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I was going to give you feedback but…

I was going to give you feedback but…

How a leader provides feedback is one of those distinguishing factors between being a leader by title and being a truly effective leader.  The delivery of frequent feedback allows for continuous learning and performance improvement, something that we all want in our companies and personal lives.  Delivering feedback can be difficult to do. Time constraints can be an issue however, this is not the biggest barrier to giving meaningful feedback; how we give the feedback is.  Have you ever had someone tell you that it is not what you said, but how you said it, that caused an adverse reaction?  I definitely have.  How you deliver feedback, or what you say, is a critical factor for how effective the feedback will be.

Let’s first define feedback and discuss the two types that lead to desired outcomes.  Feedback is information about performance that helps the performer improve.  The key word in that definition is helps, by helps I mean that it is specific enough that the performer knows to repeat the behavior again if it’s desired or what adjustments he/she can make to improve performance.  The two types of helpful feedback are: Positive and Constructive.  Positive feedback is specific information that confirms to the performer that he/she is doing the right thing.  Constructive feedback is specific information about a less desirable behavior that decreases the likelihood it will occur again while also giving a description of a more desirable behavior to take its place. Both types of feedback help the person by pinpointing the desired behavior.

Used alone they have a strong effect, however when combined, they can actually negatively affect the desired impact on behavior(s).  A common example is “You did a good job, but…”  When you combine positive and constructive feedback it sends a mixed message and the word “but” acts as a verbal eraser for everything that came before it.  The performer can be left confused or frustrated about their performance which is not helpful. When in doubt, keep positive and constructive feedback separate.  There may, however, be times when this is not possible.  To prevent using the erasers (but or however) and instead increase the effectiveness of your feedback here are three suggestions:

Separate positive and constructive feedback: As noted above, this is the ideal approach—deliver positive feedback to the performer independent of constructive feedback. Tell the performer what you liked and leave it at that. The next time the person has the opportunity to engage in that behavior, provide corrective feedback as a prompt for what they can try differently.  The feedback can be in the form of “This time, I’d like to see you…” or “Before you do “x” you might want to try “y” instead…”

Constructive feedback, followed by positive feedback later: For serious issues, start by delivering only the corrective feedback so the performer is clear as to what they have done wrong or what they need to do differently.  Then watch for instances of improved performance and follow up with positive feedback.  Remember to keep shaping in mind—look for successive approximations and positively reinforce those.

Combining positive and constructive feedback: When you are working on issues of a less serious nature and spreading out your feedback isn’t practical, start by delivering positive feedback, then pause to allow the performer to understand what they’ve done well. After the brief pause, provide the constructive feedback as a recommendation that offers the performer a way to tweak or improve on what they have done.  This can be in the form of a simple- “You might also try this…” or “I saw someone do it this way…”. When it comes to improving your skills at delivering feedback of any kind, these three approaches will help the performer to clearly understand what they’ve done well and what they need to improve upon.  Each of these options prevents the use of the dreaded “but” that plagues our ability to give effective feedback.  Remember, the purpose of feedback is to help the performer improve.  By removing verbal erasers your feedback will be much more clear and of higher value to the performer.


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Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.

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