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The 3 Elements of Effective Feedback

The 3 Elements of Effective Feedback

May 25, 2022
Strategies to help shape employees' actions and behaviors in the workplace to align with culture, policy and expectations.

Management often thinks that wage levels or benefits are the most important elements of creating satisfaction in employees. But instead, workers are saying, “Tell me how I’m doing” or “Help me grow and do a better job.”

Of course they want feedback: It’s necessary to shape their actions and behaviors in the workplace to align with desired culture, established policy, and the leader’s expectations.

For the feedback process to be effective, these three elements must be clearly communicated.

1. Recognition of a specific action or behavior. This recognition can be either in direct response to something we want to see more of or less of in the future. We often say that “feedback is best served warm,” meaning that it should happen as soon as possible after observing the action or behavior, while it is still fresh and relevant.

The feedback process is not appropriate for addressing job performance, attitude, or other longer-term matters. These are better dealt with through a performance review discussion or a coaching session.

The conversation might begin with a description of the action, such as “the way that you helped the team reach a consensus by drawing each person in was great” or “the three crisp and concise conclusions as you wrapped up your presentation really hit the mark.” Or, in the case of corrective feedback, “the tone that you used in replying to Joe seemed very condescending” or “the facts that you presented don’t support the conclusions that you drew.”

Too often people think that they are providing feedback with a very general statement, such as “great job on the presentation” or “you add a lot to this team.” Such general statements have little value for guiding future behavior, thus not really constituting feedback. The more specific and descriptive our statement, the better guidance it provides for future behavior.

Often feedback is better received when we first ask for permission, especially in the case of corrective feedback. Also, when providing corrective feedback, a bit of positive at the front end makes the recipient more open to the negative. An example might be, “Your presentation was good, with a logical flow of the background information and each slide was a nice, bite-sized addition to our understanding, but may I offer some advice?” and then move into identifying specific opportunities for improvement.

2. Identify the impact of the action or behavior. There are two components of impact worth sharing: first, how the action or behavior affected the person giving the feedback and second, the broader impact, whether it be on the organization, audience, peers, etc.

Personalizing the impact makes the feedback easier to digest. Did their action, behavior, event, or process make you feel pleased, intrigued, disappointed, angry, confused, excited, etc? If this is important enough to provide feedback, there should be some emotion that arose, telling you that you should address it. Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that, since feedback is important, we may need to train ourselves to notice those opportunities and to respond and provide feedback.

Providing a broader context aligns the person’s performance with the organization’s values and goals. Did an action add value to a meeting or discussion; did it fit nicely into the organization’s desired culture; did it hinder a project or hurt a team’s collaboration?

Again, our goal in feedback is to be as specific as possible in order to tie the referenced action with the results, either positive or negative. Specifics make it more likely for the feedback to be clearly understood and accepted, thus increasing the likelihood of long-term impact. A statement such as “You were rude, and I don’t want that to happen again” has little value. Rather a statement like this is more likely to gain the attention and acceptance of the recipient: “I was disappointed to hear the rude comment you made when you said ___. That sort of comment breaks down the cohesion of our team and makes it more difficult to work together. We want this organization to be a place where each person is valued and accepted.”

3. Set expectations for future actions or behaviors. Feedback is about identifying what we want more, less, or the same amount of in the future. This requires a statement or a discussion of our expectations relative to the specific action that we are addressing. The feedback process must provide clear expectations for the future. This can be a simple statement, such as, “I hope you continue to find more opportunities to repeat this” or “I trust you understand, agree, and will not repeat this behavior.”

Depending upon the situation, the third step of the feedback process might also include consequences or a plan of action. If we are talking about a serious negative action or behavior, the process may call for identifying the disciplinary action that will take place in the event of a next occurrence. If we have communicated the specific action and the specific impact of that action, it is only natural that a specific consequence be communicated.

On the other hand, the feedback discussion may be related to an action or behavior that is beyond the recipient’s present capabilities. In this case, the discussion may call for either the feedback recipient to create a developmental plan of action or it may require that the feedback provider and the recipient together define a developmental plan.

“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” – Harvey S. Firestone

One of the highest priorities for leaders is the development of the people around them. Effective feedback is a tool to guide that development. Spotting opportunities where feedback is appropriate and then providing it in a way that helps the recipient’s development is the best way to guide the growth of the people that we lead. Nudging  the actions and behaviors of team members to align with organizational vision, goals, culture, and strategy is the best way to maximize the effectiveness of the organization. As leaders, we need to understand the power of feedback and prioritize the many opportunities for providing it.

Ken Vaughan is President of New Horizon Partners, Inc., a business strategy consulting and leadership coaching and development organization focused on helping companies make good decisions on where and how to compete, and coaching leaders in personal growth and effectiveness. Ken has an engineering degree from The Ohio State University and an MBA from the Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and is a certified life coach.  He has 28 years experience in a wide variety of corporate roles with various manufacturing companies. 

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