Giving feedback can be a wiggly, confusing little monster. Brush past the negative points to avoid wounding egos and your listeners will think they're models of perfection. Focus only on what needs work, though, and you risk making people feel hopelessly incompetent.
Dan Davenport knows this delicate dance intimately. As the President and General Manager at career and outplacement solutions company RiseSmart, he spends much of his time teaching people how to turn setbacks around so they can move forward. Based on his experience, he says great feedback boils down to just four elements.
1. Focus on authenticity.
Management, Davenport says, is like coaching in that you have to build an "emotional bank" with your listener. You do that by regularly depositing positive feedback you truly mean and building trust. This way, when you do have to drop a proverbial bowling ball on their toes, they can accept what you're saying on an emotional level. The approach is a direct alternative to the so called "sh-t sandwich" popularized by technology founder and investor Ben Horowitz. Sometimes more politely called the "suck sandwich", this feedback method has leaders smoosh negative points between praise. Davenport maintains it's ineffective because leaders tend to skip over actionable solutions, and because listeners either ignore the advice or feel anxious about the negative points.
2. Watch your timing.
Davenport claims that regular review sessions can come off as artificial and irrelevant if managers aren't trained to provide actionable feedback based on what they've observed. A better choice that supports authenticity is to give your feedback candidly in the moment, focusing on the now with the listener.
"Conversational one-on-one meetings in a less formal setting are more likely to lead to a positive impact and help employees improve and refine their performance. These discussions should be a two-way dialog that avoids one person talking at the other, and instead opens the lines of communication. Results from this structure should establish a practice of ongoing, frequent conversations, eliminate defensive-provoking monologue, encourage meaningful conversations, and transcend the feedback to becoming more forward-looking and related to company goals."
3. Know your audience.
One person's personality and sense of self can be drastically different from another individual, meaning you need to be sensitive to the amount of feedback necessary and how each listener prefers to receive it. For example, some people experience the Dunning-Kruger effect. They might have low abilities, but they're biased to see themselves as more intelligent or superior than others. Others are very competent and perform great, but they need more positive feedback and recognition because they have a lower sense of self-worth. This is critical for leaders to understand, as it flies in the face of the typical expectation that managers and executives standardize or have specific protocols for "equal and fair" feedback.
4. Be transparent.
"Being transparent and honest with feedback not only opens the lines of communication, but establishes trust between both parties. When there's trust, people are more likely to accept feedback and want to improve because they feel more connected to their organization. Create a balance between honesty and empathy. While managers shouldn't hide away in their offices to avoid confrontations, they need to walk a fine line between being completely honest about minute reactions to every mistake and allowing for their team members to learn and grow through their errors and every day work."
As Davenport's advice suggests, if you want to give feedback that actually empowers, motivates and changes people, you can't take a one-size-fits all approach and operate with your eyes shut by procedure and authority. You have to be willing to see each individual and invest in them by giving a little of yourself. Maybe that will mean saying no to other things. That's OK. You don't have to do everything. You just have to be confident and empathetic enough to convince others they have a role beside you, regardless of what you choose to prioritize.