In helping leaders to become more confident and competent communicators, exploring how to give effective feedback is one of the core areas that we encourage our clients to focus on. And giving clear, succinct and meaningful feedback continues to be one area that even the most experienced leaders struggle with.
When examining this topic, there are two particular techniques that many leaders still use – but that really need to be put out to pasture. The first of these is the Feedback Sandwich (sometimes referred to using a slightly different, rather more scatological, title) and the second is asking a question to get the other person to critique their own performance.
Here's why it's time to stop using the Feedback Sandwich.
If you've had the good fortune of never having come across this technique, in short it simply means that, when giving feedback, you start with something positive the person has done, then go on to the thing they need to change, and then end on a positive again.
The principle underlying this is that if you're going to tell someone you aren't happy with something they've done, pointing out how good they are first will help them be more receptive to, and less demotivated by, the negative stuff. And finishing with a positive means they leave feeling good about themselves again. This is all well and good except:
- The Feedback Sandwich has become such an over-used technique that most people simply wait for the BUT that is coming at the end of the positive opener, and as a result don't pay any attention to the positive message.
- Often the manager doesn't have anything particularly positive to say and so throws in a platitude at the beginning that oozes insincerity and then gives a quick, and once again insincere, pat on the back at the end. This comes across as condescending and is far from motivating.
- The manager over-emphasises the positive stuff so much that the recipient doesn't hear the negative message in the middle, and so goes away without any idea that anything needs to change.
If, on the other hand, you prefer asking a question that gets the other person to critique their own performance, you can also easily run into problems. This popular technique is based on a pervasive message leaders get about the best way to give feedback. You know the one – it's that you should ask a question to get the other person to tell you how they think they did. If you do this, the thinking goes, the other person will miraculously say the very thing you intended to say – and buy into it even more as a result.
This is good practice and works fine if you truly have an open mind about how the person performed or the results they achieved. In that case, it is well worth your while asking an open question and following the other person's lead. But it will not work if you have a specific piece of feedback you want to give because, in practice, the other person won't necessarily say what you wanted them to say.
In response, you will find that you skew your next question to get the other person to say what you want to hear, and again risk getting a totally different answer. And so you find yourself digging an ever-deeper hole. And meanwhile the other person gets the sense that you are searching for something in particular (but not getting to the point) and feels manipulated as a result.
If you regularly use either of these techniques, it's time to give them a rest. Update your feedback style by simply saying what you need to say – clearly and directly. Keep your message brief and, early in the conversation, ask a question to get the other person to share their perspective. That way you'll both be talking about the same thing, with no hidden agenda, and in a way that allows you to behave as mature adults.
This is a far better basis on which to have a meaningful conversation, one that leads to shared understanding and mutual agreement on how best to proceed.
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