"Techniques are many, principles are few. Techniques vary, principles never do."
The purpose of this chapter is to give you some guiding principles that you can apply right away when you need to deliver feedback. This is most likely a new area for you to explore as a recently promoted manager; you have probably had feedback yourself with varying degrees of quality, but now is the time for you to start to deliver your own feedback messages to your staff. Typical examples could be:
Commenting on the quality of a finished piece of work
Assessing someone's overall results at the end of an operational quarter
Helping someone improve their leadership behaviors at work
Correcting someone who isn't adhering to organizational policy
In this chapter, you will learn how to deliver feedback using the following principles within EARSHOT:
Only positive language
As a newly promoted or hired manager, your staff, peers, and upper management will be observing your behavior and results in the workplace. People will want to understand how you operate and what your expectations are. From your staff's perspective, this will range from "How can I please my boss and exceed my objectives?", all the way down to "How little can I get away with?". Your peers will be wondering whether they can rely on you, whether you can be trusted, or whether you will attempt to show them up. Your upper management will likely just have one question in mind:
"Are you going to deliver?"
So, if you are going to make a purposeful change in your behavior and improve your results by reading this book, then the best time to make that change is now. Change is never easier than in the present moment. The longer you delay it, the more reasons or anxiety will develop in your mind that will prevent it from happening. And from your staff's perspective, the more they get used to their new manager's style, the harder it will be for them to accept a change in it. If you don't believe me, try this exercise:
Tell your staff that they can finish half an hour earlier each day, for the same pay.
Three months later, tell them that they have to go back to how it was before.
Consult with HR on how to quickly recruit a replacement team.
Secondly, you have a duty and responsibility as a manager to ensure that your staff hit their targets and also develop professionally along the way. If you don't provide effective feedback, you have no one but yourself to blame if your staff don't perform.
Aside from all of the hard work that you put in to get yourself to this stage in your career, I'll bet there was someone who invested their time, experience, and wisdom in you. Do the right thing and pay it forwards by giving your staff feedback that helps them be the best that they can be in the workplace.
For anyone whose life has been enriched by the invention of SatNav (shorter journeys, lower blood pressure, and better composure), you will appreciate the importance of entering your starting postal or zip code. In the context of giving your first critical feedback to an employee, take a few of those reclaimed SatNav moments to establish your starting point by answering true or false to the following questions about delivering feedback. It's important that you do this so you can establish your current level of feedback skill and assess where you need to develop the most:
Feedback is best delivered sometime after the event it concerns, allowing plenty of time for planning. (True/False)
Attitude, motivation, and commitment are key focus areas for feedback. (True/False)
Evidence, results, and customer feedback are essentials for good feedback. (True/False)
Delivering someone else's feedback message or opinion about an event you haven't witnessed is to be avoided where possible. (True/False)
Saying "Don't swear and shout in the office" is effective feedback. (True/False)
If properly constructed, feedback can be delivered publicly or in a group. (True/False)
A manager's opinion is more valuable than evidence-based feedback. (True/False)
Clearly explaining to staff what good performance looks and sounds like is key to increased performance and output. (True/False)
Referencing a specific situation is more effective than speaking generally about the previous three months. (True/False)
You must use one of the feedback models exactly as listed in this book. (True/False)
Delivering good feedback is both an art and a science. The way that you choose your words, how you pace your delivery in terms of emphasis and pauses... all contribute toward a conversation that feels natural and is part of your own conversational style. In conjunction with the principles and models that you're going to learn here, this section addresses the art of giving feedback. The content, however, is where the science part fits in. Like any good scientific endeavor, it is evidence-based.
Recall for a moment a time when you may have been given some feedback that was:
Did you take it on board and modify your own behavior? Opinions have their place, but in my opinion, only when you ask for the experience of the person giving it. Walk into any bar on a Saturday afternoon and you'll hear many opinions about how sport, politics, or religion should be run, usually by people unqualified to make the statements!
So, the next two principles are going to guide you through crafting evidence-based feedback.
Working with someone's activity—what they have actually done—is one of the most powerful approaches you can take as a manager. In fact, it's the only approach to take. While you may become tempted to fulfill other roles—counselor, consultant, or clairvoyant—observing, recording, and feeding back about what was actually done or not done will leverage the largest change in your team's performance and results.
Here are a few examples of behavioral versus non-behavioral observations:
"I noticed that during the team meeting on Thursday, you raised the volume of your voice when James questioned you about your proposal." (Behavior)
"I think you got angry with James in the team meeting last week." (Mind reading)
"Sarah's met 8 out of 11 of her yearly targets, although I haven't seen her display enough of the "Drive for Results" behavior as written in our competency framework." (Behavior)
"I don't see manager potential in Rob; I don't think he wants the role enough." (Mind reading)
To focus exclusively on behavior isn't always an easy task, but it's worth the extra effort. The key to it is relying on your external senses and switching off your internal senses in the short term.
