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Giving feedback that doesn’t suck

Giving feedback that doesn’t suck

Photo credit: Tim Gouw

If you’ve ever worked in a team, especially with people you like, you probably already know that giving feedback is probably one of the toughest things you have to do. And it’s not only hard, but it’s also something we often forget to do, or the things we need to say seem so obvious that it’s not even worth saying them. Unfortunately, telling people how they’re doing, both praising and pointing out the mistakes they make, is extremely important and requires skill. Giving feedback is not only necessary, but may also bring positive energy into a group. Dawn Sillet, a specialist in coaching and effective training, presents a few tips on how to do it right in her book "How to be Zoomly at work".    


Photo credit: Nick Karvounis

In the past, I often avoided praising my teammates just because I didn't know how to evaluate their performance constructively - what to say to them to be informative and helpful. Some people may also consider praising a bit awkward or just unnecessary - thinking that our colleagues know that they’re doing a great job and don’t have to be reminded about it. We forget that people differ in their self-assessment - for instance I have a constant problem with appropriately evaluating my own work and often I’m not sure what I’m doing well and what I should improve.

Praising motivates and supports the nonsecure and assures the ones who are confident about their performance. But how can we praise effectively?

  • Get the balance between praising and criticizing right. Barbara Fredrickson claims that the ideal ratio between positivity and negativity is 3:1. If it’s true, it means that one failure equals at least three successes and one criticism must be accompanied by three good words. So it would be the best if I praise my teammates at least thrice as much as I criticize them.

  • Give evidence. When we praise someone, it's better to use verbs instead of adjectives. It's neither informative nor efficientefficent if I just tell someone what a fantastic, creative or hard-working person he or she is. We need to be specific and provide the recipients of the praise with examples of their behavior. For instance, instead of just saying, “Your article is fine”, it’s better to say, “You can present even the most difficult problems for a layman in a straightforward way.”

  • Explain the effect. When praising, we could also mention the impact of the praised person's actions. Then they’ll have the bigger picture, they’ll know what the positive results of their behavior are and why it’s important to repeat it. For instance, I could add to my praise a comment like “I heard from many teachers that your articles are helpful and informative, and they’ve recommended our portal to their colleagues”.  

  • Be honest. Praising is not about being hyper-excited and over-thrilled about someone’s performance. It’s just about being sincere with ourselves and making our remarks appropriate to the situation. If my team and I had a tough time preparing for workshops and our team member, who was a keynote speaker, did a great job, we don’t have to elaborate for hours on how perfect he was. We can just simply say that we’re relieved, or just thank him for a good performance.

Building people up with feedback

Photo credit: Tim Gouw

Dawn Sillet explains that it’s better to use the word ‘building’ instead of constructive criticism - it has less negative connotations:

Building does what it says on the tin: it builds the recipient’s awareness, skills and motivation, ultimately building their performance… the trust and honesty between you both. When you build someone, you’re building yourself as you do it.

How can we effectively talk to team members about their mistakes?

  • Give evidence. Like with praising, if we think that our team member’s actions affected our work, we must precisely know what happened and what the impact was. Just having the impression that our teammate is arrogant isn’t enough to approach him or her and complain. Clear evidence is essential, for instance his or her nasty comment hurt someone’s feelings, he or she meddles in matters that are beyond his or her competence and this irritates the person who’s actually in charge.

  • Time the feedback well. The problem needs to be solved as soon as possible before conflict escalates.

  • Start politely. It’s best to first explain that we wish to talk about something important and check whether the other person has time to talk about it right now.

  • Prepare ourselves. We must gather evidence in advance and precisely say what’s going on. For instance, “You were late to our last five meetings” or “You interrupted me several times during our last radio interview.”

  • Get the other side of the story. It's essential to ask our teammate what their version of events is. Listen carefully and stay calm regardless of what they say.  

  • Explain the effect. If it’s necessary, we can point out what the adverse impact of our teammates' behavior was, but usually it’s not needed. When we know that we did something wrong, we usually realize the consequences. Digging into the problem and preaching is humiliating and it’s better to cut criticism to the minimum - to the mere facts.  

  • Find a solution. It’s good to ask how a teammate is going to solve the problem and later observe if the situation has in fact improved.


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