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“Robert, can you step into my office for a minute?”

How to give effective feedback – and get it

It’s happened again: Your team member Lucy has arrived at your regular weekly meeting unprepared.

Well, not completely unprepared: She is ready to talk about one important issue – but not the other two agenda items that you asked everyone to be ready to discuss and resolve.

As the meeting winds up, you consider how to handle this troubling pattern.

Do you…

A)     Say nothing … telling yourself that it’s not worth the stress of a confrontation?

B)     Mention it in the hallway as people are leaving, hoping to be casual?

C)     Send her an email a few days later that lays out your concern?

D)     Start to document your disappointments for her annual performance review, scheduled…um…six months from now?

Many managers I’ve met would admit they could answer “all of the above” on some occasions or fall short in other ways of their goal to provide candid, timely, helpful feedback.

It is not easy to give effective feedback – the constructive and sometimes difficult information people need to get better at their jobs.  In The Wunderlin Company’s work with its clients, this is an issue we encounter continually – and address in our executive coaching work.

I’ve been guilty myself.  A couple years ago, one of my colleagues told me: “Karen, I’m worried that if you ever had negative feedback to give me, I would just never hear from you again.”

He was right.  When members of my team didn’t perform to expectations, my tendency was to simply avoid using them.

So that conversation was a turning point for me.

A challenge for most managers

If we know that honest and timely feedback is critical, why don’t we do it?

A few years ago, I posted that question to the online business community of LinkedIn. Here were some of the most common responses:

"We don’t know how to provide good feedback. We lose focus about why it’s important."

"We don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. So we don’t do it in a timely way, and in the end, it becomes less relevant."

"We aren’t judged ourselves on whether we give feedback regularly and effectively. Though, we all would admit that we appreciate constructive feedback ourselves."

Judge gavel wunderlinThe answer: a new framework is needed.  

You know the expression “less is more?” With feedback, more is more.

Forget this version of feedback: the judge delivering the verdict.

Embrace instead this picture: the coach who aims to give continuous feedback to help individuals and organizations become stronger performers.

As we coach, feedback becomes a routine part of our supervisory styles.  The more often we do it, the easier it becomes to do – and the easier it is for an employee to respond in natural give-and-take.

Or as a recent Fast Company magazine story said:  “Give feedback consistently so that your employees hear the good with the bad and make improvement a matter of routine.”


Keep up regular informal conversations about how things are going.  Make it a practice to ask questions that encourage give-and-take and self-assessment with teams and individuals: “How did that work out? What went well? What would you do differently?”

Maintain flexibility and an open mind. You learn more and get more buy-in if you engage in a real conversation, suggests Jean-François Manzoni in the Harvard Business Review article, “A Better Way to Deliver Bad News.” Its case studies – guaranteed to make you wince -- illustrate the perils of entering feedback conversations with a scripted plan that does not take into account an employee’s perspective.

wunderlin presentThink of feedback as a gift, suggests another Fast Company magazine article.  You are helping people develop skills. Share your own experiences. Help develop a plan for improvement. Make it clear you are on their side, working toward success.  With our coaching clients, we frequently create a “coaching grid” that lists each direct report and one or two specific development needs for each person so they stay top-of-mind.

Be positive.  State the outcome you want to see, being as descriptive as possible. Give your colleague the chance to ask questions and get clarification. Studies show people are more willing to accept feedback when it’s backed by fairness and respect – and a partnership for improvement.

Be timely.  Hesitation is natural if you need to formulate your thoughts. “Sometimes you are so emotional that it makes sense to wait,” says Rick Maurer, author of Feedback Toolkit. “Let your gut be your guide.” Practice giving feedback promptly, say, within 24 hours. If it helps, focus first on one staff member – and get it right with that person. Find an appropriate time and place, says Maurer. “Don’t give important feedback in the hallway.”

Praise more than you criticize. Be generous and public with praise – and private and measured with suggestions for improvement, says Robert C. Pozen in the Harvard Business Review’s “The Delicate Art of Giving Feedback.It’s important to find the right balance in giving positive and negative feedback – perhaps 5 to 1, that is, 5 encouraging reactions to 1 suggestion for improvement, similar to a ratio often cited as healthy in marital relationships.

If you like a templateconsider SKS, a formula Thomas Jr. DeLong, a management professor at the Harvard Business School, says a mentor once suggested. It stands for what you should stop doing, what you should keep doing, what you should start doing.

Forget “the sandwich.”  It may be easier to say something positive, insert what needs improvement, then say something positive again – that classic way of delivering a pointed message. The problem is that it doesn’t work. People tend to remember the positives and don’t get the point.

Why feedback matters

In today’s fast-paced work environments, it is easy to underestimate the importance of giving feedback.

It’s easy to quickly move on to the next challenge when things are going well, taking it for granted. The culture becomes: “No news is good news.”

But in today’s work environments, with tight staffs and more to accomplish, you need employees at their best: Good feedback will get them there.

And it will help your productivity and profitability, suggests a recent Gallup study, “The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders.” It argues that only 1 in 3 U.S. workers is “actively engaged.”

That engagement is best created by managers with personal warmth – the coach, not the harsh judge– says a new Harvard Business Review article “Connect, Then Lead.” 

The authors weigh the classic Machiavellian conundrum of whether it’s better for a leader to be feared or liked.

“A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.”

male shoe is on the other footWhen the shoe is on the other foot…

You want to be the kind of staff member who welcomes feedback – and makes the most of it.

In a Fast Company article, consultant Joseph Folkman shares “Nine ways to get over your feedback fears.”

My favorite is his suggestion to use feedback as a kind of “career GPS.”

Welcome the information it provides about your direction – especially if you get the similar messages from multiple sources.

The best response to feedback: “Thank you, tell me more.”

Karen Wunderlin's Signature


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