Delivering feedback is one of business life’s most underrated art forms. When you give effective feedback, you’re offering either comfort (to good performers) or showing the path to improvement (for not-so-good ones). When you fail to deliver straightforward feedback or deliver it too infrequently, you institutionalize inadequacy. Chances are, you’re doing more of the second than the first.
That’s because of the way everyone is taught to give feedback. The usual advice is to serve it up like a cheese sandwich. Start by saying something encouraging (the bottom slice of bread), then move on to the behavior that needs to be improved (the cheese) and close with some heartening parting words (the top slice).
What happens? Naturally, the recipient only tastes the corrective cheese, and forgets all the positive reinforcement. That’s why I prefer to take the gluten-free approach: Cut the bread and get to the point, in order to leave room for more. I prefer to deliver positive and negative feedback as separate courses, while maintaining that everyone can stomach some extra dessert. In other words, if you acknowledge good performance as often as possible, the occasional constructive feedback you offer will go down easier and will more likely be acted on.
Remember, though, the quality of cheese affects how the message is digested. (Okay, I promise, this metaphor is reaching the end of its useful life.) When providing positive or negative advice, phrasing is crucial: Pronouns are the secret sauce. When you give a compliment, start the sentence with “You.” When you’re criticizing, it’s all about “I.” As in “I get the sense that your heart isn’t in this task, Grimsley.” Or “I didn’t understand the goal of your presentation, Smith.” Grimsley and Smith can’t argue with your own perceptions, and you’ve given a constructive perspective on their performance without backing them into a corner.
Many years ago, as a fresh new supervisor, I was asked to improve the performance of the company’s weakest group of remote field engineers. I quickly learned that the team felt alienated by scattershot criticism and a lack of recognition from the Head Office. Something had to change. The team and I designed a review system to evaluate each project on a 10-point scale. That transformed the feedback from random critiques to consistent, objective assessments. After three months on the new system, 95% of the files from this team reached the highest standard of performance. In no time, the ‘weakest’ group became the best engineering unit at the firm.
In my own business, I’ve noticed how my supervisors tend to say nothing about their team members’ good performance until they feel it’s time to correct a mistake. Then they serve the praise and criticism as a cheese sandwich that comes across as patronizing and insincere—with criticism that overwhelms the bland praise. The truth is, your employees (and suppliers) are hungry for feedback. You can’t give enough. And if you serve it right, you will inspire better performance and a taste for even more.
Joanna Flatt contributed to the writing of this piece.