This one simple rule will reshape how you give feedback

Erin McGee, 6 min read

This one simple rule will reshape how you give feedback

It was my second year of university and I was sitting in my Monday evening management class, with my tutorial answers prepared and ready to go. I hadn’t spoken up much in this particular class thus far. It was my first semester back after taking a mid-degree gap year and I didn’t quite feel comfortable yet.

It came to my group’s turn to answer a question, and I decided I’d give it a go.

I can’t remember what the question or my answer was, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget my tutor’s response:

“Oh, no. No. Does anyone want to help this girl out so she won’t fail the course?”

I was absolutely gutted. I had no idea what part of my answer was wrong or how to correct it and felt embarrassed in front of my class.

And guess what happened after that lesson? I lost interest in what was an otherwise interesting subject, never prepared nor spoke up in class and barely passed the subject.

If it wasn’t for that comment maybe I’d have tried harder, been more engaged and involved in my own learning. Some would argue that if I had just ignored the tutor’s response and taken my learning into my own hands, it would’ve been a non-issue – and that is valid. But a mentor’s feedback on a student, employee or peer is incredibly impactful on their future attitude towards their work.

This isn’t to say that you can never give negative feedback. Negative feedback is as beneficial as positive feedback.

Under one condition (hint: this is the simple rule):

Be. Specific.

Specific feedback is something we’re committed to practising at Yarno. When you give specific feedback, it shows that you care about the person and are willing to give up your time to make sure they’re on the right track.

So, how do we do it?

One of the many reasons we’re lucky to have Joel on the Yarno team is his dedication to communication, and in particular to feedback. He’s run a few workshops on what feedback looks like, how to give it, and how to receive it (role-plays and all!).

It’s awkward, difficult and embarrassing, but it is for our collective benefit that we learn this invaluable skill.

A framework we’re following is something we like to call Courageous Feedback. Courageous because we want to enable each other to face challenges and weaknesses without fear. 

There are a few crucial elements in delivering courageous feedback, but the element that permeates the whole exercise is specificity.

After we tackle that one, we’re going to delve into a few other points:

  • Identifying a behaviour and impact 
  • Assuming positive intent and seeking to understand 
  • The role of emotion in feedback 

Being specific

If a colleague said to you: “Great work on that leadership program!” you’d probably feel good. But the problem with comments like these?

There are no actionable takeaways.

It’s nice for them to tell you how great of a job you did, except you’ve likely no clue what part they thought was great or what you could improve on.

A better approach to the situation would be “Great work on that leadership program! I really like how you wrote the seminars to feel like a continuous narrative. And your careful attention to the clock and timings meant the flow and didn’t lag. The management team told me later they loved it, and we’ll definitely use your scaffold for future programs!”

Here, it's evident that:

  • The program was a success
  • The content was engaging
  • The timing was managed well
  • The audience responded well
  • The program was of value to the business

From there we can extract two more elements of Courageous Feedback: behaviour and impact.

Identifying behaviour and impact

Identifying a behaviour and its impact creates actionable feedback.

In the previous scenario, the behaviours were the deliberate planning, thoughtful writing and careful time management that led to the delivery of an awesome program. The impact was twofold: the campaign was a success, and the audience responded well.

This success can be emulated on future projects because you know what you did to get there.

See how it works? Let’s take a situation that requires negative feedback:

You notice one of your team members is consistently late for meetings, only by a few minutes, but it holds everybody else up all the same.

The behaviour in this scenario is the person arriving late at meetings. This could impact your feelings as the driver of the meeting, the precedent that being late sets for the rest of the team, the time wasted, or the knock-on effect for subsequent meetings.

By identifying the behaviour and the impact, the recipient knows exactly what they’re receiving the feedback about and what actions they can take to prevent the situation from happening again.

But beyond that, identifying behaviours make the negative feedback easier to receive because it’s much less likely to be perceived as a personal attack. Behaviours are something we can record or take a picture of. That means they’re empirical. And a rational person will not be able to deny that the behaviour occurred.

