From Useless to Useful – How You Can Improve Your Feedback Skills


In countless feedback workshops I’ve facilitated or 360 reviews I have read and debriefed, the one takeaway that sticks out the most is that the majority of feedback that leaders and managers give is useless. Yes, I said it, useless. You’re probably thinking, “Well that is an awfully harsh way to begin.” Perhaps, but the good news is I am here to empower anyone to improve the quality of the feedback they give to others, and make it easy to do all the time. To take your feedback from useless to useful, you will only need to remember the 3 elements of good feedback. It’s that simple. Like any other management or leadership discipline, the ones who will improve the most will be those who successfully make it a habit. This isn’t meant to be a discussion on how to build good habits, so let’s get back to the feedback.

1)   Keep it short and specific

When giving feedback frequently it should be concise, not a treatise or manifesto on every single behavior you have seen, good and bad, from that individual. Far too often, people wait until a performance review or when a behavioral issue continues growing to give feedback. The “wait and tell them everything” approach is definitely recipe for disaster. There is far too much information to process and the recipient, rightfully, won’t absorb much of the message you’re trying to send. Also, at that point, it’s likely so overwhelming that the recipient will cling to feedback at one extreme end of the spectrum – “I’m so amazing.” Or “I’m awful, I hope they don’t fire me.”

A good rule of thumb when preparing your feedback message is to plan your message with 3 short and specific points or less. If you have more than 3 short and specific points, you’re giving too much feedback (in one conversation). Here are a few examples of short and specific feedback that allow for the recipient to take action. “You ran that meeting really well. Your agenda was just the right length for the amount of time. You kept the agenda moving forward so all topics were covered. You also facilitated the meeting so that everyone in the room and on the phone had a chance to speak.” This is a short, to the point and specific with three clear points that the recipient can replicate the next time s/he runs a meeting. Note there are no observations about how the giver thinks the recipient feels nor are there any comments on the projected emotions of the recipient. In another example, we can employ the same approach to give developmental or constructive feedback. “I’d like to give you some feedback about the sales call that we just had. It appears that you were distracted from the discussion. You checked your cell phone at least 4 times during the call. When the client asked you a question, you asked her to repeat the question because you were reading something on your phone. I also noticed that you were rolling your eyes and sighing loudly when the client was detailing what happened during our last visit. Would it be okay if we have a quick chat about what I could do to help next time?” Again, same as in the last example, there were three clear and specific behavioral observations. With this one, most feedback givers I’ve observed would be inclined to give this feedback with lots of details about feelings and emotions the giver assumed the recipient had. That’s not a great way to engage in a feedback discussion. The feedback in this instance points to specific behaviors the recipient can easily stop doing. Keep it simple, short and specific, and simply say what you saw -- nothing more, nothing less.


2)   Make time to be timely

Everyone is busy. There are millions of pieces of information coming at us in any given minute of the day. We have more information and data now than we will ever have time to interpret, analyze or action. In this “new normal” of information overload, it is even more important that we all make time to give feedback. It needs to be a priority. Something we do each day in as many of our interactions as possible. It is the only way to keep our progress and performance steady with the rate of change we are experiencing in technology and business. Feedback is best received (and actioned) when it is given as close to when the behavior(s) was observed, as realistically possible. This may mean that you have to start thinking differently about how you go about your day. If you are managing or leading a team, what are the opportunities in your day to make time for some quick, informal feedback? If you’re used to having one-hour meetings, what about making the meeting 45 or 50 minutes and using the remaining 10 – 15 minutes to give some quick feedback to those in the meeting? If you have an office, you could easily chat with 1 or 2 people in that time after the meeting and give some quick feedback like in the examples above. Making the time to share feedback regularly will go a long way with your team. They will undoubtedly be more responsive and open to you as a leader or manager of the team. It may be a bit awkward to them in the beginning, if this is a significant departure from your normal behavior. However, if you share with them in advance your desire to improve the quality and frequency of the feedback you provide, it won’t be a surprise and, in many instances, they will start to ask you for feedback before you say anything.

Any new habit is easy to start, because you are initially excited and so you will keep up with the action for a few days, maybe even a week or two. More often than not, the old cadence of work comes creeping back in, so you may skip a time or two, which then becomes three or four and then you drop it altogether. To help with your accountability, enlist the team in support of your new habit. If you have an assistant, ensure s/he is aware of how you want to make time for feedback each day and make sure it is on your calendar in a way that you will honor it just as you would a meeting with your CEO or other executive. The more people you can enroll as supporters for making the time for feedback, the more likely you are to have long-term success.

3)   Keep track of the feedback you give

The sad reality of the world of feedback is that our brains are naturally wired for us to give more developmental or constructive feedback than positive feedback. A question I often ask leaders and managers when trying to understand their current feedback behaviors is, “how often do you ask to speak to a manager or supervisor if you receive poor service in a restaurant or store?” Most of the responses are some version of “always”, “fairly often”, “if I’m not in a rush, every time” etc. I then ask, “how often do you ask to speak to a manager or supervisor if you receive great service in a restaurant or store?” Most of the responses to this question are some version of “sometimes”, “only if it really blew me away”, “if it’s exceptional, yes, otherwise not at all”, “wow, I’m not sure I have done that ever” etc.  Likely you have just thought about how you would answer that question and most of you probably fell into one of the answer categories I described. This is why it is critical for you to track the feedback you are giving to people. You don’t need to over engineer it at all. You can keep a tally in a notebook or on a sheet of paper you carry in your wallet or purse. A quick and dirty way to do this would be to set up a three-column grid with the column headings: 1) Name, 2) Positive, and 3) Constructive. Keep this tally for at least a month. Each time you give someone on your team some “short and specific” feedback, make a note on your grid. At the end of the month, see how much feedback you’re giving to your team and what type of feedback you’re giving each person. What patterns emerge? What do you notice? What can you change next month? How can you see more positive feedback for someone who may be struggling? What could you do to more closely observe the rock star on your team about whom you only have wonderful things to say?

If you make a plan to follow these three steps for at least 90 days, I am sure you will be more than pleasantly surprised with the results. The challenge will be for you to stay the course for the full 90 days when your initial enthusiasm wanes. However, giving people concise feedback, in a timely manner on a regular basis, with a balance of positive and constructive messages overall will ramp up their performance in ways you have yet to imagine. Be sure to let me know how you’re doing. Feel free to check in with me on Twitter (@KDLSsays) at your 30, 60 and 90-day marks. I’m happy to be a virtual accountability partner for you; especially if it helps you to provide useful feedback regularly. Let’s start a feedback revolution!