Feedback Session Best Practices, Written by Phil Ventresca, M.B.A.
The feedback session is often a misunderstood descriptor, and is unfortunately quite often leveraged as an “event” rather than an on-going tool to support and promote dynamic constructive communication between a leader and his/her subordinates. The session does not have to be restricted by hierarchy, protocol, or structure, in fact, it is best when both parties are open minded and acceptable to the collaboration which is necessary to reach a positive outcome. That said, it is important that the recipient be open minded and willing to change behavior as it is impossible for the deliverer to demand that and expect sustainable change to occur. Simply put, if a person is aware of what has to be changed, and cares about improving, change will occur. Some are aware, but don’t care, and some care but are not aware (of what has to be changed) – in both of these instances, change will not occur. Now you can make the person aware of what has to be changed but how do you get them to care?
One way is to look at our natural impulse to judge, to form conclusions, and our less natural impulse to understand, to treat our judgments as hypothesis – something to explore in a collaborative manner. In giving feedback, the initial goal is to understand the behavior and the vehicle for understanding is questions; asking questions and listening. Once all the information is gathered and you have the other persons perspective, there may be a temptation on your part to “tell” what should be done next – however, people react better to conclusions they reach rather than being told what to do by others, and here’s where the caring comes in. The way to get a person to care about changing is to discuss likely outcomes of current dysfunctional behavior – rather than your saying “this will cause a problem for you”, ask “where do you think this behavior will lead to? And, is that what you want?” Being rude to a client may, in the mind of the person, be totally justifiable, but does that lead to an outcome (having lost a client) that is desirable? Clearly not. Also, linking behavior to a goal the person has “I know you want to become a VP; how do you think this will impact that” adds motivation. Remember, your objective is not to intimidate or hold anything hostage – it is to get at the truth and explore where that leads to in terms of future performance. That said, we are not saying “never judge”, just to do so in a reflective, reasoned and fully explored manner rather than a reflexive snap judgment. Conclusions reached collaboratively have amazing staying power and often result in meaningful and sustained improvement.
Many leaders are challenged to accomplish the above due to the stress of the moment or the variables leading up to it, thus it is critical to recognize best practices in the areas that will aid in creating an effective feedback session for both parties, and ultimately the betterment of the organization, such as; environment, timing and delivery style/mode, as these are the building blocks for success. Behavioral variables can manifest themselves through disengagement, disagreement, lack of understanding and defensiveness. The deliverer must be prepared by setting the appropriate environment and responsiveness to these variables through good pre-planning. In some cases ad-hoc feedback is more difficult to set up for than year-end activity, nonetheless, it is imperative to have done your homework.
The following model represents a foundation upon which you can build a “personal” best practice approach to the feedback session. Keep in mind that we all differ in personality, communication style, and approach to one-on-one interactions. Therefore, it is impossible for any single method or approach to fit us all perfectly. However, it is useful to explore a collection of best practices as a way to construct a personalized model that will help us through challenging sessions. This is also the case with the recipient of feedback. With that said, we must also recognize another large variable; for all of our own differences, the individual we are providing the feedback to will also react differently as a unique personality. Therein lies the greatest challenges we face as leaders: how do we adapt our style to the environment and the individual while maintaining some level of continuity across our team interface?
Ensure you have taken the time to consider how you may have contributed to the shortcomings of the challenged individual you are about to critique. Many times the “down-stream” impact of our leadership style is difficult to map to the collateral effects of subordinate performance. However, there is a clear trail to the results if you are willing to look for it with an open and objective mindset. It is always a good technique to expose the individual who is receiving the feedback to the fact that you have considered how your leadership may have had positive/negative contributions to their situation, as this builds a level of respect through humility and reinforces the fact that you are expecting the same level of self-driven accountability from them.
2 Validate Your Facts
Never take second hand information and use it conclusively in a feedback session, own the information and be certain of the source and accuracy. Knowing you have time constraints and most of what you do each day is rushed, it is mandatory that you make the time to accurately evaluate and validate the variables, expectations, and management of the individual against the context of what you are about to provide them feedback for. Many times, after completing this diligence you will find causal factors that were not considered that can range from personal issues to the individual not having been provided the tools necessary to do their jobs. Thus, this will change the tone of the session and in many cases can result in very positive path forward plans. Any time you have taken to do the research will be made up many times over in the immediacy of the performance enhancement after the session; it’s long term vs. short term thinking. On the flip side, you may very well validate that this is a pure performance issue and if that is the outcome, you can move forward with corrective action with a higher level of confidence and accuracy. Either way, the time spent doing your homework is time well spent. Never enter into a feedback session where you are relying on here-say to make definitive statements.
