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Dear Anna,
I need to give more feedback to my team, but it’s usually so awful for everyone involved that I’ve started avoiding it. What can I do?

Dear Michael,

Giving feedback is not for the faint-hearted. Most leaders have battle scars from a feedback conversation that went horribly wrong. It can be equally unpleasant for achievement-focused professionals to receive negative feedback, so it’s not surprising these conversations are avoided. What to do? 

Organise your message

Before you jump in, think carefully about what the person did or didn’t do, the situation where the behaviour happened, and why change is needed. This three-part framework is called “situation-behaviour-impact”.  Developed by the Centre for Creative Leadership, it works by helping the person recall the behaviour and understand the benefits of changing. Steer clear of personal accusations that will create emotional reactions.   

Get to the point

Don’t be tempted to sneak a feedback message into a conversation about general business, sport or the weather. Also avoid using the “sandwich technique”, where you start with a positive message, shove the negative feedback in the middle, and end on a positive note. There is no research to support this method, and perfectionists are likely to remember the negative rather than the positive.

The alternative comes from 15 years of research by the Harvard Negotiation Project in a great book, Crucial Conversations. The authors found that describing your intent – “I’d like to give you some feedback on the document I reviewed yesterday. I’ve identified a couple of areas for improvement” – builds trust and prepares the person to hear your feedback without falling into the trap of a false compliment.    

Receive feedback well

When you are receiving feedback, keep these guidelines in mind. Search and listen for the main points of the message. Don’t let defensiveness make you picky about minor points or technical arguments.

The other person is making the effort to give you feedback, and they might not be perfect at describing the “situation-behaviour-impact”, so cut them some slack. Ask for additional context, detail or implications for changing in a helpful, constructive tone of voice. This isn’t the time to be argumentative.

Finally, reflect and consider before you reject. Try to see the issue from their perspective, remind yourself of their (hopefully) good intentions, and give it some time before you disagree with some or all of the feedback. 

Regardless of where you land, find a way to thank them for the feedback. It’s the best way to ensure they will provide more in the future.