Most people I have met in business do not give open honest feedback. Nor do they give specific feedback. This is not only a pity but also a contributor to poor productivity. People either continue to behave in a manner which is not optimal or are unaware that their behaviour has been considered to be helpful and seek to change their behaviour in search of positive feedback.

Feedback that is vague, judgemental and ill timed, is not as valuable as feedback that is specific, descriptive, timely, and practical. Similarly, although being criticised is often not pleasant, being open to well-intentioned, well-crafted feedback can only further a person’s development.

Giving Feedback

When giving feedback, try to:

  1. Be specific rather than general. The more concrete the feedback is, the more useful it will be to the person receiving it. Thus, rather than saying, “Mike sometimes you weren’t clear in your explanations . . .,” tell Mike exactly where he was vague and describe why you had trouble understanding him.

    Similarly, it’s nice but not very helpful to say, “Joan, I thought you did an excellent job.” Rather, list the specific things that Joan did well. For example, she might have developed a strong business case for implementing an electronic document records management system. Tell her what were the strong elements of the business case and how creating the business case will impact the overall strategy of the organisation through better management of information.

  2. Be descriptive, not evaluative. For example, focus on the effect the presentation had on you, rather than on how good or bad you perceive it to be.

    For example, saying, “It is wrong to be so assertive when presenting ,” is a generalisation that may or may not be true in all cases. However, saying “I felt like I was being lectured to and found it difficult to not switch off from listening,” can help the person realise that other listeners may have the same reaction.

    Remember, too, that some of your responses will come from your own perceptions. It is good practice to begin most feedback with, “In my opinion . . . “ or, “In my experience . . .”

  3. Describe something the person can act upon. Suggesting to someone whose ethnic culture generally precludes them from speaking up to “speak up more” is only likely to make them more reticent to speak up. Alternatively you might say, “John, would you prefer to offer some written questions or comments on what we have been discussing anonymously?” This gives John an action he can take.
  4. Choose one or two things the person can concentrate on. People can usually act on only a few pieces of feedback at any one time. If they are overwhelmed with too many suggestions, they are likely to become frustrated. When giving feedback, call attention to those areas that need the most improvement.
  5. Avoid inferences about motives, intentions or feelings. To say, “You don’t seem very enthusiastic about this presentation” is to imply something about the person her/himself. A better comment might be, “Varying your rate and volume of speaking would give you a more animated style.”

Receiving feedback

When you receive feedback, try to:

  1. Be open to what you are hearing. Being told that you need to make improvements in your knowledge, skills or attitude is not always easy, but it’s an important part of the learning process. Although you might feel hurt in response to criticism, try not to let those feelings deter you from using the feedback to your best advantage.
  2. If possible, take notes. If you can, take notes as you are hearing the other person’s comments. Then you will have a record to refer to, and you might discover that the comments you thought were the harshest at the time they were being said were actually the most insightful and useful.
  3. Ask for specific examples, if you need to. If the critique you are receiving is vague or unfocused, ask the person to give you several specific examples of the point he/she is trying to make.
  4. Judge the feedback, in part, by the person who is giving it. You don’t have to agree with every comment. Think about the person’s credibility when assessing the validity of her/his statements. Ask other people if they agree with the person’s critique.

Managing our boss’s expectations

Of particular interest in giving and receiving feedback is that which we share with our boss. We need to seek and give feedback in order to manage their expectations, and ours.

Your boss is a human being. They have all of the emotional baggage that we carry; they have all of the pressures we carry and then some. They are not only responsible for what they do; they are accountable for all that we do and that our subordinates do.

They are responsible for our progress and success.

They are busy.

When a boss seems to be micro-managing, they may just be reacting to those pressures and our inability to manage their expectations.

To manage a boss’s expectations, we need to:

  1. Understand what they want us to do when
  2. To what quality
  3. At what cost

We can do this two ways:

  1. Ask our boss to be very clear about exactly what he or she wants us to do when at what cost
    a. Always paraphrase what our boss asks us to do – we will not get it right often from the first time of hearing
  2. Put a plan together and tell our boss what we plan to do, when, at what cost, and have our boss critique our plan.

The practicalities of day-to-day working may preclude us from putting together a plan, but the principles still work. Either our boss tells us what to do exactly or we tell our boss what we are going to do or can do.

Giving feedback which is specific, non-judgemental and able to be acted upon and receiving feedback in an open manner as a learning opportunity builds certainty around expectations. Organisations with employees who are certain in their expectations of themselves and others are much more likely to achieve their goals.