The Three Golden Rules of Feedback

I was speaking to my executive coach the other day and we had a great discussion of feedback.  I’m going to adapt what she said into some pithy advice for managers on how to give feedback.

Here are the three golden rules of feedback

  • It has to be honest
  • It has to be kind
  • It has to be timely

Honest Feedback

When you give someone feedback it has to be authentic.  It has to be what you really feel.  It can’t be candy coated.  It has to be what you honestly feel about the situation, tempered by the humility that you may not necessary be “right” — or that right and wrong may not even have meaning in a given situation.

Example:  “I felt disrespected when you arrived late at my meeting.”

I provided a concrete situation in which something happened; I am not generalizing or pattern-matching.  I indicated a specific behavior that I observed.  I described the impact on me — how I felt about it (which is fairly incontrovertible) — without trying to speculate why you did it or what you intended.

This form of feedback is called situation-behavior-impact, and it’s a great template for giving honest feedback.

While awesome, it’s quite hard to do and (given how things went when I’ve been trained on it) seems to come naturally to few people.  While I would never claim to be a great SBI feedback-giver, I nevertheless continue to aspire to be one –because it does work.

Always be honest.

Kind Feedback

While not something I’m necessarily known for, I love my coach’s second rule of feedback.  If you’re like me, the honest part of feedback isn’t hard.  Example:

That’s the worst proposal I’ve ever seen.  You never said what you wanted to do, what it would cost, or why we should do it.  Other than omitting the three key elements of a proposal it was great.

(Or, as Larry Ellison was reputed to have often said:  “That’s the stupidest f**king idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” sometimes rather amazingly followed by, “Say it again!”)

While “honest” comes naturally to me, I really like the “kind” principle.  I stand behind the vast majority of feedback I’ve given over the years.  It’s always been honest and usually been accurate.  I’ve been unafraid to put hard issues on the table that other managers were afraid to confront.  I am proud that I have helped people identify and eliminate issues that would have otherwise limited them and/or developed strengths that helped propel them.

But I am equally certain that I could almost always have found a better way of expressing my feedback had I known about and applied the kind principle.

Being kind forces the feedback giver to focus not just on the validity of his/her feedback, but on the appropriate timing and expression of it.  It provides a second, important test — particularly for well-intentioned managers too blunt for their own good.

To be clear, being kind doesn’t mean avoiding hard issues or candy-coating conversations.  It does mean that you should challenge yourself, even during very difficult conversations, to find a way to communicate such that the other person leaves feeling respected and with their dignity intact.

Even the ultimate hard conversation — terminating someone — can be conducted in a way that leaves feeling respected as a person and with their dignity intact.  While many fearful mangers bungle termination into a personal tear-down, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Before a comment-outcry develops, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the King of kind feedback.  I am, however, going to work on it for three reasons:

  • It’s nicer.  I’d like people to want to work for me because of my feedback — not despite it.
  • It’s a challenge — that will make me a better manager.
  • It’s more effective — I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people spend more time reacting to how I said something than I what I said.

You can generate big distractions and waste hours by giving feedback without adequate consideration for its impact on the recipient.  It’s far more effective to think up front for 30 minutes about both what to say and how to say it than to hastily offer feedback only to spend hours in damage control afterwards, simply working your way back to zero on the relationship — with most of the actual feedback long-forgotten in the process.  It happens.  I’ve been there.

Always be kind.  (Hey, I’m working on it.)

Timely Feedback

The last rule is that feedback needs to be timely.  Feedback, like sushi, does not get better with age.

Timeliness matters for several reasons:

  • Both sides are in a better position to discuss recent events than ancient history.  Memories fade and the best feedback is usually quite specific.
  • Letting feedback get old tends to bottle up anger or dissatisfaction on the part of the giver.  The manager might start treating someone differently — e.g., being curt, assigning core projects to others — without them having any understanding of what’s going on.
  • Delaying feedback often leads to “pattern matching,” where instead of discussing specific situations (e.g., when you were late to my staff meeting on Tuesday) the giver generalizes to patterns (e.g., you are always late to my staff meetings) which wrecks the SBI process and results in factual disputes (e.g., no I’m not) instead of impact discussions (e.g., it made me feel disrespected).

Being timely doesn’t mean delivering a real-time stream of constant criticism.  (I’ve tried that too and it doesn’t work.)  Nor does it mean confronting hot issues immediately when tempers may still be high.  But it does mean giving feedback within a timeframe when memories are still fresh and when the recipient doesn’t feel like “why did you wait so long to tell me this?”

Finally, if you’re going to start giving periodic constructive feedback you better get ready to give a lot more positive feedback if you want to preserve the overall quality of the relationship.  Research shows that the ideal ratio of praise to criticism is 5 to 1.  This applies not only at work, but also at home —lasting marriages have a 5 to 1 ratio of praise to criticism while marriages ending in divorce have a 0.7 to 1 ratio.

I better go buy some flowers on the way home tonight.  I love you guys.

Always be timely.

3 responses to “The Three Golden Rules of Feedback

  1. Like!

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