When we ask our clients what they want to achieve in establishing a feedback habit within their organisation, the main response we get is "results" (or words to that effect) - and while this is a logical and expected outcome of a feedback process, it should not be the focus.
Well, if you go into a feedback session with the express purpose of delivering "results" as the outcome of the discussion, this will determine the types of questions you ask, the answers you hear; and the emphasis will be on what the person has done or is doing, rather than who they are and what and how they are doing it.
Imagine you are having a conversation with one of your team. You want to improve and/or deliver results. So the questions you will ask will be something like "what outcomes have you delivered?", or "did you meet your KPIs?", or "are you on-track to achieving your targets?". All of these types of questions focus on the organisation and the person's role within it, rather than on the person themselves. In this case, the team member will likely feel that they (the person) are not the priority, and instead it is only what they are doing for the organisation that matters. Most organisations say they want their people to feel valued and engaged; however, it is difficult to achieve this if the main topic of conversations is about profitability, sales, outcomes, and deliverables and there is little or no focus on the person - what they need, want, and how they are feeling.
Besides the intent of the conversation impacting the questions, it will also impact the responses that the leader will hear. Instead of hearing the nuances of challenges and obstacles, the leader will likely hear success or failure, and excuses or complaints. This then impacts the leader's ability to appropriately support the team member to overcome their challenges, connect them with the right people or information and drive improvements in the performance of the individual and the overall results.
It is human nature to defend ourselves when 'tested' - potentially finding reasons (aka excuses) for why things were not achieved, who stood in the way (a version of blame), and limits the ability of both the leader and the team member to constructively identify opportunities to grow, develop and connect with those who can help them achieve outcomes in future.
Shift the focus from results to person
By making the focus of the feedback discussion about the person and what they have achieved rather than what they have delivered, as minor as this shift may appear, it can change the course of the conversation in which the team member will feel more valued and engaged.
By re-wording the questions you ask, you can still discover the results that are being delivered without it feeling to the team member that this is the most important or sole purpose of the discussion. Questions could be "what achievements did you have this [period]?", or "what can we celebrate this [period]?", or "what were you aiming to achieve this [period] and did you get there?". The changes in language between the first and second sets of questions are subtle, but will effectively have the team member discussing what they are working on and how they are tracking, but it will feel less like a test or an assessment, and more like a conversation, where their view about their progress is considered and valued.
It is also more likely to lead to them sharing with their leader the challenges and obstacles they faced along the way, how effectively they managed the situation and potentially how the leader can support them to overcome any obstacles they were unable to resolve on their own.
This then shows the leader where they can offer support, demonstrates growth by the team member and aids in the strengthening of a trusting relationship between the leader and the team member. This level of feedback and insight into the 'workings' for the team member is unlikely to surface if the conversation is all about results.
This style of feedback conversation also provides the forum for the leader to use positive reinforcement techniques. Genuinely praise a team member for their achievements, their progress, their development and the obstacles they have overcome.
Keep it constructive
But when the team member needs to hear feedback that is less positive, it is important to ensure that feedback is given in a constructive and supportive manner, focusing on specific behaviours and actions rather than personal traits or characteristics.
Constructive feedback by its very definition should be intended to build not destroy.
All constructive feedback should be supported by specific examples (including times and dates); it should not be your personal opinion or perspective. Your team cannot build on their experience and improve their performance if they don't fully understand the issue/s.
When you were young, did a parent or other adult ever tell you that you had a 'bad attitude' or you needed to 'pull up your socks' (or similar)? If so, you were probably rather bewildered about what you needed to do to meet the expectations of this adult without them providing specific examples - 'you should start doing the washing up after dinner without having to be asked', or 'you should notice when your mother puts clean sheets on the bed and say thank you'. These types of specific examples help the person receiving the feedback fully understand what they need to change and 'what good looks like'.
Link it to the Values
To assist you to keep your personal opinions and views out of the feedback you give to the team member (both positive and constructive), particularly when it comes to conduct, behaviours or teamwork; wherever possible, connect your feedback to the Values of the organisation.
It is also helpful to ask the team member to provide you with examples of where they believe they have demonstrated the Values. This reinforces the Values and helps them better understand how their actions and decisions day-to-day embody the Values.
If you think that something they did (or didn't do) failed to align with the Values, you can ask them if this was a missed opportunity to live the values, (rather than baldly stating that they didn't live up to the Values) and seek their feedback as to what they could do differently in future to more closely align with the Values.
It's not a one-way street
Two-way feedback is crucial for ensuring that both parties understand each other's expectations, goals, and concerns. Too often leaders are keen to share their feedback with their team, but miss the chance to obtain feedback from their team members to help them grow. This may be due to fear of what might be said, or concerns that the leader needs to improve how they lead - and how this will look to the team.
All great leaders seek feedback throughout their career and even when they are seen by their team as an effective leader, they will still seek opportunities to continue to grow and develop their leadership style.
Team members are more likely to support their leader if they see that the leader is genuinely endeavouring to grow and develop their leadership skills, and as a person, and this in turn will engender trust and respect.
To this end, team members should be encouraged to provide feedback to their leader on their leadership style, communication skills, and the overall culture and feel of the work environment.
Besides gaining a better understanding how to engage with individual team members, leaders can also learn from this feedback if there are any inconsistencies, issues between team members, or blind spots.
This can be prompted by using the 'start, stop, continue' method, by asking the team member to 'tell me what you would like me to keep doing that's working well, anything you would like me to stop doing, or anything I can start doing that would better support you or the team'. This will likely prompt some discussion and if you ask this every time you provide them feedback, if the team member is a little reserved in providing their thoughts, eventually they are likely to start sharing more and more productive feedback.
By fostering an open and honest dialogue, leaders can gain valuable insights into their team's needs and preferences, allowing them to tailor their approach accordingly. Similarly, team members are more likely to feel valued and supported when their opinions are heard and acted upon.
In the words of Georgia Murch, feedback guru:
Feedback is a rich gift. We have all been guilty of sitting on a little pot of gold that doesn’t belong to us. That gold will help the people around you grow. Yet we often don’t lean into doing this because of our fears and discomfort. We can choose our own discomfort as a priority over another persons’ evolution.