How effective are you at giving feedback?

When managers answer this question, they often describe how and how often they deliver feedback to their employees: timely, direct, actionable, contextual, continuous. As long as the feedback is delivered often enough and directly enough, we reason that it's effective. 

Unfortunately, this couldn't be further from the truth. 

A recent Harvard Business Review article by Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab titled "Are You Sugarcoating Your Feedback Without Realizing It?" provides a grave reality check. Their research shows that many managers deliver inflated feedback unintentionally, and often think they've been much more clear than they have been. 

Indeed, in one study mentioned in the article conducted at a multinational nonprofit organization, Schaerer and Swaab observed that "the employees perceived feedback as being more positive than their managers thought they would." When the feedback became more negative, the understanding gap widened. 

The authors point to a common cognitive bias to explain the disconnect: the illusion of transparency. This bias causes us to overestimate how obvious our inner world is to others -- and when we think that what we're feeling and thinking is evident to others, we then underestimate how explicit our communication needs to be.  

When considering this chasm in understanding, an adage one of my mentors shared with me springs to mind: "The value of feedback is measured at the other person's ear, not at your mouth." In other words, the cadence and delivery of feedback doesn't matter at all if the person on the receiving end doesn't understand it -- and without understanding, the feedback is necessarily ineffective.

So how can you ensure the other person's understanding, thereby ensuring the efficacy of the feedback? By ending every feedback conversation with a simple six-word question:

"What did you hear me say?"

This question prompts the recipient to summarize the conversation from their point of view, and enables the deliverer to confirm that both parties are on the same page or affords the opportunity to make any needed clarifications before the meeting is over. 

Alternatively, if the person needs time to process, or is more comfortable with written communication, you can ask them to send you a note later with their main takeaways from the conversation. 

In case you feel awkward asking this question (I often do), let them know that by providing a summary from their point of view, they're actually giving you valuable feedback -- specifically on the clarity of your communication. This is also a fantastic opportunity to model receiving feedback in the way that you hope they receive it from you -- thank them, summarize your takeaways, and proactively share how you will use it in the future. 

It can be tempting to bolt out the door as soon as a difficult piece of feedback leaves your lips. But by sitting tight and checking for understanding, you ensure your feedback is understood, and achieving the desired purpose of helping the person grow. And growth is always worth any temporary discomfort.