So, for example, saying someone arrived late is an easy one because that’s empirical and everyone knows it.

It could be delivered by saying, "Hey, you wasted everyone’s time today.”

That’s a subjective call and falls into the category of being a personal attack. The point of giving feedback is then lost, even though the same behaviour is being commented on.

Assuming positive intent

Acknowledging the inherent good of people should play a major factor giving and receiving feedback. For the giver of feedback, it’s about assuming that most people want to do the right thing. For the recipient, it’s about assuming the giver cares about them and has their best interests at heart. In fact, most people want to receive feedback and would prefer to hear more feedback whenever possible.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling threatened or speculating someone’s motives in giving you feedback. But really, we want to help each other. Simple as that.

Assuming positive intent makes positioning feedback a lot easier, too. If you go into a situation assuming the negative impact of the person’s behaviour wasn’t their intention, it helps to remove the presence of emotions. Finding and using nurturing language also allows the discussion to run smoother. It frames it as a dialogue between two people who care about each other, rather than between adversaries.

Another aspect of positioning is seeking to understand, which is as simple as asking the recipient’s motivations and reasonings for the behaviour you’ve observed. Feedback should be a reciprocal conversation that involves active listening, and further asking clarifying questions to acknowledge that you may not have all of the information needed to make a proper conclusion.

And that’s what feedback should look like – a conversation. Not reprimand, discipline or an unleashing of emotions.

Does emotion have a place in feedback?

Humans are emotional creatures, and sometimes we let our feelings get the better of us. Emotions are good – they mean we care. Though when delivering feedback, keeping strong (predominantly negative) emotions at bay makes the process more effective.

If somebody’s behaviour has evoked anger or frustration in you, can you imagine the tone your conversation would have if you decided to shoot them some feedback off the back of that feeling?A simple way to remove emotion from the feedback conversation is to wait (a short amount of time) until you’re able to think rationally about the behaviour and its impact, then approach the situation with positive intent.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t acknowledge your feelings when giving feedback. Even in a negative feedback situation, it is useful to clearly and rationally let the person know how their behaviour impacted you. In positive feedback scenarios, emotion is key to conveying the positive influence of a person’s behaviour on you. If you’re thankful, proud, excited – let it show. The impression of the feedback will be exponential.

Most importantly, just because you’re ready to give somebody feedback, doesn’t mean they’re ready to receive it.

Asking for permission before delivering feedback allows for a safe space to be created so that both parties can have a voice. Speaking of voice, well-considered choice of word and tone is an essential feature of quality feedback.

Closing the feedback loop

So as a wrap-up: before delivering feedback, here’s a basic framework to follow:

  1. Assume positive intent and seek to understand 
  2. Define the specific behaviour
  3. Assess impact of the behaviour
  4. Ask for permission to deliver feedback
  5. Deliver it in a conversational, non-confrontational manner
  6. Have actionable next-steps for the recipient to follow

Again, it is uncomfortable. It feels clumsy at first.

But the benefits are worth the awkwardness, and then some. To take a few words from feedback master Joel himself:

Specific feedback is the foundation of a nurturing and rewarding culture.
Specific feedback can make a job more than just a job.
It fosters bonds of gratitude and love.
But more importantly, a precedent of Specific Positive feedback and the feelings it engenders makes the specific negative feedback much easier to hear and deliver.
Specific Positive can create a self-perpetuating cycle of feedback that fosters unity and cohesion within a group, be it workers, family or friends.

Now that's what courage looks like.

Got some Courageous Feedback for us? Leave us a comment below, we love to chat!

Erin McGee

Erin is Yarno's trusty wordsmith and resident spreader of good vibes. You'll find her chatting up a storm in Mandarin, yelling kiai's at jujitsu and eating dark chocolate at 2pm sharp.

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