The Art of Giving Feedback
The art of taking feedback is one that one that only few of us have mastered. Sadly, the art of giving feedback has been mastered by even fewer.
We’ll talk about how to take feedback in a future post. But in this article, I want to talk about how to give feedback – specifically negative feedback.
This is the feedback we give to someone when we want them to change something about their performance, their behaviour or themselves.
Note – I said change, not improve. Improvement is subjective. What we consider an improvement, the recipient of our feedback may not, which is why it’s vital that we communicate why we think that our feedback is valid.
Take a moment to reflect - do you do this every time you offer feedback?
If you answered ‘no’, please read on. If you answered ‘yes’, then definitely read on!
What many of us overlook is that we’re constantly giving feedback, whether we’re aware of it or not, in both our professional and personal lives.
Our feedback can be verbal and intentional – for example, telling a colleague how to improve their communication skills, giving a trainee points on how to improve their email writing, and so on.
But our feedback can also be verbal and unintentional. For example, a ‘joke’ made in passing to your colleague about their poor public speaking, complaining to our spouse about something they did, telling our children off for bad behaviour, or expressing our doubts about a friend’s life decision. You may not have considered these to be forms of feedback before, but they unequivocally are.
Worse still, so much more feedback we give is non-verbal and unintentional – and often incongruent with our words. For example, when anger etches itself onto our face but we tell our partner that ‘everything is fine’; when we look at our child with disappointment and disapproval but tell them ‘good job’; when our body language becomes evasive when a friend tells us their crazy business idea before we say, ‘yeah, that sounds great’.
Do you think they don’t notice these subtle cues?
Because, more often than not, they notice.
In fact, the popularised figure that 93% of communication is non-verbal specifically applies to when someone’s words are incongruent with their non-verbal expressions. (So, next time you see this statistic being used to justify that 93% of all communication is non-verbal, don’t be afraid to offer that person…constructive feedback on the matter.)
Whether communicated verbally or non-verbally, intentionally or unintentionally, no one wants to be told that who they are or what they’re doing needs to be changed.
Our egos interpret criticism as a threat to our self-worth and self-perception due to negative psychological associations we’ve unintentionally formed during our childhood and adolescent years. Simply put, being criticised makes us feel like we’re not enough.
Not good enough. Not worthy enough. Not lovable enough.
The consequence of our psychological baggage being suddenly triggered is that many of us shut down when faced with criticism and confrontation. Biologically speaking, we undergo an emotional hijacking (as introduced by renowned psychologist, Daniel Goleman, in his book, Emotional Intelligence) of our amygdala which activates our stress response – and last time I checked, there’s no feedback in fight-flight-freeze!
Of course, it isn't our intention to send the recipient of feedback into a meltdown.
We shouldn’t be giving feedback to attack, berate or humiliate the recipient. We’re giving feedback to facilitate change which ideally corresponds to an improvement in performance, behaviour, or another metric.
Thankfully, with time and experience, we can develop our ability to take feedback (a future article topic). But given the majority of people will be at different stages in that journey, we should all learn to give feedback.
This is where constructive feedback comes in...
Constructive feedback is simply well-communicated negative feedback.
Learning to give high-quality, constructive feedback will not only help you to generate the performance improvement outcomes and behaviour shifts you desire in those around you; it’ll also improve the strength of your relationship with the recipient of your feedback without triggering their ego-based insecurities.
The model I've created for constructive feedback is the '8P’s of Feedback'. (Frameworks; it’s the consultant in me, what can I say!)
Before I jump into this, let’s look at some of the common pitfalls we fall into when we give feedback. Let’s specifically consider the case of a well-known feedback framework:
The “feedback sandwich” (or “s**t sandwich” as it’s informally known in many industries).
For those who aren’t familiar with it, this method involves feedback ‘sandwiched’ by praise. In other words, you deliver praise, followed by feedback, followed by more praise.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem too bad. Give praise to get the recipient in a good mood. Deliver well-thought out feedback and improvement points. Finish by reaffirming their value through more phrase.
Makes sense, right?
It’s ironic that a feedback framework designed to be more emotionally intelligent than simple, blunt feedback actually created more problems than it solved, for example:
1) Information overload for the recipient. The recipient either focuses on the positive feedback at the start and ignores the ‘but…’ that comes after. Or, they get hung up on the feedback and the final piece of praise becomes redundant. It’s more effective to only give one piece of feedback at a time, whether negative or positive.
