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Apr 24, 2012

By Peter Jensen

There are four simple rules for giving effective feedback.

  1. Be specific versus general.
  2. Describe versus evaluate.
  3. Focus on the behavior versus the person.
  4. Maintain the relationship versus indulge in self-serving behavior.

The first rule, that feedback should be specific and not general, ties in with what we will talk about in the imagery section. There we explain that coaches need to paint clear pictures so that people can self-adjust their performances.

Why you need to be specific

Even positive feedback needs to be very specific if we are going to increase the performer’s competence. General feedback like, “You were terrific, Muhammad,” or “That was a great speech to the Rotary Club last night, Ashley,” may make the person feel good, but it does little to improve his or her competence. How can Muhammad stay terrific if he has no idea what he did, specifically, that you thought was terrific?

The third rule reminds you to focus on the behaviors you wish to improve, change, or reinforce in the other person. I recently asked a group of leaders in a seminar I was teaching if they thought their children were bad. Except for one jokester parent, all concurred that their children were not rotten-to-the-core bad. They also acknowledged, however, that they often were not thrilled with their children’s behavior.

I suggested that perhaps a more accurate form of feedback to their children might be something like this: “I love you, but I don’t like the way you are treating your younger brother” (or the mess of your room or whatever behavior you’re dealing with). The message then is that they aren’t bad, but that you sure don’t like the behavior.

In the same way, I may have an excellent employee with a bad habit I would like him to change. Let’s say, for example, that one has a tendency to interrupt people in mid-sentence in meetings. It’s the interrupting that I choose to focus on. “Adam, you interrupted Jacques three times during his presentation this morning. A rule of thumb in those situations is to let people finish talking before you comment or ask questions.” If I think he needs to be made aware of the impact he had on at least one person, I might add a comment on my feelings: “I must admit I felt a bit frustrated by the interruptions.”

In the above example I chose to take a teaching approach and did not assume competence on Adam’s part — I did not ­assume he knew not to interrupt — and so fed back to him a picture of the appropriate behavior. Had I chosen to use a more consultative style I would have asked, “Adam, are you aware that you interrupted Jacques three times during his prepared presentation in the meeting this morning?”

Using the mentoring style

You will recall that the consulting style — asking questions and actively listening — is focused on developing self-awareness and self-responsibility in the other person. If he answers casually, “Yeah, so what?” then clearly he does not have enough awareness yet, so I might move to a second question: “Well, I know how I feel when I have prepared something I want people to hear in its entirety and I get interrupted. How do you feel when that happens ?to you?”

A third possibility is to use a mentoring style. Mentoring is simply coaching that focuses on a career path or survival in the organization. In this instance my feedback would sound more like this: “Adam, as you know, one of the things that is really valued in this organization is that we treat each other with respect and dignity. Interrupting Jacques three times during his prepared statement in the meeting this morning might be interpreted by some as disrespectful. I am sure that wasn’t your intention, but I must admit I felt a little frustrated by it.”

The fourth rule reminds us to give feedback for one reason and one reason only: to help the other person get better. Feedback is not meant to be self-serving to the person giving it. This is not where you get even or show them you’re smarter. Whatever approach you take, you should be able to give feedback — all feedback — in a way that maintains the relationship.

If your feedback is to have maximum impact in bringing about increased competence on the part of the performer, then it should also be timely, varied, and frequent. It was Paul Allaire, the retired CEO of Xerox, who once said that we undercommunicate “to the power of 10.”

Just because we said it once doesn’t mean people got it. For them to get the message clearly, you need to communicate it over and over again, as often as you can, in as many ways as possible. As for timeliness, research tells us that the effectiveness of feedback starts to decline 0.4 seconds after the act. The best time to tell someone? Now!

Good feedback comes from disciplined leaders

A few important final thoughts on feedback.

Leaders who are good at the skill of feedback are highly disciplined; they think ­carefully about what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it. Few of us can spontaneously offer up exceptionally good, competent, relevant feedback. This simply doesn’t come naturally.

All of us are capable of giving general, nonspecific, ­focus-on-the-person feedback such as “Great job on that report, Bruce.” Giving exceptional feedback is a different matter altogether. “I read the McDougal report, Bruce, and it’s extremely thorough and well targeted. It focuses on efficiencies, succession planning, and return on investment (ROI), which are the customer’s key concerns. I feel confident in forwarding it to the client. Excellent job!”

Who spontaneously speaks like this? Perhaps only your golf pro or someone who is trying to make you better. Most of us need to spend a few moments capturing the key points and getting back in touch with the guidelines for effective feedback before we’re able to give such comprehensive, meaningful feedback.

Here’s what University of Illinois track coach Gary Winckler had to say about the role of asking questions and listening in coaching:

Ask them, almost on a daily basis, how they’re doing, and I’m always telling them, ‘Don’t just tell me you’re doing okay. How are you really doing, how’s school, how’s your family, how are you adjusting to homesickness?’ It’s not so easy, especially in the school environment, where you only see your athletes an hour or two a day and we jump on the field and do our routine and then go our separate ways again.”

Gary is right. We do have limited time. But these constraints signal that it’s even more important to make asking and listening priorities.

If you want to make the most of the time you have with your people, take advantage of the opportunities you do have by using the most effective communication skills available to you.

Excerpted from The Winning Factor: Inspire Gold-Medal Performance in Your Employees by Peter Jensen. Copyright © 2012 Peter Jensen. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved.