10 ways to give better feedback

Old school performance ratings are officially a thing of the past. It’s time to start giving better feedback and empowering your employees.

10 ways to give better feedback

It’s almost performance review season and, if you want to give better feedback, it may be time to forget traditional, numerical appraisals and management systems.

This is according to recent research by the NeuroLeadership Institute, who observe that more and more firms – including big names like Deloitte and Accenture – are moving away from ‘forced ranking’ and structured performance appraisal methods and embracing conversations focused on employee growth and development.

But though formal appraisals might be too old fashioned and ‘corporate’ for some, giving (and receiving) feedback in the workplace is still important. So if you’re facing an upcoming review season and want to make some positive changes to your approach, try our ten tips for giving better feedback:

  1. Forget the numbers and give better feedback

10 ways to give better feedback

In 2009 the Journal of Applied Psychology published the findings of a study that explored the ‘latent meaning’ of performance ratings. This study, which examined the performance ratings of 4,492 managers, showed that 62 per cent of variance in ratings could be explained by the rater’s perceptions, not actual performance.

What does this mean? The authors of the study, writing in How People Evaluate Others in Organizations explain:

‘Although it is implicitly assumed that the ratings measure the performance of the ratee, most of what is being measured by the ratings is the unique rating tendencies of the rater. Thus ratings reveal more about the rater than they do about the ratee.’

Companies and their respective HR departments are notoriously obsessed with quantifying performance, but the numbers you bring to the table say more about you than the person you’re giving feedback on. If you want to give better feedback, forget the numerical performance indicators and focus on actionable, meaningful insights instead.


  1. Tailor your feedback to the recipient

10 ways to give better feedback

Contrary to popular belief, not all feedback is the same: people react differently to both positive and negative feedback types due to a range of personal factors.

One of these factors is experience level. Researchers have found that the best type of feedback to give a person depends on whether they’re an expert or a novice. Experts are likely to respond better to negative feedback, while more inexperienced or entry-level individuals need more positive feedback to boost their confidence.

Keep this in mind when giving feedback, and remember that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the best way to encourage change and improvement.


  1. …but don’t treat people differently 

10 ways to give better feedback

You should adapt your feedback format to suit the person you’re reviewing, but it’s equally important to ensure that you’re treating everyone the same across the board.

There’s a wealth of research on the language used by managers when addressing different people in the workplace. Social scientists at Stanford University, for example, have found that when compared to men’s performance reviews, women’s are less focused on individual achievements and contain only one-third as much feedback about business outcomes.

These kinds of unconscious biases are problematic because they prevent you from giving the feedback that your employees need to improve. If you’re only discussing business outcomes with two-thirds of your staff then you’re not just disadvantaging some people – you’re disadvantaging the whole business!


  1. Leave all sandwiches in the kitchen

10 ways to give better feedback

The concept of the ‘praise sandwich’ is a popular one in HR and management circles, but it’s not a good strategy for giving better feedback.

By burying your constructive (and at times negative) feedback between slices of praise you make it difficult for your employees to clearly understand how they can improve. In fact, behavioural scientists have found that the praise sandwich technique often results in people missing any constructive feedback entirely.

Some say that other techniques, like the Feedback Wrap, are good for giving better feedback. Our advice is to forego any food-inspired technique and opt for clear, simple statements about how and why someone can improve. You’re far better off being direct, even if it means having a difficult conversation.


  1. Don’t make an event out of it

10 ways to give better feedback

People are more receptive of feedback when they don’t feel like they’re being attacked.

Present performance reviews as routine exercises held for your employees’ benefit and remind them that the purpose of feedback is not to be critical or judgmental, but to be constructive. Also, don’t come armed with spread sheets, PowerPoints or anything that makes the conversation feel like an interrogation.

Be mindful of your body language, keep the format casual but purposeful and give your employee plenty of opportunity to raise issues and respond to the points you raise. If you make a review feel more like an open discussion you’ll see better results down the line.


  1. Make feedback a part of your culture

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Actively making feedback a part of your culture and routine can have a positive impact on the day-to-day running of your business, and it makes giving and receiving feedback a lot easier too.

When Sheryl Sandberg took up post as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook she made asking for feedback a part of her weekly routine:

‘Feedback is a gift,’ says Sandberg. ‘When I joined [Facebook], I asked Mark for a commitment that he would give me feedback every week… [He] not only said yes but immediately added that he wanted it to be reciprocal.’

‘As the years went by, sharing honest reactions became part of our relationship and we now do so in real time rather than waiting for the end of the week.’

Creating a culture of feedback, instead of making it an irregular one-sided event, allows issues to be addressed as they arise. It also means your employees are less worried about how they’re seen by you or their colleagues, leaving them to better focus their energy on creating value.


  1. Keep feedback focused on them, not you

10 ways to give better feedback

You’re not here to review yourself, so keep the focus on the other person and how they can do better.

Ask open-ended questions, encourage a two-way dialogue and get them to steer the discussion if you can. Not only will you be in a better position to give better feedback, but you’ll get them thinking critically about their own performance too.


  1. Be forward-looking 

10 ways to give better feedback - Be forward looking

While it’s important to be clear and direct about what needs to be improved now, your feedback should generally be geared towards the future. Your employees will be more empowered and motivated to change if they feel like you’re invested in their future too.

An easy way to do this is by harnessing the power of ‘yet.’ By adding the word ‘yet’ to the end of a statement, you can turn a piece of negative criticism into constructive, growth-minded feedback.

For entrepreneur Ben Casnocha, simple words like ‘yet’ make all the difference when receiving feedback:

‘The word yet makes all the difference in the world…In [feedback] with “yet,” you feel like you may not be ready now, but you could be in the future.’


  1. Make your feedback actionable

10 ways to give better feedback

Of course, you can have the best reviewing techniques in the world but if your feedback isn’t actionable, then you won’t see results.

The trick to giving better feedback is to keep it grounded in fact: what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved. Try asking these six questions developed by the Harvard Business Review:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. Where are you going?
  3. What is going well?
  4. Where can we improve?
  5. How can I help you?
  6. How can you help me?

Don’t fall into the trap of quantifying performance or setting abstract KPIs, but do take the time to talk through what your expectations are and give your employee a clear list of things they can do to improve their performance.


  1. Come from the right place

10 ways to give better feedback

Ultimately, giving better feedback is all about having the right intentions. If you’re taking the time to discuss someone’s performance with them, it should be because you want to see them succeed and achieve even more. Influential VC Ben Horowitz explains:

‘It’s important that you give people feedback because you want them to succeed and not because you want them to fail. If you really want someone to succeed, then make her feel it. Make her feel you. If she feels you and you are in her corner, then she will listen to you.’

Think about what’s motivating you to give feedback, and if you really see the potential for improvement and growth. If you find you’re pessimistic about the future or have nothing constructive to say, then perhaps a feedback discussion isn’t what’s needed.

Giving better feedback is not about disguising the negative or avoiding tough conversations. It’s about improving communication, having goals and enabling an open discussion with your colleagues in the best interests of your business. If you can provide actionable, constructive feedback, your staff will see the benefits and your business will too.

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