2) Distorted weighting of feedback. The recipient might leave with an unclear idea of what they were supposed to take from the conversation. They may give less importance to the feedback they were given due to the abundance of praise, hence may be less likely to take action to improve their performance.
3) Disingenuous praise. Creating praise for the purpose of delivering a piece of feedback is rarely done in a sincere manner. If noticed, this can undermine the reputation of the feedback provider in the eyes of the recipient. It can also undermine the positive effect of any genuine praise they receive in the future from that person – and genuine praise and recognition has been shown to be a very powerful motivator.
4) Negative associations with praise. Our brains generally perceive criticisms as a threat to our identity, and praise as approval of our identity. Used correctly, this makes praise and recognition a powerful tool that can motivate anyone, regardless of whether they’re an analyst or a CXO, a manager or a student. But if we learn to expect criticism after being praised, our brain may begin to anticipate criticism following any praiseworthy statement. Instead of receiving the positive effect of praise, we’re already experiencing the negative emotions we associate with the threat of criticism – even if no criticism is forthcoming.
With these in mind, let me introduce you to my '8P’s of Feedback' framework.
Kam’s "8P’s of Feedback" Framework
Content-wise, constructive feedback must involve the following 4P's:
1) Point: The exact performance or behaviour we want to be changed. Only one feedback point at a time.
2) Purpose: Why we think their behaviour or performance needs to be changed.
3) Process: Action steps that we suggest can be taken to change performance or behaviour.
4) Perspective: Offering time and space for the recipient to express their perspective regarding their thoughts and reasons on their past performance and behaviour, as well as asking questions about the feedback you’ve given.
This is the essence of keeping any feedback straightforward. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t sugar coat with praise for the sake of saying something nice.
Be clear and concise in what you want to change, why you want it to be changed, and how it can be changed. And then give the recipient time to offer their perspective on that change.
In addition, for constructive feedback to be more impactful, we can consider the remaining 4 P’s:
5) Preference: Explicitly clarifying with the recipient how they’d like to be given feedback. This is a vital step that is so often overlooked. I recommend to all people to ask this of the people they wish to give feedback to.
However, in the absence of this knowledge, a good leader must be able to empathise with the recipient’s individual preferences, such that they can tailor their feedback delivery to be as impactful as possible. For example, do we deliver feedback bluntly in a methodical manner? Do we deliver it with more compassion and sympathy? Do we appeal to the recipient’s practicality or emotion in terms of the benefits of carrying out our feedback?
Good leaders should develop their empathy skills such that they recognise that no two people perceive the world in the same way, and as such are able to step away from their own model of how they perceive the world. While it’s not possible to completely perceive the world from the perspective of any other person, even attempting to apply empathy to understand the personality of the recipient can lead to a more compassionate and tailored feedback delivery.
6) Preparation: Solicited feedback is always better received than unsolicited feedback. However, as negative feedback is rarely solicited, it’s vital that we prepare the recipient to receive feedback. This can be done very simply.
Prior to offering feedback, we should explicitly state to the person that we’re about to offer feedback, and that we’ll wait a moment for them to get in the right state of mind to receive it.
This can be framed as a statement, for example: “I’d like to give you some feedback and I just want to give you a moment to get in the right state of mind to receive it”.
It can also be framed as a question, for example: “I’d like to offer you some feedback – are you in a constructive state of mind to receive it?”
In the latter case, some people worry that the recipient will reply ‘no’ and keep them waiting – as if we have the time to afford them that luxury! In truth, however, the recipient is unlikely to keep you waiting and will reply ‘yes’ more often than not. Using the question form of the preparation statement is beneficial as it empowers the recipient to accept that it is their choice to be receiving feedback, making any feedback given more impactful.
7) Position: Picking an appropriate location to deliver feedback, for example a private meeting room where the recipient doesn’t feel like they’re being attacked in front of others.
8) Praise: In line with personal preferences, some recipients do benefit psychologically from receiving genuine praise. If given, praise should come after the feedback has been given – and it must include examples.
For example, stating that, “I know this might be challenging to take on board, but you’ve shown us that you have a lot of potential given the way you handled XXX, and we think this suggestion can help you step up to an even higher level.”
People have been given enough false praise under the ‘Feedback Sandwich’ framework, so make sure to keep praise genuine and supplemented by well-researched examples.
I truly hope that this post has been valuable. Please do apply the '8P’s of Feedback' framework to give more effective constructive feedback, whether in a professional context or in your personal lives. I would love to hear your experiences using it, as well as any suggestions on how it can be improved.
Keep growing. Keep striving. Keep shining.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.