LISTEN NOW: Running Stuff, a Peterson Partners podcast
By Joel Peterson / in: From the Founder

Want to Be a Better Leader? Start By Giving Useful Feedback–Here’s How

As I originally published in Inc.: Effective feedback is vital. The easy part of feedback–ignored by many–is giving regular pats on the back. The hard part–ignored by many more–is giving effective constructive criticism.

I saw this when a young daughter of mine simply quit piano lessons because the feedback she was receiving from her teacher was too intensely critical and she wasn’t mature enough to receive it. Six years later, however, both she and her instructor learned how to give and receive constructive feedback.

The lessons resumed, and my daughter blossomed into an accomplished pianist–a result that required the corrections that previously caused her to quit. As importantly, the change in the once dysfunctional teacher-student interaction went beyond piano study to become the subject of a grateful student’s all-important college application essays.

One of the greatest satisfactions of teaching, managing, coaching and leading is seeing others grow and achieve their goals. Effective leaders are those who move beyond being solo performers to being coaches, teachers or leaders. This requires listening, observing and communicating; but nothing a leader does is more impactful to what goes on after a hopeful hiring and before a necessary firing than the real-time feedback that can help another go from not-so-good, to good, to great.

The three keys to the sort of feedback that can be transformative are directness, specificity, and clarity.

1. Directness

Coaches often sugarcoat weakness, which may get in the way of the progress of their team. Don’t fear respectful bluntness: “Your speech buried what is important.” “You’re pushing your team too much.” It may take a bit of preparation for your team to want to hear the truth if they’re not used to it.

One way to do this is to ask for permission to deliver this kind of feedback. For instance: “May I make an observation that you may not like?” Or seek a moment when someone is in learning mode: “Is this a good time to go over that report?” It might also help to deliver feedback with a positive spin. “You’re great at getting through the details, but you’re struggling to see the bigger picture.”

Your team should become accustomed to this kind of direct feedback and become more open to growth and less fearful of criticism. In time, they may demand this kind of directness. In return, you should rejoice in their progress and applaud their desire for direct feedback.

2. Specificity

General criticism is one of the worst kinds of feedback. Narrow down the problem. Use a recent stumble and the effect it had on the team. “I saw your team’s spirit flag when you yelled at John and Jane in front of the rest of the team.” Discretion is important in this kind of coaching.

Deliver specific negative feedback in private. Not only is it more humane, but it also makes hearing tough truths the focus of attention, rather than worrying about others overhearing. With the delivery of specific feedback, it’s helpful to assure the person you’re coaching of your purpose–to help them become more effective, to achieve their goals.

3. Clarity

Sometimes, feedback is job threatening. Short of that, you should be clear. “Your job is not on the line. This is simply something we need to fix over the coming months.” Being clear about a performance improvement plan, the regularity of feedback and the measures of improvement can reduce the stress and even make it fun to measure improvement. The trick is to motivate, not threaten.

Measurable changes, time frames for improvement and promises of updates give the clarity people need to work on improving, not on obsessing. Don’t skip the punch line, but don’t knock out the team member, either.

By Joel Peterson