3 Expect a Reaction
Feedback sessions are emotional events, you may feel uncomfortable delivering them and the person across the table is probably uncomfortable hearing the message. Leaders must be emotionally prepared to respond, not react, but respond, to the emotions which are inevitable. In some cases, this manifests itself overtly and in others you may see a passive-aggressive reaction. Regardless of the visibility, it is all in the same emotional category and can be managed proactively by the way you set up the session. The best approach is always to set the expectation of the session and to provide transparency before, during, and after the session. Reinforce this by underscoring the goal as being to help the individual succeed and grow from the experience. Stepping aside from the positive for a moment, you may also want the participant to know this is a gateway toward an alternative path in the case of repeat discussions or a failed development plan. Unfortunately, these sessions are a reality as well and just as in the positive scenario, transparency is the only true best practice to embrace. Just as critical is your own attention to emotion and knowing how to use it. Some experts say that emotion has no place in a feedback session, I disagree, we are all human and all have emotions. In my opinion, it is “uncontrolled” emotions that have no place in a feedback session. What you are aware of you can control, what you are not aware of controls you. If your subject is upset, let them feel comfortable to vent, if you are frustrated or even angry, describe that emotion without acting it out. I have always found that letting the “human element” play out in a session is very natural and positive in building respect, empathy and trust through the use of sincere interactions. I underscore again, this is the use of “controlled” emotions.
Also, don’t allow yourself to stereotype a behavior because a person is different than you in race, color, or creed. We are all human beings and therefore all respond to respect. Respect in the feedback session is critical and comes from knowing your subject, knowing the facts, and delivering them with the highest level of Emotional and Cultural Intelligence. This is a critical take-away as it can significantly impact your ability to both deliver the feedback effectively as well as how well the recipient can internalize it, thus leading to enhanced or diminished outcomes.
4 Create Goals
The feedback session must culminate with a path forward. Many leaders use feedback sessions to deliver information and stop short of creating tangible and measurable action items. As you develop your feedback session plan, there may be many items of needed discussion on the list. Presenting too many items will overwhelm the receiver and can work against the desirable goal of positive improvement. It is recommended that we evaluate the items we discovered during step #2 above and seek commonalities which can be placed into “performance categories.” These categories can range from; behavioral, managerial, personality, etc., and ultimately let us review more “root cause” issues while keeping the list workable. There is a risk to this as well; you must not get so high level in description that you lose sight of tangible facts. The best approach is to leverage the performance categories and support them with the most relevant specifics. A feedback session is just the start of the developmental process; so remember we can hold back certain items for another session. Thus, it is important that we prioritize the items we are going to speak about within the context of immediate performance improvement and also with the intention of allowing the subject to have some quick wins to build confidence. Create short, mid and long term goals that align to and support the desirable outcome of your session, capture these goals as part of a personal development plan which embraces all of the necessary support mechanisms and tools for the person receiving the feedback to succeed.
Along the theme of feedback sessions being part of the development and continuous improvement DNA of the organization, you must attach the goals from step #4 to a developmental plan which will be measured dynamically. Ad-hoc feedback sessions are relevant and frequently happen in times of crisis. Year-end sessions are structured and usually focus on promotion and compensation. Think about that dilemma; the ad-hoc session is “fire-drill” based and the year end is career focused. Both sessions are “goal skewed” and tend to look for results that are not developmental, but more task-oriented. Thus, it is the leader’s responsibility to expand on the task orientation from each environment and seek the incremental opportunities that reside in both events to promote continuous focus on the development path, not the destination. This can be hard for both parties because of the fast paced and instant gratification environment we operate in. Establishing short, mid, and long term goals from a feedback session is critical to obtain sustainable results. Create a timeline for follow up with clear expectations and work against that with clear focus and rigor.
The above best practices and techniques should be used as a “guide”, not a set of rules. As senior executives, our styles will play heavily into how we create our “personalized feedback session model.”
- Harvard Business School Press: Pocket Mentor, Giving Feedback
- Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen