that we got off track from our initial goal to assist this leadership team in creating a strategic plan to function better and achieve significant growth, but the truth is, being able to provide valuable constructive feedback to your team is foundational to a successful business.
Most of us probably would have been able to come up with a lot of this list too because most of us are compassionate humans and have received feedback before. It’s not that we don’t know how; it’s that we don’t want to because it’s hard. Having this list pre-made will hopefully help, and if it’s still harder than you feel like it should be, drop us a line.

John Philbin

John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).