3 Keys to Effective Feedback: Be Direct, Be Specific, Be Clear

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. But it’s not “attaboys” that make for triumph. It’s the coaching along the way that helps us move from bad to good, from good to great.

One of my daughters quit piano when she was nine because the feedback from her highly trained, but young and inexperienced, teacher was overwhelming – too much correction, too much pressure, too many expectations. My daughter couldn’t process it all. But when she returned to her teacher six years later, not only was she ready to hear what she needed to hear – her teacher had matured as well. Indeed, when this daughter applied for college, one of her essays was about that teacher’s profound influence on her – not just musically, but personally.

Her now more experienced coach taught her to slow down the music until she could string notes together flawlessly. She learned to appreciate the process of attaching one measure to another, then increasing tempo, then perfecting the phrasing until the metamorphosis was complete. All the granular feedback transformed her performance from pedestrian to professional quality – and the young pianist from self-conscious to self-confident.

Few things in life are more satisfying than helping others achieve their potential. In assisting others – children, community members, colleagues – we accomplish things greater than self. It is work of the heart and soul. In your coaching of others, here are three core principles you may benefit from observing:

1) Directness: Many coaches sugarcoat areas that need improvement. Instead, tell it like it is: “Your presentation buried the conclusion.” “You kept selling after the sale was made.” “You’re pushing your team beyond its limits.” Such feedback is likely to be the most valuable. Even so, you have to show sensitivity when delivering the facts – especially if you haven’t yet trained your team to expect the unvarnished truth.

So, offering clear feedback may require a slight preamble. I’ve often found that “asking permission” makes it more palatable. For example: “May I give you an observation that may bother you?” It may also help to seek a moment when someone is in learning mode: “When would be a good time to review what just happened?” – and to reassure people before writing a headline: “So we can all get better, I’d like to work through an issue.” Finally, it may help to present feedback within a positive framework: “You’re getting really good at reaching the heart of the matter. But you’re still struggling, in my view, to create action steps that can be measured.”

If members of your team get used to such direct feedback (and the closer to the event, the better) – and thus embrace the practice – they’ll become more eager to grow and less fearful of commentary. This takes practice, but in time individuals will actually demand the feedback. When that happens, don’t miss a chance to notice. “I can really see we’re getting better at….” Celebrate every inning, if not every pitch.

2) Specificity: The least effective feedback is to say something general like“You’re too short-tempered.” Better would be to take a recent instance and talk about the effect it had on the team (and on the offender). “I noticed that your team’s esprit de corps was down after you criticized Frank in front of everyone.”Along those lines, provide feedback privately. I’ve found that assuring people that the conversation is confidential makes hearing tough truths the focus of attention, as it should be, rather than worrying about what everyone else is thinking.

3) Clarity: If the feedback is serious enough to be job-threatening, say so – but not in a threatening way. Rather, give the recipient time frames for improvement, measurable ways to improve, and a clear sense of your follow-up (schedule and method). In other words, don’t skip the punch line.

One of the great joys of management is seeing others grow. As a leader, you must realize you’re no longer a solo performer. Giving feedback is hard work. But it’s as vital as deciding whom to hire, whom to promote, and whom to let go. If you think of yourself as a personal coach who keeps confidences, helps remove obstacles, and notices what can be improved, you may well have the compelling effect on teammates that my daughter’s piano teacher had on her – one that will change a life and last a lifetime.

By Joel Peterson