One of the most critical leadership and management traits is the ability to provide exceptional feedback. Exceptional feedback isn’t positive or negative, it is simply done in a way that is well received, if not sought after by the recipient. Feedback should be an all the time thing, not just left for performance reviews and formal discussions. Employees should know exactly where they stand with you, so they feel comfortable with where they are on the performance spectrum and feel that it’s possible to improve.
The first step in providing exceptional feedback starts way before the feedback discussion. Feedback can’t exist without a framework of clear and specific expectations. As a manager, if an employee has completed a task but it’s not “up to your standards” or “falls short of your requirements,” the first step is to ask yourself if you were crystal clear on the expectations in the first place. Did they know that you don’t like bullet points in a PowerPoint? Was it clear that you wanted an executive summary of the project, not a detailed excel spreadsheet? Review the times that you struggled with providing feedback and see how often it comes down to the fact that you didn’t clarify expectations in the first place.
The next thing to look for in moving toward providing exceptional feedback is to realize that what caused you to think it was time to provide feedback, is usually not the thing you need to say when you give it. The trigger is not the way. Let’s say you’ve given someone the feedback that they are not to use bullet points in their presentations, just pictures and graphs. Now you are sitting in a meeting, and sure enough, there are bullet points in the slides. This sets off an emotional trigger in your mind of judgment and evaluation, “Is she ignoring me?” “Why doesn’t she pay attention to what I said.”, “Is she listening to me?” Other than the fact that your amygdala has been high jacked and you literally can’t think clearly, the evaluative and judgmental thoughts exist only in your mind. They may have nothing to with the fact that there were still bullet points in the presentation. You must take a moment to realize that you need to come up with a different way of articulating your feedback from the ideas that triggered you to take action to do so.
Once you can separate the trigger from the way, you are better prepared to provide feedback in the right way. The feedback needs to be specific and descriptive, not evaluative and judgmental. “You used bullet points in the PowerPoint after I described that I didn’t like bullet points, what happened?” This objective comment can lead to a real discussion about the situation at hand, rather than the judgmental comments that lead to the other person fighting back, getting angry or upset and just shutting down. The feedback should be based on behaviors and results, tangible items that can be observed by both parties objectively. The bullet points in the presentation are easy to see and discuss, but whether the employee listened to you, ignored you, has a bad attitude, or just isn’t motivated to change are all internal and subjective.
Once you get comfortable providing feedback, it’s easier for it to be a natural part of your leadership and management process, not just a periodic duty that you feel obligated to employ. Once you do that, you’ll realize that you are more open to receiving feedback as well and can create a culture where there’s real and beneficial dialogue all around.