Giving Effective Feedback

an article by Barb McEwen

If there is one area that gives both managers and employees difficulty it is the need to give and accept effective feedback. It is one of the most crucial elements in assisting employees to improve their performance. It establishes a connection between what employees are doing and how their actions are perceived by others. Although receiving feedback is often under appreciated, those on the receiving end must occasionally be reminded that no feedback could be much worse.

Most managers consider themselves to be high achievers. Out of this mindset comes the need to want to move right into problem solving by directing staff to fix a problem in a specific way. This quick fix solution shouts loudly of their inexperience. More seasoned managers know the importance of effective communication and begin the feedback process by listening to their people. They encourage input into the situation in order to determine what may be interfering with getting the job done in the most effective way. Only after they have received input can they can gain a broader perspective of the situation and make appropriate recommendations for action.

Giving feedback is not about dishing out criticism; however, this often proves to be the case when managers find themselves under pressure. It is at these times that emotions get in the way of effective management and much is lost in the process.

Let's put this on a personal level. As a manager, you want to be liked by your employees. You have always resented those who misjudge you and who find fault without knowing the full story. You vowed that when you became a manager that you would not follow this course of action because you know this type of behavior does nothing to improve your performance but rather makes you mistrust people and devalue their capabilities.

The young carry-out boy was asked, "How long have you been working here?" He replied, "Ever since they threatened to fire me."

Although numerous books have been written about the essential qualities of good leaders, in my opinion, four qualities stand out: communication, trust, competence, and caring.

Effective leaders communicate clearly and inspire others to want to take action. Good leaders are good listeners. They pause often, and acknowledge the presence of others. Most importantly, they stop talking and listen attentively. They build trust through what is said and done. Their competence is judged on how they make decisions and lead people. And, lastly they are people savvy. They are genuinely interested in others and get the job done through collaboration. Good leaders are not Lone Rangers. They do not expect others to be "just like them." But rather, they recognize and leverage the talents of others for the benefit of the entire organization.

Remember, even though you, as a manager, may dislike giving feedback, your employees expect and need it from you. The complaints are not usually about the necessity to improve, but how the situation was inappropriately handled. Feedback should NOT be limited to the times you do Performance Evaluations but should be an ongoing process between a manager and her or his team. The results are good grades in the four qualities of effective leadership mentioned above.

Techniques for Effective Feedback

Rule of 3 x 3

Bert Decker is his book, You've Got To Be Believed to be Heard, talks about his 3 x 3 Rule when giving feedback. His method forces the manager to give balanced feedback by focusing on three strengths and three areas of development when analyzing performance and behavior. Capping it to three keeps the information succinct and easily remembered. Decker says, "Receiving three bits of feedback at a time allows people to make course corrections, like a guided missile, as they keep moving onward and upward." The goal is not to flatten someone's ego but rather to give them encouragement and to challenge them to improve.

Focus on Performance, Not Personality

The most effective way to discuss areas requiring improvement is to focus on observable actions, not attitudes. By limiting your criticism to what you see with your own two eyes, it will help you refrain from judgments that can trigger a defensive reaction. An example might be, "I have heard you making a number of personal telephone calls lately, is there something going on that you need our support?" That is better than saying, "You seem to be making a number of personal calls lately, and this has become very disruptive."

Certain Words Create Problems

Words that are dangerous when evaluating performance are always, never, and worst. If you let slip any of these words, you are overstating your case and not focusing on actual performance. Far better to say, "I've seen you do this three times this week."

New managers who are not accustomed to providing feedback will often sound accusatory when they are trying to assert their authority. If this is you, you will know you are on shaky ground if you find yourself using the word "you" followed by a negative comment. An example might be, "You didn't meet the deadline we agreed to." With this language, tensions will be inflamed and the result will be a resentful employee. Better to say, "We agreed to a Friday deadline. Can you tell me what problems you encountered?" This moves the employee into analyzing the situation rather than becoming defensive.

In giving feedback the use of the words such as Who, What, and Where are perfectly acceptable. However, I recommend you avoid using the word Why. Why sounds accusatory and puts the listener on the defensive. Examples: Why is this only coming to my attention now? Why have you not kept us informed? It is much better to say, "It is important that you keep us informed of your progress so we can give you the support you need to resolve these types of issues."

You can see we need to be careful about the words we use -- as they either build trust or destroy it.

Use Questions to Give You Leverage

It is often helpful to let employees discover for themselves what could be improved. This tactic works especially well with high-ego performers who automatically resist any input they get as negative. Many new managers make the mistake of talking so much that employees feel like they are being scolded as a preschooler.

It is more beneficial to ask questions to flush out the situation. Prod the employee, in a non-threatening way, into evaluating his or her own performance in an area where you have concern. Stay totally involved in the process by allowing the employee to make recommendations for their own improvement. Learning how to listen attentively and effectively question are valuable tools that are be taught within the coaching process and all clients are encouraged to practice over time. These skills define good leadership. They help you get a broader perspective on a given situation and avoid any number of common mistakes.

Be Supportive

There is a fine line between advice and support. Advice involves telling someone how to solve a problem. Support on the other hand, makes the other person feel valued. It is well intentioned and shows a willingness to share observations and seek information to help the employee to succeed. It does not assert superiority or position. Like a friendly but curious detective, you want to investigate behavior rather than take a position that assigns right-wrong labels to a person.

Leaders are Always in Training

Just as professional athletes are in year-round training because they desire continuous improvement, so too should managers be in continuous training. Personal Executive Coaching has proven long-term benefits because executives learn to integrate the skills and apply them on the job. If you expect the best from your people then setting high expectations for yourself is both natural and positive. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop Barb an e-mail or give her a call.


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Barb McEwen is a Master Executive Coach and Organizational Strategist who works with corporations and individuals worldwide. As founder of 20/20 Executive Coaching and 20/20 Executive Women she has spent the past twelve years working with high potential individuals to help them hone their leadership and management skills. Contact Barb at