A critical 21st century success skill for leaders is to be able to communicate and provide feedback effectively.
Barbara’s cheeks were burning red. Her heart rate was galloping, ready to jump out of her chest. Her palms are sweaty, clammy, and cold. She could barely hear what the looming figure standing in front of her was saying. That’s because Barbara’s boss was in the middle of giving her another piece of “helpful” feedback. And that’s why I was brought in to coach John*, an executive at a global Pharmaceutical company.
If you’re like Barbara (or, more accurately, if you’re human), you probably don’t enjoy the process of receiving feedback — even if in theory you agree that receiving feedback is important.
Why We Dread Receiving Feedback
We all dread feedback because our brain processes social pain just like it does physical pain. Just like Barbara wouldn’t want her boss John swinging a baseball at her knee, she doesn’t want his judgment swung at her, either.
Unfortunately, John was so committed to driving performance and results that he forgot to keep in mind the impact his words would really have.
Just giving feedback isn’t effective; you have to deliver it in a way that the receiver is open to actually listening to it in order to drive the behavioral change you’re seeking.
What Helps People Be Open to Listening to Feedback
Rationally, Barbara knows that John’s words aren’t a threat to her bodily survival. She wants to be rational. And yet, she cannot stop her brain from interpreting the judgment as a threat in the same way being chased by a lion would be a threat. It’s fight-or-flight when negative judgment comes in.
I’ve worked with dozens of leaders like John who simply weren’t getting the full potential from their teams, even when those teams were filled with star players. Each leader who has used this proven 5-step method has completely transformed the relationships they’ve had with their teams, simply by removing judgment from the equation.
The 5 Steps To Effective Feedback
1. Give Context.
Without a context, one of the very first defensive questions people ask when receiving feedback is “when”? So be proactive and provide that information up front. Be highly specific about one given incident at a time, not generalizations over a long period of time.
Ineffective Examples: “You always” (too vague) or “Since you’ve worked here” (too vague)
Effective Examples: “At the team meeting last Tuesday”, “On the investor call this morning” or “Last week while you were at leadership training”.
2. Describe the Observable Behavior.
WARNING! 100% of clients I have worked with have gotten this step wrong and this is THE make-or-break moment on giving feedback!! (Un)fortunately, our brains are meaning-making machines, so when we observe a behavior, we also make a judgment about that behavior seemingly instantaneously. It is very hard to separate our judgment from our observation unless we consciously put effort to it. Observable behavior is exactly that – observable. A person can observe it. Notice your judgment and then ask yourself “What facts brought me to this judgment?” Then, share only the facts with the other person.
Ineffective Example: “You were playing favorites” ( judgment) à
Effective Example: “You responded to 7 of Jane’s emails and 0 of my emails” (observable behavior).
Ineffective Example: “You were careless” ( judgment) à
Effective Example: “You had 3 spelling errors on the slides and 2 miscalculations in the supporting documents” (observable behavior).
3. Share the Impact On You
Most of the time, people are completely unaware of how their actions truly impact another person. Unless you specifically tell them the impact that the behavior had, you can assume they do not know it, recognize it, and/or fully understand it. And you can be pretty sure they’ll continue that behavior. To internally motivate the receiver to make a change, explain how the behaviors affected you or someone else personally.
Ineffective Examples: “Everyone is annoyed” (speaks generally on behalf of many), “We’ll never sign that client” (overstates and assumes), “Jane is mad” (unless Jane told you this, don’t speak on someone else’s behalf)
Effective Examples: “I lost trust in being able to rely on you”, “I had to work until 11pm to finish the project” or “The client told me they are now unlikely to sign with us”.
4. Ask the person’s Intention
This step is critical in making the feedback a 2-way conversation vs a 1-way talking to. One-way feedback feels like getting a finger wagged at you by a parent or a teacher. Two-way feedback feels like someone who genuinely cares to understand the situation and to be a supportive part of making the situation better. It’s highly unlikely that the other person intended to be an insensitive jerk or embarrass you in front of your boss. Don’t assume you know their intention, either – you don’t know until you ask and they tell you.
Ineffective Examples: “I know you meant well” (assumes intention and closes conversation)
Effective Examples: “What were you hoping to achieve?”, “What was going on for you at that moment?”, or “What was your intention?”
5. Provide a Suggestion for the Future
One you have discussed the person’s intention and the reality of their impact, you may have a suggestion for how they can alter their behavior in the future to achieve their desired impact.
Ineffective Examples: “Don’t do that again” (doesn’t point the receiver in a clear direction forward)
Effective Examples: “May I suggest that you ask for my help in advance if you’re feeling unsure about the calculations?” or “Going forward, should we set a bi-weekly check-in meeting with the team to keep communication flowing regularly”
Why Using These 5 Steps Actually Works
Using this method completely transforms the relationships leaders can have with their teams, peers, and bosses. By removing judgment and opening the conversation to become a two-way dialogue, the feedback can finally be the gift it was meant to be. John and Barbara communicate frequently and openly now, with significantly reduced anxiety and significantly improved performance as a result.