Make a Note
Anything you see, hear, or read in the first person will usually indicate a behavior. Anything you feel, think, mind read, or imagine won't be helpful.
Take a look at the following table:
My gut tells me
I just know
Don't get me wrong, all of the things in the right-hand column have a place in business and management, they just don't serve you well when you're developing your feedback skills. Put your opinions on ice unless someone specifically asks for them because your previous experience is going to add value to the situation.
A useful skill to develop is the use of verbatim—replaying back things that have been said, but striving to do it word for word without any interpretation. When you need to remind someone of a conversation, then repeating it verbatim is an example of taking a behavioral approach to language.
One of the paradigms to get your head around sooner rather than later as a new manager is that the people above you will generally assess you in terms of results, whereas the people who work for you will often want to talk about the effort they have put in or what they intended to do.
The road to Hell is littered with good intentions!
Organizations stand or fall based on their results. Therefore, it makes good sense to base your feedback discussions around what was delivered, finished, achieved, or accomplished. Depending on whether you work in the public or private sector, military or third sector, or anywhere else, examples of this could be:
New business enquiries or orders
The preceding list is a quantitative list—things that can be objectively measured in terms of quantity or numbers, as opposed to qualitative—subjectively assessed in terms of their "goodness or badness".
Straight away, you should see the value in taking this approach to giving feedback—it's simply not up for debate, as the numbers don't lie. And done in this way, you are continually focusing your staff's attention on improving the results of the organization—a strategy that your upper management will thank you for.
Our third principle nicely complements the previous two, although it's more of a guide to how to construct your feedback as opposed to what to include in it. Being specific means that you use detailed, concise words and phrases as opposed to generalized, abstract descriptions. If you followed the previous section and used activity and results, that's great. This rule is about being as precise as possible when you are giving feedback and throughout the conversation. If you follow this rule:
The receiver will be less inclined to dispute or refuse the observation, as your observation will be more closely aligned with their recollection
It becomes easier to discuss what needs to happen instead of debating what did happen
You will earn more respect from your new team as they'll perceive you as highly observant
Staff will quickly learn what you expect from them when you articulate it regularly
Here are examples of generalizations to avoid and examples of specifics to use:
It went well
You achieved the weekly target
I've noticed on three occasions
Every time I ask you
Today when I asked you
You never do that
The last time I asked you, you didn't
Wherever you can, describe exactly what you witnessed with your external senses. So, speak about what you saw, what you heard, or what you read, not what you thought or felt at this stage. There is a time and a place for thoughts and feelings, but it isn't when you are describing behavior. Imagine that you are an officer of the law preparing a case, and what you say will be read out in court and dissected by a lawyer obsessed with linguistics.
Honesty and judgment are two extremely valuable traits that you need to possess as you develop your style of management. With that said, one of those needs to be tempered when giving feedback and the other needs to be ruthlessly released.
You can't have too much honesty in business. Most CEOs would love to know exactly what's going on at an operational level, how their staff feel about the senior leadership team, what their customers think of them, and so on. But how often is that level of honesty used? Many times I've seen someone in another team underperform throughout the year only to be completely destroyed by an end of year appraisal that they didn't expect to go so badly.
Fill in the following matrix with examples of managers you have worked with in the past or even who you work with now:
Very honest, not well respected
Very honest, very well respected
Not very honest, not well respected
Not very honest, very well respected
You probably noticed a link between people who are honest and who are respected. You can also conclude that as managers, they get good results. So, if a member of staff underperforms or needs to receive some feedback, for everyone's sake, take a deep breath and get on with it, however uncomfortable it may be. In my experience, a difficult conversation is a bit like a toothache; it rarely goes away on its own.
Given that this section is about the use of judgment, we'd better address that topic too. What I mean by judgment in this context is passing a verdict on someone—summing up their total and entire worth using a few all-encompassing words.
Examples of this would be words like:
While the positive words here are nice to deliver and nice to hear, using any of the preceding has a fundamental drawback—how on earth do you act on them? Whether you are remarking on performance that should be repeated or changed, the preceding words are too vague for the receiver to internalize and either change or repeat.
Their use, I suspect, harks back to childhood tellings-off by parents or teachers; after all, being told that something was "atrocious" is pretty powerful. With that said, as adults in the workplace, we can provide more useful and actionable words for improvement.
Examples of judgmental feedback include:
"Your timekeeping is awful; you're a bad example to the new starters in the team."
"That last report you wrote was utter rubbish. It was boring, messy, and rambling."
