Feedback is kind of like the big stuffed animal in the crane game at your local arcade: most people want it… but it seems like nobody ever gets it.
(By the way, do they still have arcades, or am I just getting old?)
In the companies that I have led within, we have made it a point to regularly survey employees. How happy and engaged are you? How well-positioned are you to succeed? What do you need that you’re not getting? Those sorts of things.
The most common issue area that tends to come through—company after company, time and time again—is feedback.
Most people want it, but they feel like they’re not getting enough of it.
Or if they are getting it, it is not happening in ways that are effective.
As leaders, we all know logically that feedback is crucial to our team’s success and development. But the research shows that too often, our people aren’t getting it.
So… why is this?
Here’s a theory:
Too often, leaders are lured into making the fool’s choice. They think they have to choose between being straight with someone about critical feedback, and keeping a relationship. As if this is an either-or proposition.
And when faced with this false either-or proposition, many leaders end up choosing the path of least resistance. They go the safe route, and stash the feedback away in some Tupperware for another day when they think they’ll muster up the courage to give it.
But too often, that day never comes. And the feedback becomes so stale that we have to pitch it.
All the while, we’ve starved our employees of the chance to get better, to grow, and to be more effective in their roles.
I have failed my people in this way more than my fair share of times. And for me, it stemmed from a deep fear that if I was honest with them, they wouldn’t like me.
But I realized something very important along the way: if feedback is given effectively (which we’ll cover here in a moment), it can actually deepen our relationship with our teammate, as opposed to damage it.
So how can we band together as leaders and change this status quo? To give frequent, timely, effective feedback that puts our people in a position to learn and grow more quickly?
I’d like to share a simple framework you can use that will make giving feedback much more approachable. But before I do, like all matters of behavior change, it is critical to first start with the mindset from which our behaviors stem.
THE FEEDBACK MINDSET
Consider this empowering perspective: giving honest, valuable feedback is one of the greatest forms of respect and care you can pay to someone. It signals that you care so much about their success that you are willing to overcome your own discomfort to help them be more successful.
If you get grounded in this place of care and compassion, and the spirit of service, it can make it much more comfortable to lean into giving feedback.
And from this place of caring and service, you have to trust that the other person can handle it.
Also, before you give feedback to your teammate, it is important to first look in the mirror and get clear on whether you contributed to the issue area. Ask yourself:
“Did I provide my teammate clarity on what was expected?
“Did I provide them with the resources to get the job done?”
“How might I be complicit in creating the issue?”
Be clear on and own your part of it.
THE FEEDBACK FORMULA
When giving feedback feels intimidating or unapproachable, most people will avoid doing it.
Folks, let’s make this easier on all of us.
Here is a simple 4 part formula you can use to communicate feedback, which (since everything in life should be reduced to a catchy acronym) we’ll cleverly call “The 4 I’s”:
#1: First, be clear on your intention. You want to start the conversation here.
If you have an important piece of feedback for your colleague Jamie, you might say something like this:
“Jamie, I care a lot about you being successful in your role, and I want you to be operating at full power, so I’d like to talk with you about ways you can be more successful in your role by sharpening your client deliverables.”
This makes clear your underlying intention of helping Jamie to be successful.
#2: Lead with the issue. And keep it fact-based. In the example, you would say something like this:
“I have noticed that… your recent client reports have had a lot of grammatical errors in them.”
The key here is the lead-in, when you say “I have noticed that…” It makes the feedback based on direct, objective observation—not speculation or opinion.
Make it specific. The only thing more counterproductive than no feedback is vague feedback.
You’ll also notice how the subject of my feedback to Jamie is the work product, not Jamie’s character or intention. It should be about the behavior, not the person.
#3: Highlight the impact of the issue.
For Jamie, you might say:
“These errors could signal to the client that we’re not putting our best effort towards their important project, and I know you’ll agree that we don’t want to be sending that signal.”
#4: Invite your teammate to reflect and problem-solve.
You might then invite Jamie to reflect on the issue, and shift the discussion to problem-solving.
“What do you see here? And from where you sit, what needs to happen to get this issue back on-track?”
You want to keep your feedback short and to-the-point. Feedback shouldn’t be a droning monologue.
Lay out what you see—the first three “I’s”—then open up a conversation aimed at figuring out the path forward.
Oh, and before I forget, a quick “2-for-1” bonus tip:
This same formula can be used for affirmative feedback. Don’t forget to call out what’s working, what’s going right, what your people are doing well. You want to shine a light on these bright spots, and double down on them.