When we were conducting our user research to develop the Emerging Leader Ascent, giving direct reports honest, helpful feedback quickly floated to the top of the 18 challenges managers face. (A close runner-up was having difficult and direct conversations.) Giving effective feedback is a skill that takes time to master and is more relevant than ever.

The Harvard Business Review found that millennials are looking for 50 percent more feedback than their older counterparts. Unfortunately, only 46 percent of them said their managers deliver on those expectations. Talk about room for improvement. 

So, what is effective feedback? The good news is that while it takes discipline to get good at giving it, it’s not a big mystery to know what to master! In summary, you know you’re giving good feedback as a manager when you follow these principles:

  • give it based on the strengths of your team members, not yours
  • make it timely, actionable, and specific
  • give it regularly
  • share positive feedback publicly, and constructive feedback privately
  • make it just as easy for reports to give you feedback

Let's dig in a bit on specifics.

Give feedback when it's needed

First and foremost organizations and leaders fall short with their feedback because they either give it when it isn’t needed or fail to do so when it is. This looks a lot like the micromanager who can’t stop criticizing the way a project is completed, or conversely, the absent manager who only provides feedback when they’re firing someone. A great deal of what makes feedback successful is simple: deliver it at the right time, and take just a moment before you give it to ask yourself if it’s really necessary.

👍 A great deal of what makes for successful feedback depends on delivering it at the right time, and taking just a moment before you give it to ask if it’s really necessary. 👍

 

Base it on their Strengths, not Yours

When asking yourself if feedback is really necessary, the answer is often “no”. Consider comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman. Both are great at making people laugh, and have made millions doing so. But if they were asked to provide feedback to each other, and only came armed with thoughts based on their own comedic styles, both of them might lose their humorous touch altogether. Jerry can’t tell a joke like Sarah can, and vice versa. You see this in other places too — two different point guards in the NBA might have entirely different strategies for playing the game, but both of them will eventually end up in the Hall of Fame. 

Giving feedback based solely on how you would do something, and without considering the strengths of your team members, could crush their success. Instead, try to consider using this mantra: "they did it differently than me, and they SHOULD."

 

Timely, Actionable and Specific

As I mentioned before, timeliness is so often what is missing from effective feedback. In fact, many organizations have been moving away from the traditional quarterly or yearly reviews for exactly this reason — it became a place to hold and wait for feedback, rather than giving and receiving it when actually needed.

If someone is not meeting a performance expectation, it needs to be said right away. If a manager is ever forced to let someone go based on performance, and that person is surprised by the conversation, that manager has failed as a leader. 

Beyond being timely, feedback also has to be actionable and specific. That means no passive-aggressive comments, no implying what you think they should know. And please, no buzzwords. Instead of telling a team member, they don’t have “executive presence,” in meetings, think about what exactly made you feel that way. Is it a lack of eye contact? Do they speak too quickly? Maybe they seem nervous? Then base your suggestions off of those specific, and actionable traits they can work on. 

 

Positive in Public, Constructive in Private

It’s a general rule (Dare I say, a holy principle?) — give positive feedback in public and constructive feedback in private. It’s a great rule, especially for new managers. See, there are loads of legendary stories and myths out there of notable leaders holding people’s feet to the fire in public. All to the inspiration and admiration of their teams. But this admiration of managing-by-intimidation is misplaced.

Let’s bust the myth that shame is effective leadership. Using fear and shame to lead and motivate others creates caustic cultures, and if your direct reports see you use it on them or others, expect the same in return either to you or other team members.

A few caveats about positive feedback. Be careful to provide authentic positive praise. Positive feedback has to be true, and deserved. It also needs to happen more often. You may have heard about the “praise gap” in our workforce today, where most employers believe they are praising employees enough, but most employees think they’re not. So consider praise, give it often, and when you do, provide genuine respect about what they’re working on and where they want to succeed.

 

Give AND RECEIVE

Good managers will also make it easy for their team members to give them feedback. Keep in mind the principles above, and if you feel like you’re not receiving it enough, ask for it.

In receiving feedback, your response is key. Stay neutral, and don't let your emotions take over if you hear something you don’t like or think is unfair. Instead, ask more questions, and make sure you’re clear on what is being said. Walk away with something specific and actionable to work on, and then act on it to become a more effective leader.

Go on then, give some feedback! Ask for some in return. Your team will benefit from it. And so will you.

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