Feedback – a gift of information

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about giving feedback, not least because I have been running training in this area and have been commissioned to write a book which may well include a section on it.

When I first started work, we used to talk about ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feedback and we were taught to use the ‘positive sandwich,’ in which negative comments should be enveloped between two slices of positive feedback.  This became something of a joke at work, and we would declare “That’s a nice shirt you’re wearing; your work’s appalling but the shirt is nice.”

While the principle of softening the blow of ‘negative’ feedback may be laudable, it dilutes the real message.  If someone has not performed as expected, it’s useful that they know that.  Now this doesn’t mean being horrible to someone and it certainly doesn’t mean blaming them.  Instead it should be delivered in a way that helps them to understand the effects of their performance and encourages them to do something positive about it.

Stepping back from all this, feedback itself is a gift of information.  When I receive a gift, I can choose to cherish it, save it for later, give it away or sell it on eBay. The gift is neither positive or negative – it’s just a gift.  Feedback is not intrinsically positive or negative, when delivered in the right way.  So often, new managers find themselves tied in knots at the thought of giving feedback which may be construed as negative.  It’s worst for the managers who have worked in a team and then promoted to be the team leader.  Giving feedback feels like slapping their friends in the face.  All too often, the recipient of the feedback feels less upset about it than the manager delivering it.

So, in giving feedback, it’s useful to have a structure.  This helps us in delivery and the recipient in understanding that this is a serious conversation.  One regular problem when someone behaves in a way that’s deemed inappropriate at work is that they don’t appear to understand the effects of their behaviour on others.  Another is that the manager delivering feedback tells the staff member the corrective behaviour which they must demonstrate in future.  To remedy both of these problems, try this:

  • Example/Evidence
  • Effects
  • Change/Continue

First, describe what you see.  Be absolutely specific.  There is no sense in saying to someone “I think you have been a little grumpy recently.”  The answer is “No, I haven’t.”  Tell the team member about specific behaviours you have observed – give a time and location if it helps to make it even more specific.

Now, importantly, describe the effects. Be careful not to say “the rest of the team feels the same way as I do” because you’ll  create a division and mistrust in the team.

Finally, ask the team member what they will do differently in future.  It’s far better for them to tell you than for you to tell them because they are more likely to ‘own’ and commit to a solution of their own creation. Notice that the “C” in our little “EEC” structure can also stands for “continue”: the formula can be used equally for praising someone.

Here’s are some examples, first for offering praise and secondly for indicating errant behaviour:

“[E]George, last week when you knew that I was going to be away for the day and our new team member, Sylvia, joined the department?  I understood that you took her under your wing, introduced her to everyone, showed her round the department and took her to lunch with some other colleagues. [E] She was absolutely delighted and said she had been made to feel very welcome.  Thanks very much for that.  [C] Next week, when Fred joins us, would you mind doing the same again?”

“[E]George, last week when you knew that I was going to be away for the day and our new team member, Sylvia, joined the department? I understand that she was pretty much left to her own devices all day – that nobody introduced themselves to her nor showed her around.  [E] When I spoke to her on Friday, she was quite disconsolate, saying that she had felt unwelcome and rather excluded from the group.  [C]Next week, when Fred joins us, what could you do to make him feel more welcome than Sylvia?”

The structure is simple and it gives the nervous feedback-deliverer something of a comfort blanket. It’s important of course to allow the team member space to explain their behaviour.  It’s equally important to help them to see that, whatever the reasons, behaviour creates impact.

Take real care to deal with issues as early as possible.  You should, after all, be dealing with changes in behaviour rather than long-standing issues.  If you leave it too late to give feedback you effectively lose the right to do so.  Imagine saying “Helena – you know you haven’t attended the team meetings for the last five years – well it’s really important that you do.”  Helena has every right to ask why you didn’t question her five years ago if it was so important.

Avoid asking people why they are behaving in a certain way because it tends to provoke a defensive response.  It’s far better to ask them instead what has changed.  “You used to attend our team meetings, and I notice that you have missed the last two – what’s changed?”

At the back of your mind consider that, as a manager, your job is to get the best out of yourself and others as far as humanly and reasonably possible.  Good feedback, delivered early, is one helpmate in ensure motivated, high performing staff.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.
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About davidcottonuk
I'm an international trainer, speaker and facilitator. I've worked in 4 continents and 40 countries, delivering all aspects of leadership, management and behavioural skills training to local and national government and nearly every industry sector. I've written a dozen books, and scores of journal articles.

One Response to Feedback – a gift of information

  1. Dan Steer says:

    I use similar principles to make apologies…

    http://dansteer.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/how-to-apologise

    When I really have to !

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