Communication Strategies For High Impact Business Leaders, Part 1: Feedback

As business owners, leaders, and managers, giving feedback comes with the territory.

However, many see giving feedback as a one-way street.  But if you’re taking this approach and delivering feedback without the opportunity for discussion, you’re missing the boat.  A feedback session should be a conversation.

When giving feedback, it’s important to own your message and deliver it with confidence.  That’s true with most forms of communication.  However, there are some specific rules for giving feedback that you should follow if you want to produce change, grow a relationship, or get results.

Five Rules For Giving Feedback:

Rule 1:  Own Your Message

When providing feedback, it’s important to take ownership over your message.  To do this, you want to avoid generalizations such as “everyone thinks” or “we all know” as that displaces the importance of your message.  To show ownership, you need to take responsibility.  Deliver statements using “I” that evaluate others’ performance.  Whatever you do, don’t start off your feedback with “you”.  Doing this points a proverbial finger and automatically puts the other person on the defensive.  That is not a good way to start a conversation where you want someone to change behavior or take action.

Rule 2:  Avoid Apologizing

Don’t apologize for your statements!  If you’re focusing on behavioral aspects when giving feedback, there is no need to apologize.

Additionally, if you do apologize, you’re downplaying the corrective effect.  “I’m sorry, but…” leads nowhere.  Avoid disclaimers such as “it might just be me, but I thought…” as that takes away from the authority and confidence of your message.

Rule 3:  Be Specific And Behavioral

If you want to produce change and an effective dialogue, your feedback should be specific and focus on behaviors, not characteristics.  Specify what was done, and what happened as a result.

This goes for both positive and negative results.  If someone does something well, you want to be equally specific.  When you state an action or behavior – and don’t posit it as a characteristic or personal attribute – you’re more likely to create mutual understanding.  A simple script for this is “because of X, I was (un)able to do Y”.

Rule 4:  Your Actions Must Match Your Words

You’ve likely heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words” before – because it’s true!  If you want your feedback to have the maximum impact, you need to be sure that your verbal and nonverbal messages are synonymous.  For example, you wouldn’t smile when delivering a serious message.  Similarly, if you want to produce behavioral change (and assuming you want to maintain a positive workforce and retain your employees), you don’t want to come across as angry when delivering a specific, focused feedback deliverable.  Just as if you start giving feedback by pointing a finger, you don’t want your nonverbal tone to set an inappropriate stage.

Rule 5:  Check For Mutual Understanding

Even the most well crafted, exquisitely thought out piece of feedback can be misinterpreted. It’s important, at the end of every feedback session, to check for mutual understanding.  To do this, you can ask your employee to tell you his actions steps, or share her summary of the meeting.  It’s simple, but often overlooked.  In this check for understanding, you will better understand how your messages are interpreted, and also what resources need to be used or additional conversations may need to happen in order to produce the desired change.

If you use these five rules to give feedback, and starting seeing feedback sessions as conversations instead of one-way information, you’re going to see increased action and positive change.

And these five rules don’t just apply to giving feedback to your employees and subordinates.  These rules apply to your superiors and your peers.  Here are a few quick pieces of advice to consider for how you should balance feedback conversations with three audiences and communication directions: upward (superior), downward (subordinate), and lateral (peer).

Upward Communication

If you’re communicating and giving feedback upward to a superior, you want to make sure you balance politeness with a clear task orientation.  You’ll need to manage friendliness with respect to authority.  It’s also important to balance your self-interest with company needs.

Downward Communication

When you’re communicating downward and giving feedback to your employees, you need to show a balance between personal respect and task accountability.  Holding your employees accountable for their actions is important, but do so after you’ve gathered the appropriate information and done any necessary analysis to understand the whole picture.  With this audience, it’s important to practice open listening, but also be cognizant of monitoring for complaints.  I like to say that if you’re coming to me with a problem and haven’t thought out a potential solution, you’re simply coming to me with a complaint, and I don’t like complainers.

Lateral Communication

Providing feedback to your peers can be tricky.  You’re both on the same level, but if you’re the one giving feedback the other is likely to feel on the defensive.  To be more effective, balance helpfulness with competition.  Especially if you’re in the same role, it’s important to think out the feedback and ensure its behavior focus, as you don’t want to bring elements of competitiveness and self-interest into the picture.  Also, balance listening supportively and responding.  Feedback is best as a two-way street, and this is especially important in peer-to-peer conversations.

Armed with these five rules for giving feedback and an understanding of the three directions of communication, you’re now ready to have great conversational feedback sessions that produce change.