Give Constructive Feedback

Adam Bryant’s Corner Office interviews with leaders often reveal how communication is such a critical component of excellent leadership.  In Q&A with Alastair Mitchell, CEO of Huddle, Adam asks: What were some early management lessons for you?  Alastair includes lessons around communication.  He mentions learning about “being too vague or not strong enough or clear enough when you’re giving feedback.”  I hear this often from leaders who want to be kind in giving feedback, but then later learn that they didn’t give the follower enough information to make the needed change.

In Peter Northouse’s textbook on Leadership that I use for teaching Leadership Communication at San Francisco State, he sites research, “When done correctly, constructive feedback allows group members to look at themselves honestly and know what they need to maintain or improve (LaFasto & Larson 2001).”

There are 5 steps for giving effective constructive feedback:

  1. Address behaviors, not personal traits.
  2. Describe specifics of what you observed, not interpretations or analysis.
  3. Use “I” language, not “You” language.
  4. Give feedback in calm, unemotional tones and language.
  5. Check to ensure effective communication has occurred by asking very specific questions.

A bad example of feedback is, “You are always late with projects and you make clients mad! For goodness sake, just get your stuff done on time!  Got it?”

A good example of constructive feedback is,  “I see that the project came in behind schedule. It was due Monday and was completed Friday.  I find clients don’t come back to us when projects are late.  Now that we have implemented time-tracking software, I am confident you will manage your time more effectively, ask for more resources if you need them, and complete projects on time.  Can you please go over the steps you need to take to complete projects on time in the future?”

Being clear, specific, and kind in giving feedback results in followers knowing what they need to change and feeling motivated to make that change.

In the Q&A, Alastair goes on to comment, “. . .you have to give people a sense of mission and a clear scope of what we do and don’t do and then allow people to be as entrepreneurial as they like within those guidelines.” Fostering a sense of autonomy within organizational structure creates motivated followers willing to take risks.  Think of progress as a virtuous circle, where people understand the higher goal, take risks and sometimes fail, then receive constructive feedback and continue to work towards the goal in a motivated manner.   That is effective leadership made possible through excellence in communication.