Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions: 10 Tips for Doing it Right

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October 11, 2013 /LinkedIn/ – Whether from bosses, spouses or friends, it’s not easy to hear about our shortcomings. And letting others know how they can do better is almost as uncomfortable. Feedback can stir up all kinds of self-doubt, defensiveness and career worries – and if handled poorly, it can go radioactive.

But I think about feedback differently. For me, it isn’t about pointing out others’ weaknesses; on the contrary, it’s about helping them eliminate stumbling blocks in order to build on their strengths. That’s why I call feedback “the breakfast of champions.”

And it’s essential. Operating without feedback is like driving a car with no speedometer, learning to cook without ever tasting your food, or playing basketball without a scoreboard.

Many organizations don’t train teams in how to give feedback. As a result, many of us have been on the receiving end of vague, unnecessarily negative feedback, with no clear plan for improvement. But, done the right way, feedback can be transformative and redemptive. Here are a few guidelines:

1. Don’t wing it. The words you choose will matter. Practice what you’re going to say and how you plan to say it — and even consider rehearsing with a trusted partner. Your attitude, the accuracy of what you say, and the care with which you say it may matter as much as the specifics.

2. Lean positive. Every time you offer feedback, some (if not most) of it should be positive. Look for opportunities to praise successes even as you offer suggestions for improvement. Celebrating performance has a salutary effect on everyone and is much more powerful than disciplining shortcomings. Dispensing encouragement is infectious.

3. Be specific. There’s no point in telling someone they need to be “more punctual” or “more diplomatic.” Give examples and specific suggestions for improvement. Replace “you need to be more punctual” with “let’s keep track of what time we start our weekly staff meetings in the coming month and then talk about how it went.”

4. Don’t limit it to a big annual event. Encourage regular and informal assessment. Don’t limit feedback to annual performance reviews where you bring people into a conference room. Instead, make a deal with your team to offer (and accept) real-time tweaks to enhance performance. Indeed, the best opportunities for this are when you “catch people in the moment” — when you can point out a missed cue or a better way a situation could have been handled. Make talking about “how we’re doing” regular and easy.

5. Keep it cool. Don’t use “high velocity” language. Labeling someone “lazy” or “inept” will invariably come back to bite you. And never shout, stand or be animated. People will recall how they felt, not what you said; so reduce the drama.

6. Don’t deluge. People can only process so many suggestions at once. If you have more than three items for someone to address, group them under a general heading, like goal-setting, cooperation, or communication and offer an example of each with a specific suggestion for improvement.

7. If it’s serious, say so. Occasionally, you may need to let someone know that unless they make specific changes, their job may be in jeopardy. If so, be direct. Let them know if something is getting in the way of their professional development, and that it could lead to dismissal if unaddressed. If this feedback is offered encouragingly – along with a plan to follow up – it can light fires that lead to improvement.

8. Follow up. By noting improvements on the spot, you’ll reinforce that you’re paying attention. Check in soon about the plan you made together, and as you notice efforts to improve, point them out.

9. Think of feedback as a gift. There are “no percentages” in giving a peer or organizational superior feedback about things to work on. In other words, there’s plenty of risk and no direct reward — it’s safer to do nothing. So if a subordinate has the courage to offer you that kind of input, thank them and make a special effort to reward their risk-taking.

10. It stays confidential. Feedback sessions are private. Don’t ever share the conversation with someone else. In giving feedback, you’re seeking to help the person and the organization. Nothing good will come from sharing one person’s issues with another.

The aim is to build a culture where people feel confident about sharing feedback without the fear that it will be taken personally. Honest, thoughtful feedback is an important and valuable tool for building a good team and a good business. With better feedback comes more trust, more team bonding, and more progress – that’s why it’s the breakfast of champions.

By Joel Peterson