"You have performed very poorly this quarter. You're an embarrassment to the department."
Examples of non-judgmental feedback include:
"You've been late on three occasions this week."
"Your figures in the previous report had two errors that would have given an inaccurate picture of the business this quarter. I was annoyed that I spotted them and you didn't."
"Despite the one-to-one time that you and I have invested this month, you didn't meet all of the objectives that we agreed. I'm disappointed with that."
You may notice that I've included some emotive words in the last two examples to explain how I'm feeling. This is not casting a judgment or putting a label on the receiver because the words are about how I'm feeling. In this way, I can be honest about performance and how I feel about it without saying things to damage someone's self-esteem.
It's a subtle difference, so here are some examples to make it explicit:
"I feel disappointed." (About my feelings)
"You are a disappointment." (Judging or labeling someone)
"I feel embarrassed by the results that we are discussing right now."(About me)
"You're embarrassing." (Giving them a label or a judgment)
Feelings are extremely powerful tools, so use them wisely and own your feeling statements; feedback, after all, is about improvement, not injury.
Believe it or not, I first came across this principle as a new parent reading a book about how to bring up happy and confident children. The book suggested that the majority of human behavior is driven from the unconscious mind; this means you don't always have to think about something consciously in order to perform an action. For example, things like tying your shoelaces or brushing your teeth are unconscious actions; you don't need to consciously think about each discrete step to perform the whole sequence. These are what we refer to as habits or learned behaviors. Interestingly, the unconscious mind doesn't seem to respond too well to the concept of negatives; do this quick exercise now in order to illustrate the point:
Pretty tough isn't it?
You have to think about it in order not to think about it. My guess is that you either saw a picture of a blue tree in your mind or repeated the words "blue tree" in your head.
Put another way, when a tightrope artist crosses the high wire, do you think they visualize themselves not falling to the ground and becoming Paper Mache, or do you think they visualize themselves crossing the wire successfully with poise, calmness, and balance? Positive thoughts, sounds, and images about what to do are much more useful than what not to do when giving human beings instructions.
Subsequently, my children have been raised with instructions such as:
"Share nicely please"
"Be gentle with your sister"
"Take your plate to the kitchen please"
And with the exception of extremely messy bedrooms, the strategy has been a success. So, giving helpful and positive feedback in the workplace should consist of messages to re-enforce existing good practices, such as:
"You used lots of color and images in that presentation; do more of that in your next one"
"I noticed how you greeted those customers by shaking each of their hands and holding eye contact for a few seconds; carry on doing that"
"Thanks for staying late to finish the Briggs report Anita, the MD saw and mentioned it"
Conversely, have you heard any of the following negative instructions given out in the workplace, or perhaps even received them yourself? Re-write them using only positive language that achieves the same end result (go on then, I'll do the first one for you):
"Don't get nervous when you speak to…"
"Just remain calm and composed when you speak to…"
Now try these yourself:
"Don't forget to phone…"
"Don't hesitate to get back to me…"
"Don't get angry the next time…"
"WET PAINT – DO NOT TOUCH" (we've all ignored that one!)
Now I'm not suggesting that the rules of good parenting apply directly to being an excellent manager (see what I did there?), but I have heard that being a manager is like running an adult day-care center sometimes
There's an inverse relationship between time waited and feedback effectiveness: the quicker it's delivered after the event, the more effective it will be. Time has a way of distorting people's memory of events, so you should give feedback as soon after the actual event as possible. The only condition I'm going to put on this is to wait until you are in private if it's a piece of corrective feedback. The embarrassment generated by delivering corrective feedback in public only strengthens the will of the person to justify and defend what you say. Yes you can deliver good news and recognition in front of the whole team or department when merited, but the old saying, "praise loudly and blame softly" is a wise one.
In this chapter, you learned:
How to use evidence of performance in your feedback delivery
How to use tangible words that describe activity and behavior
Ways of focusing on results in your conversations
The art of being precise and exacting instead of something else
The difference between honesty and judgment
The importance of using positive language to create a blueprint for success
When and where to deliver your message
If you read only this chapter out of the whole book and integrate all of the principles into your feedback skills, you would still be streets ahead of most other experienced managers. However, what follows is a collection of structures that will help you apply these principles until they are a habit.
Take a few moments to reflect now on what you've learned so far. Here's a couple of questions to assist you:
Which principle stood out the most for you in this chapter?
Which principle do you already apply well?
Which one do you most need to integrate into your conversational skills as a new manager?
In the next chapter, I'll introduce you to the first structured model that you can easily learn and use when delivering balanced feedback about overall performance in a period. And you'll meet Brian, who gave me my first gray hairs as a newly promoted manager.
Read on, intrepid explorer.