Let’s talk feedback
Have you ever been out with a group when you discover that you have a piece of spinach in your teeth?  It can be embarrassing.  You wonder how long it has been there and ask yourself why no one mentioned it.  This is how it can be with feedback at work too.

We want people to tell us when there is something we can do to improve.  (do you have any feedback?).  Then when we do get feedback, we can feel embarrassed or even defensive about it.  And. We often wonder why no one said anything before.  

This is perfectly common.  

Today, this article is for the feedback giver.  I will follow up next week with an article on receiving feedback

OK, so you need to give someone feedback.

You already know that giving feedback is important.  You also care about people and don’t want to hurt their feelings.  You might be worried they will get mad.  This can create a conflict in your mind, called cognitive dissonance, which can leave you feeling confused and block action.  

So, what can you do to become that trusted colleague that is able to give respectful, meaningful, helpful feedback?

I’ll refer you to the five question words, and some sage guidance I’ve gotten from teachers, mentors, leaders and coaches over the years.

Who to share with?  

Tell the person who most needs to hear it and only that person.  (I.e. the person with the spinach)  It is not a good idea to give constructive feedback publicly.  Sometimes it’s necessary, as with a safety or ethical issue, but not often.  Feedback is usually best received when shared one on one and privately. 
    What to say?  Remember:  fact-impact-ask-consequence-followup.
    • Tell them you want them to know because you care about them.  Then share the specific facts of the situation .  What about the scenario would everyone agree on with no argument? (fact)  Then you want to share what was happening for YOU in the face of those facts. You can fill it in with a few more details about how you think it may be impacting others too.  (impact) Follow up with a suggestion for what they could do about it. (ask) Depending on your role, it might also be appropriate to share a consequence if they don’t take the suggested action.  (consequence).  Finally, remember to follow up and comment on it when they have made a positive change.  Here’s what that can sound like.  “I thought you would want someone to tell you, there is a bit of spinach in your teeth(fact)   I found myself getting distracted by it. (Impact to me)  I was worried about embarrassing you by telling you but then thought that others might have been distracted too and that you would want to know. (Impact to others).  You may want to find a mirror and remove it (the ask).  If you leave it there, I may choose to stay where I can’t see you (consequence).”   Next:  person removes the spinach.   You follow up with “That looks much better, thank you”

    I know this is a very formal way to say “pst, hey there.  Did you know you have spinach in your teeth?… yeah you got it” But stick with me.  I’m simply using it as an example.

    • When to say it?   Share the feedback as quickly as possible when whatever you observed happens.  Create a safe and private space for the discussion and make it happen quickly.  It’s isn’t at all necessary to make it a lengthy production.  Don’t schedule a 30 minute meeting with the subject “feedback about spinach”.  Doing that is sure to create anxiety.  Instead, ask the person if they have a minute or two to talk right now.   “Hi, do you have a minute? It will be very quick”. Where to share it?  Face to face is best.  Right now that’s not always possible (thanks COVID).  Therefore the second choice will be over video call.  Third choice is a voice only call.  Next would be a text or chat message and the last choice would be email.  Email is last because it doesn’t allow for a real time back and forth discussion.”Thanks for being available, can I call you on teams?  I’ll turn on my video.”

      Why do you want to share feedback?  Remember that giving someone feedback is a way to show that we’re paying attention and that we care.  It’s very tempting to stall because you don’t want to embarrass them.  You think that maybe it will take care of itself.  Or maybe It’s not a big deal.  The best why is that when you share feedback in this way you truly demonstrate that you care about that person and you want for them to have the opportunity to improve.  Even if it isn’t a big deal, giving them that feedback shows that you respect them and you want them to succeed. 
    • How to phrase it constructively?  My answer here is very similar to what I shared in last week’s post. “Be careful the stories you tell”It’s very important for you to keep declarations such as “you are”, and finite statements like “always” and “never”, completely out of your feedback.   If you use those, it will inevitably feel like an attack.  If you stick to fact-impact-ask-consequence-followup as described in “what to say” then “you are” and “always/never” will usually fall away naturally.  It is worth it to pay close attention to this.   Don’t make statements that can be interpreted as a judgement of someone’s character.  Imagine hearing the feedback,  “You are disorganized”.   Ouch!  Instead follow the model;  fact-impact-ask-consequence-follow-up.   

      “When I looked in the files that you keep for us, I found that they were stacked in all different directions and not in alphabetical order (fact), I had trouble finding what I was looking for (impact to me).  If the files stay this way then I worry others will have the same experience and get frustrated.  It will take us longer to get our work done.  (The broader impact).  Please put the files in order and keep them alphabetized.  Can you do that? (the ask)”   And, if you feel a consequence is needed, then say; ” If you don’t, then I will need to find someone else who can do that job (consequence).”  Finally, when the person has reorganized the files don’t forget to follow up! “That looks great.  It will be so much easier to find things.  Thank you!”

    It can be tough to give people feedback. It feels like we’re walking on eggshells – afraid to say the wrong thing and offend someone. But it’s important to remember that feedback is a way to show someone respect and demonstrate that we want them to grow and succeed.   When you give feedback in a thoughtful way, it can really make a difference in someone’s life.

    Just so you know, I will always tell you if you have spinach in your teeth.  I’ll tell you as quickly as I can after I notice, and will also do so as privately as possible to give you the respect and dignity you deserve.  And I’ll make sure to let you know when you’ve gotten it out with a quick thumbs up.


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