“He needs to step up more.” That is feedback I received for a client recently when I interviewed his colleagues about his strengths and weaknesses as a leader. “And tell me what that would look like if he were stepping up more,” I responded. Because “step up more” is not useful feedback. If someone tells me to step up more, I may think I need to take control of more of the team’s projects or speak up more often in meetings or volunteer for more work – or all of the above. It turns out that what this person meant by “step up more” was a desire to see his colleague be more willing to proactively take on and resolve issues that the team was grappling with rather than waiting for others to handle them – but, who knew that without further explanation?

Giving feedback can be one of the more difficult jobs for a leader. Or rather, giving effective, actionable, specific feedback can be one of the more difficult jobs for a leader. Why? Because it takes thought, time, conversation, and caring. If a leader is not willing to observe, guide, encourage, listen to, and acknowledge their employees, and take the time to do that well, then feedback will likely be useless. Useful feedback pulls on direct (or sometimes indirect) observations and interactions with your team members, requires you to be in conversation with your team members, and is steeped in the principles of effective feedback. Consultant and former colleague Lynn Russell came up with a handy tool for remembering those principles – SAY THIS:

Specific – Again, “step up more” is not specific. Neither is “great job,” “work harder next time,” or “you are a great team player.” Getting clear on what you have observed or heard from the employee and how that translates to your expectations of them and what is needed in their role will help you to get specific in your feedback.

About behavior – This goes hand in hand with being specific. Feedback should be about behaviors that you have observed. That “great team player” was offering to provide resources to her peers, acknowledging the work of others in his department, and sharing information via group emails to help everyone serve clients better. That is the feedback you need to share.

Yours – This can be a tricky one given how many of us work in matrixed and virtual teams these days. Even if you rarely see your team member in action in his or her job, it is your responsibility to find ways to directly observe them or to gather observations from others and to look for other ways to understand how they are performing in their role.

Timely – As I said earlier, effective feedback takes time, thought, conversation, and caring. And that means it should be taking place continuously. Feedback is not a once-a-year or twice-a-year HR process; it is a leadership skill that needs to be practiced daily.

Habitually two-way – A conversation is two way and great feedback is two-way. It’s not a download of information. There should be time for questions, clarification, and comments. As a leader, you need to seek out feedback for yourself as well. An important question to ask in a feedback conversation is “How can I help you to be even more effective in your role?” Understanding what you can do differently or do more of or less of is great feedback for you and will help you to perform better as a leader.

Incremental – This relates to timeliness. When you are regularly offering feedback to your team members, you are giving it in small doses – debriefing a great presentation they led, walking them through a mistake that needs to be addressed, coaching them through a difficult conversation that took place. This provides focus and clarity to your feedback and makes it more likely that someone can hear the feedback and do something about it.

Supportive – Whether feedback is good or bad, it should always be supportive and focused on helping someone improve. Looking for the positive is also essential so that your team member can learn what they are doing that is working well. In fact, it is always best to tip the balance toward more positive than constructive feedback, whenever possible, in order to build trust, develop a strong relationship, and foster self-confidence.

Make feedback a part of your regular routine and you can reap the benefits of improved performance, more dialogue, and greater willingness for everyone on your team to offer feedback to each other.

What are your best practices for making feedback work for your team?
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If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

To learn more about the principles of effective feedback, contact Robyn at rmcleod@chatsworthconsulting.com.

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