5 keys to giving effective feedback
When I worked as a derivatives trader, I remember getting some feedback about my decision-making. During a year-end review, one of my bosses told me that he thought I could improve my judgement.
While parts of me were sad, angry, and surprised, a big part of me was really excited to learn what I could do better. So, I asked!
Here’s how I remember our conversation.
Me: Wow… OK, thanks for letting me know. I’d love to improve. Do you have an example of a situation where I exercised poor judgement?
Boss: Well… not really. I can’t think of anything.
Boss: Actually, there was a time a few months ago where <thing> happened in <this trade>.
Me: Hmm… What could I have done differently?
Boss: I don’t remember the specifics.
Dear reader, do you see the problem? There were definitely aspects of whatever situation that I had missed. But, with a delay of several months and no specifics, it was impossible for me to learn and improve.
Unfortunately, that’s how many of us give (and receive) feedback in our professional lives. Feedback occurs long after the event that caused it. It’s vague and it doesn’t help people learn.
It’s true that many of us weren’t taught to give good feedback. But there’s often another reason we’re reluctant:
We’re afraid of feeling uncomfortable.
Boy, does that make sense… feeling uncomfortable is, well, uncomfortable.
It’s so much easier, in the moment, to dodge a tough conversation. But, when we do that, we’re robbing others (and ourselves!) of learning.
Part of the discomfort comes, I think, from a deep yearning for control. We want to be in control of what others think about us. It can be as simple as wanting to be liked.
We also want to be in control of our environment. If we give someone feedback, we take a risk. The ball is now in their court, and they may not improve.
If we stay silent — well, at least we’ll know the weaknesses of those around us. That’s controllable.
But real growth comes from letting go of control.
It’s recognizing that even the way you give feedback is a growth opportunity. You may not do the best job, but, with feedback about your feedback, you can improve.
Great feedback is rooted in the ability to hold everyone accountable for their decisions and mistakes — getting them to explain what they saw, what they thought, and why they made the decisions they did. When you start with the assumption that everyone shows up to do a good job, the outcome is learning for everyone.
Without further ado, here are the five C’s of great feedback:
- Contemporaneous: You give feedback soon after a relevant event.
- Contextual: Your feedback describes the broader situation, like why you see something as important in the first place.
- Concrete: You talk about what you saw, heard, or noticed, and you talk about the specific things that resulted.
- Curious and conversational: Feedback is a dialogue where you genuinely try and understand the other person’s perspective.
- Constructive: You have a specific action, path, or exploration that you’d like the recipient to try.
Finally, don’t buy (let alone eat!) the sh*t sandwich: the idea that negative feedback should be sandwiched between loaves of great things.
Instead, give lots of positive feedback, too! When you see something that someone did well, approach it in the same way. That way, people know what you like about what they’ve done. Positive feedback should outnumber corrective feedback.
Regular readers will see that all of this is designed to shift performance by injecting data into everyday work — transforming wicked, low-feedback environments into kind ones.
When you give good feedback, you’re likely to receive it in return — from your bosses and the folks who report to you. You learn. They learn. Your team and company learns.
What’s an example of helpful or painful feedback you’ve gotten in your career? Reply and let me know!