Giving Constructive Feedback: Eight Leadership Essentials

At last week’s Leadership Chat we focused on the art of praise in leadership development.  We talked about how praise has the ability to transform our perspective on our company, our role, our team and even the mission we take on as leaders.

This week, Steve Woodruff and I would like to switch gears and evaluate the opposite side of the equation – the art of giving constructive feedback.

As with praise, giving constructive feedback effectively requires that no critical ingredient be left out:

1. Timeliness is critical in order for the recipient to associate the behavior with the feedback.  Waiting until an annual or even semi-annual performance review will frustrate the recipient and lessen the impact of your critique.

2.  It must be specific so that the recipient has a clear understanding of the behavior or approach that they need to improve upon.  As we all know, it is much more difficult to receive criticism than praise.  Leaders should anticipate many questions and be prepared to give very specific and clear answers to help the recipient receive the feedback in the best light possible.

3.  Explaining “why” and “how” is crucial for establishing relevance.  Leaders must help the individual understand why and how their behavior is affecting the team or company in a negative way.  Sometimes this is obvious, but many times it’s much more subtle.

4.  Put the feedback in perspective.  Is it a really big deal or is just a minor adjustment required?  This is truly significant because if your words and actions minimize the feedback in some way it will not be acted on as aggressively as if you told the recipient their job is on the line.  Your responsibility is to send the appropriate message.

5. Tone should be carefully considered in order to send the appropriate message and to ensure that it will be received in the way you wish it to be.

6.  Providing very clear insight and explanation into the behaviors desired moving forward is of the utmost importance so that the recipient is empowered to succeed the next time.

7. Offering to be of help to them in any way possible solidifies your responsibility as a leader to set your team up for success.

8.  Reaffirming the person’s value to the organization assures them of your desire to help them improve and to see them succeed to their greatest ability.  In the end, isn’t that what we all want for our teams, peers and the organization as a whole?

I think it’s vitally important to remember that when we talk about constructive feedback, we talk about “giving” it just as we do with praise.  In giving, there is a gift.

When done well, the individual receiving the feedback will feel as though they received a gift; something that will enhance their career and enable them to be genuinely more successful in the long run.

A Striking Example from Abraham Lincoln

As I did last week, I’d like to share an example courtesy of Abraham Lincoln from Donald T. Phillips’s book, “Lincoln on Leadership.”  Notice how he exhibits all of the behaviors mentioned above when providing critically constructive feedback to Major General Hooker in January of 1863:

General.

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac.  Of course, I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons.  And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you.  I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like.  I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right.  You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality.  You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm.

But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.  I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator.  Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command.  Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators.

What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.  The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders.  I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticizing their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you.  I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down.  Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.

And now, beware of rashness.  Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly,

A. Lincoln

In your experience, what are the essential ingredients in the art of giving constructive feedback?

Please share in the comments and please join me and my Leadership Chat Co-Host Steve Woodruff tomorrow, Tuesday, June 28th at 8:00 pm Eastern Time on Twitter for our next edition of #LeadershipChat!

Our topic will be: The Art of Giving Constructive Feedback.  We look forward to seeing all of you there!

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Comments

  1. Another wonderful post, Lisa. I was having lunch with a colleague and a client last week. My client and I were gobsmacked by how many blatant things going wrong in her company. Now I see your list, her direct report is falling down on at least five of them.

    Great leadership is so rare and to be fair, most are under a lot of financial pressure to “make the numbers” but in their quest to speed up the process, the direct opposite occurs.

    This list is something that takes time to master and experience to manage. The mistake some make is that we don’t like rules and that simply isn’t true. What do don’t want is bad, lack of, or misguided “leader”ship because someone has a title and a fragile ego that needs validation through “being the boss”.

    • Thank you, Kneale. That must have been a fascinating lunch. I think you’re right about great leadership being rare, and this is one of the key areas we often “fall down on.” It’s so difficult intellectually, emotionally and even physically to garner the strength to give feedback as a true gift – the rare leaders do this well because it comes from the heart and certainly not the ego. Thank you, as always, for sharing your experience here!

  2. Thank you, Lisa. This is a tremendous list of ingredients. In my experience, both as the one receiving criticism and the one giving it, I’ve seen that every one of these is important.

    The one I struggle most with is #5, Tone, and I’d love for you to elaborate on that one. Doesn’t the right tone depend on things like the corporate culture and the nature of your personal relationship with the employee? How do I strike a balance between sounding too empathetic and too detached?

    • Thank you, Larry – I appreciate that. I think tone is about respect and about genuinely giving the feedback as a gift. There is a tremendous difference between empathy and sympathy. I don’t think empathy can truly be overdone. Regardless of the personal relationship, respect should be foremost and the tone should reflect this. I think that by ensuring that you reaffirm the person’s value, you prevent being detached. Does this help? Thanks for sharing your experience and for your thoughtful question!

  3. Lisa many of us are aware of the importance of constructive feedback, but you have enhanced our views by sharing some great guidelines to make it effective and ensure a positive outcome.

    I can appreciate you sharing Lincoln’s letter. He had to be one of the greatest leader’s and “people” persons of all time.

    Looks like even in his time effective criticism came in the form of the sandwich approach (positive feedback, negative feedback, positive feedback)

    • Thanks, Adam. Yes, I have tremendous respect for Lincoln and believe that by leading from within himself, he just naturally knew how to lead… Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  4. Great post! I love the last one- reaffirming person’s value. Giving feedback of any kind can be taken very personally when people forget they are talking to someone with feelings. Thanks for the tips :)

  5. Sam Allsopp says:

    Hi Lisa,
    Great post, I’m currently putting together some guidance documentation on giving feedback and found your material really inspirational! There’s one thing I feel that is missing from the points you suggest though and that’s that information all seems to be one-way. I would like to ask an employee about their behaviour and allow them to self correct first before giving advice. This follows more of a ‘coaching’ attitude rather than a ‘directive’ one. (though directive definitely is needed sometimes). One thing I like to think about is the difference between an ‘error’ and a ‘mistake’-an mistake being something that is just a ‘slip up’ in which the employee knows the key behaviour and just needs a slight pointer and an error being that they are unaware either of their own behaviour or what’s expected of them….. Just some ideas!

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  5. [...] Giving Constructive Feedback: Eight Leadership Essentials, C-Level Strategies, June 27, 2011 “As with praise, giving constructive feedback effectively requires that no critical ingredient be left out: …” [...]

  6. […] specific and constructive in your feedback. Start off with the positive and recognize where your employee excels. Show that you do see and […]

  7. […] It doesn’t have to be answers that come into the formats of essays, a simple comment leaving constructive feedback for someone can make all of the […]

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