Something that comes up a lot in client conversations is out of the blue experiences, where people think everything was ticking along nicely and it turns out that wasn’t the case. I had a boss once who, for over a year, reassured me when I frequently asked if there was anything I should be doing that I wasn’t doing that I was doing a great job - only to recount in granular detail every error I had made (including not being charismatic enough) during my exit interview when it was impossible for me to do anything about it in that organisation.
I am also haunted by the memory of giving unexpected end of year feedback to a colleague who wholeheartedly believed they were doing a great job, so I am not holding myself up as being a model for getting any of this right. However, I would like to assure you that I was very careful not to make that particular error again.
We are all really hesitant about giving bad feedback to others and often either avoid it altogether or soften the blow so much the message gets lost. What we are doing by not giving feedback is not allowing that person to learn and grow. Humans learn by trial and error and if you break the feedback loop, you are in fact denying them them the chance to become better.
There are many ways of giving feedback and we need to find our own style. Here are a few techniques you can try (and one to avoid!)
This is an approach from Marshall Goldsmith, who suggests that you couch the information is terms of “what might be great to try in the future” rather than what wen’t wrong in the past. It implies that you believe they can change and that you want the best for them. Its a great technique!
This is more of a generalised approach rather than a technique. Its good to start with checking in with the other person - what do they think is going well and whats not going so well? In my experience, most people have doubts and just need a safe environment to air them. That neatly segues into the opportunity to explore alternative ways of tackling a problem.
5 Word Review
This was a method created by one of the founders of of Kayak.com. You solicit feedback from a colleagues or your manager but their contribution is limited to 5 words and they need to cover what you are doing well and what could benefit from improvement. You meet to talk about it for an hour, ideally. Nothing is written down, so its not on anyone’s record. Repeat multiple times.
The DESC technique is a nice structure to support you when you give feedback:
Tell a story
Telling a story about yourself or another person who had a similar experience that led to a happy outcome is a technique that works for people of all ages to illustrate a better approach to a common set of circumstances. It also helps them to recognise that they are not alone in misjudging a situation, which helps to reduce the natural tendency to become defensive. I leave it up to you to decide how grounded the story has to be in reality, but do remember people have a sixth sense for deception!
And the one to avoid? Its the feedback sandwich - where you offer praise then tuck in the criticism and follow up with more praise. It is very popular (having been recommended for years now) but super confusing for the receiver. They either just hear the positives or they brace themselves for the second punch and let the good sentiments fly past unheard.
I hope this inspires you to give feedback more often. And to see it as a gift rather than as a negative experience for you and for the recipient. Instead, look upon it as something that helps them grow better and stronger, like fertiliser for the soul.
25 years experience in helping teams build user centred products and services, now helping digital colleagues learn how to bounce back better than before from the challenges life throws at us from time-to-time.