Leaders know that an important part of their job is to help their employees grow and learn.  And this can’t happen without providing feedback, on what is working well as well as what can be improved.  This doesn’t mean once a year at a scheduled performance review, this means on an ongoing basis.  Giving (and receiving) feedback should be a regular part of your organizational culture.  If you have room to improve your feedback habits, here are some ideas on how to start.

A recent white paper from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), Busting Myths About Feedback, What Leaders Should Know, provides research and insights that help leaders navigate the feedback process. The paper first makes the distinction between “positive” feedback, which reinforces behaviors and performance to be repeated, and “negative” feedback, which identifies opportunities for development. Both are important, but there may be misunderstandings about the balance to strike between them.

One survey found that 94% of human resources professionals said positive feedback had a greater impact on improving employee performance than negative feedback.  However, the CCL research found that employees would prefer less positive feedback and more negative feedback.  And another study found that both positive and negative feedback can be motivating.  With these findings in mind, what are some best practices for giving both reinforcing and corrective feedback, and how to deliver feedback so that it is useful and constructive?

Strike the right balance. While both corrective and reinforcing feedback should be part of your repertoire, it might be difficult to know how much of each you should provide.  The CCL study suggests a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback.  A separate study, at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, found that highest-performing teams had a ratio of nearly 6:1 positive to negative comments while low-performing teams had a ratio of 0.36:1, or three negative comments for every positive comment. You don’t necessarily have to keep track of your exact count of each, but consider that a higher ratio of reinforcing to corrective feedback may be the balance that your team needs.

Behavior, situation, impact.  Feedback is ultimately about changing (or encouraging) behaviors – so describe the actual behavior you observed, and do it as soon as possible after the event.  Stick to facts (“You interrupted my presentation”) rather than interpretation (“You were rude”), and be specific when describing the situation. You might have had five meetings yesterday, which one are you referring to? And in explaining the impact on you (“I felt frustrated because I was in the middle of making a point”), you avoid judgments on the person you are providing feedback to.  This same process works when providing reinforcing feedback.

Practice, practice, practice. If we are not used to giving feedback, it can feel uncomfortable, and we might not be sure what to say.  Like anything we need to improve, you might need to practice. This could mean you write out or think through what to say, or even try it out with someone else first, to see how it lands (and get feedback on how you deliver feedback!).  Check yourself for word choice and tone.  While you want to be honest and straightforward, you also want to be tactful, considerate, and empathetic in your delivery.  Make an effort to build feedback into your interactions more regularly, both corrective and reinforcing.

Providing feedback is the responsibility of a leader – in fact, your employees expect it.  When you make feedback a regular part of your interactions with your team, you enable them to continue to learn and grow, contributing to the development of themselves, your team, and your organization.

Your questions and comments are welcomed – please leave them below, or email me.  To learn about new blog posts, follow me on Twitter or look for them on the Neo-Strategic website.

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