Careers Excelled Organisational Psychology

How to deliver feedback well!


Workplace Psychologist Rebecca Cushway from Careers Excelled shows us how.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were treading ever so lightly with someone in order to not offend, and then all of a sudden; “boom” – you lashed out and told the person exactly what you really thought?

Delivering feedback, whether it is positive or negative can be challenging. So why is it so difficult to say what we really want to say? Most people are concerned about how the other person will receive the feedback. What we are really afraid of is whether the recipient is able to separate the message we give them from our relationship with them, which may potentially turn sour. So how do we prevent this from happening?

As leaders and managers of people we need to separate the dependence of a message from our relationship with our people. Good leaders deliver both good and bad news. It’s not the nature of “the news” that determines the quality of the relationship with the leader; it’s the fact that the leader is willing to add value by telling the truth and using it to develop their people.

Separating messages from our relationships with people requires the application of five key elements:

  • Being Specific
  • Being Timely
  • Being Relevant
  • Being Balanced
  • Supporting Self Esteem

Being Specific

Most people don’t like to be pigeon holed, particularly when they can’t see the reason for it. So telling John that he is disorganised doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than either aggravating him because we do not offer any help in this statement, or giving him no reason to change his ways. Specific feedback focuses on the behaviour that we see or don’t see, not the label. Focusing on the behaviour is more useful because we have some access to getting an improvement. Perhaps if we told John “to make a list or a daily plan and setting deadlines” we might get the result we both want. Being specific requires the identification and communication of current and desired behaviour.

Being Timely

Some managers treat giving feedback like a transaction account. If people make enough deposits without any withdrawals, they are rewarded with measly interest at the end of the month, quarter or year! On the other hand they get charged fees for every withdrawal. More often that not, managers respond to negative feedback and save the positive for a rainy day and worst still, don’t deliver any feedback until the pay review!

Ideally timely feedback is given shortly after the event. This helps people to make the connection between the feedback and a potential solution.

Another important point on being timely is that the feedback is given in response to actual events and not in response to what is diarised in your calendar. Feedback is only meaningful when it relates to what is actually happening.

Being Relevant

Good leaders question their own actions. Good leaders also know that their feedback needs to pass the relevance test. Sometimes we are tempted to “open the floodgates” and use the event that has recently occurred to give every piece of “saved up feedback”. If the feedback we are giving is not relevant to the situation at hand, it is easy for the recipient to feel as though they have been targeted or “picked on”. This is where the message and the relationship become entangled, dissolving trust.

To ensure that your feedback is relevant:

  1. Focus the feedback on the event past recently (not every other event)
  2. Encourage the recipient to thing about the impacts of their actions (before you tell them what those impacts are).

Being Balanced

When people are saccharin sweet it can be nauseating. When people can only find negative things to say it can be exhausting and demoralising. Creating balance in the feedback we give is important if our messages are going to be taken seriously by our people.

A technique that can be very useful in feedback situations is called debriefing as it facilitates a balanced discussion about a particular event. The leader asks questions in the discussion to encourage thoughtful evaluation and ownership by the employee. Typical debriefing questions include:

  1. Tell me about the situation?
  2. How did you go in the situation?
  3. What worked well for you?
  4. What didn’t work so well?
  5. What were the impacts on you and others?
  6. Would there be anything you might do differently next time?

Supporting Self Esteem

Our goal when delivering feedback whether positive or negative is to change or enhance the behaviour rather than focusing on “changing the person”.

One of the ways we can support the self esteem of our employees in feedback is by being conscious of our language. The key here is to understand when we personalise and when we depersonalise the feedback message.

Personalising the feedback message requires us to give the credit of the result to the individual. For example, “John you did a great job, well done!” Here John is the direct subject of the feedback.

Depersonalising the feedback attributes the result to the action taken by the individual, and not the individual themselves: “John the schedule did not get in on time because a list wasn’t made up and there didn’t seem to be a plan in place… What do you think you might do differently next time?” Here John can see that “failure” is related to his actions rather than himself. In addition relating the result to action gives the employee some access to changing their behaviour next time which is the outcome we all want.

Good leaders are always aware of their true motives when they are delivering feedback. If we simply are angry and want to vent, chances are the feedback message will be taken that way. It is important to be in a constructive mind space before giving feedback. A useful thing to remind ourselves of before engaging an employee is that if they didn’t make mistakes and made the “right” choices, they wouldn’t need leaders.

Rebecca Cushway is a workplace psychologist and General Manager of Careers Excelled. Written for GWP Magazine.

Comments are closed.