Giving Feedback That People Hear

leadership development feedbackLast month I read a great article about giving feedback that I thought was very timely as I know many of you are getting ready for performance reviews. First, it reminds me of a saying that has been attributed to both Buddha and Socrates, “Is it True? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind?” and second, it points to the fact that giving feedback is more about us than the recipient.

Let’s start with the second bit of advice first. It’s always all about us, that’s human nature. We are wired to think about ourselves first, middle, and last. It’s survival, but we often take it for granted or carry it too far. When we think about giving feedback, positive or negative, it’s often unconsciously about us. We wonder about how hard it will be and what will people think of me? etc. The article linked at the beginning of this post is full of statistics about biases and beliefs around feedback and the effect it has on performance. It’s important to recognize these “facts” before you even think about giving someone feedback. Your job is to be responsible for what gets heard.

Now let’s look at the first of the three simple rules of giving feedback. “Is it true?” Employees want and crave feedback, truthful feedback that is. They are more likely to make a behavioral change to something they perceive as true vs. some made up “improve this” because you felt you needed to at least tell them something. Don’t make stuff up or reach for an improvement comment just so you can have one. It doesn’t do anyone any good. Even if you think you’re being helpful, you’re not. If you question whether it’s true in the slightest bit, it probably isn’t. So focus on the facts, the truth, and leave the rest alone.

The second rule is, “Is it necessary?” We are not the messengers of the world sent down to tell everyone every little thing they are doing wrong. We are not gods. We are managers of people who might be able to do better at something. If an employee’s performance is being impacted by a behavioral trait that could use a change or improvement, tell them. If it’s just an annoying habit that you don’t care for but doesn’t impact the workplace, let it go. Not your job. And never give more than three pieces of direction for improvement – beyond that, a person’s brain just shuts down and they feel worthless. Give them specific things to change and examples of how it doesn’t serve and how it could with the change. No one is broken with that approach.

Lastly, “Is it kind?” We often forget this when giving feedback in our haste to get it over with. We can be abrupt, direct and insensitive. The problem is if you take that approach, it won’t be heard. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipient – how would they hear it best? What is kind to them? How would you like to hear it? Here’s where a little empathy goes a long way. Don’t make excuses for the behavior or apologize, but be kind in your delivery. It will have a much better chance of being heard.

Remember that this advice is not just for review time, it’s about giving feedback which you should be doing regularly. Once a year or even once a quarter is not enough, mentor your people on a regular basis and this becomes much easier.