How to empower your team through effective feedback

Simon Day is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924. In this article, he explores effective ways to ensure your team fully benefits from feedback – and becomes better as a result

Feedback is vitally important in business, as well as in other areas of life. Sincerely delivered, specific and supportive feedback helps identify previously untapped areas for development, introduces new ideas, and empowers people to pursue challenging goals. Conversely, feedback that is insincere or overly critical can demotivate and disenfranchise, damaging and even destroying relationships.

Given how far-reaching the impact of feedback can be – both negative and positive – let me share some simple yet profound principles that will help transform your approach to feedback at work and elsewhere. ‘FAST’ is a helpful acronym – you need each of these four cornerstones for effective feedback:

  • From the heart.
  • Actionable.
  • Specific.
  • Timely.

From the heart

Nobody will give a second thought to any recommendation unless they feel the one delivering it cares about them. Empathy is at the root of all meaningful human communication; as soon as we show a genuine interest in the welfare of another person, and are motivated by a desire to see them succeed, we open the door to another person’s life.

When I have been sitting across a table from someone delivering feedback, and felt a genuine care and concern on their part, their feedback has been powerful, even life-changing. The exchange has always begun with questions regarding wellbeing, then feedback has been tactfully adapted to what I might have been able to absorb based on current skill, experience and emotional levels.

The first question to ask yourself when giving feedback is this, “Is care being shown?” Ask yourself, “Do I really care about this individual as an individual – their progression, welfare, hopes and aspirations?” If this question cannot be answered with an honest ‘yes’, it is the wrong time – or you are the wrong person – to deliver feedback.

If you are receiving feedback, you must immediately ask yourself that same question, “Is care being shown? Does this person really care about me as an individual – my progression, welfare, hopes and aspirations?” If the answer feels like a ‘No’, then that feedback should be taken with at least a pinch of salt – or possibly a bucket. Of course, if there are valid statements or recommendations, then have the professional grace to take them on board. However, any statements that are overly critical, or appear insincere, should not be taken personally; the damage of allowing negative feedback to fester can be irreparable.

Remember the deliverer is also a person. They are imperfect and their perspective is limited – even if their salary doesn’t seem to compare with yours. Be gracious. Be kind. Don’t be confrontational. Do you have to agree with everything? No. Take something that you can act on and politely discard anything that is unhelpful. Do not let one ill-worded comment rob you of your mental and emotional wellbeing. It is just not worth it.

Actionable

We all get to a point where our own skills, knowledge and experience have been exhausted. At this moment, we want someone wiser, more experienced and more skilful to step in and say, “I can see you’re struggling with this. You’ve done brilliantly to get this far. When I was in this position, here is what I learned… I suggest you try the following…”

When teaching, my feedback to students is broken into three distinct parts. Firstly, I always offer praise on something they’re doing well. This brings a feeling of pride to the individual and opens them up to receive any subsequent advice. Secondly, I suggest an area of focus – something they need to do to move the work forward – for example, “Congratulations on using some excellent descriptive language in this piece of writing. To move forward, we need to make sure your use of punctuation becomes more controlled and secure.” Good feedback, right? No! It is not actionable. It is missing the third – and most vital – element.

The third part of the feedback is the challenge – this is the invitation to act, to implement, to practise. After offering the above feedback to a student, my challenge might be as follows. “Add a further paragraph to your story. Highlight all of the commas and full stops you are using to show that you are remembering to include them in your sentences.” That’s much more like it! That will drive forward the progress of the student’s writing and hold them accountable for implementing the feedback given.

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all feedback given was broken into these three elements – praise, recommendation and challenge? That sort of feedback meets the first and second cornerstones. It comes from the heart, shows genuine care and can be acted upon. Too much of the feedback passed between colleagues, families and partners lacks one of these two cornerstones: either it lacks empathy or it can’t be implemented. Only with both parts fulfilled can feedback spark meaningful change.

Specific

Feedback that lacks specificity also lacks power. If the individual giving the feedback is not specific, they undermine their own credibility and professed expertise, robbing the recipient of an opportunity to grow. Generalised feedback shows a lack of due care, preparation and is not actionable – so fails to meet all three cornerstones.

Many people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’. You offer praise, give suggested improvements and end with more praise. As mentioned, when I offer feedback to students, I do so in three parts; praise, recommendation and challenge. Whilst the ‘praise sandwich’ structure might boost the confidence of someone in the earliest stages of development, it eventually becomes a disservice as it gives a false impression of progress and can erode trust.

As long as feedback is delivered empathetically, and with a clear path to progress, there is no rule for the ratio of praise to recommendations. The sincerity of the one delivering the feedback is always more critical than how the points are structured, but any recommendations must show sincere desire to help the individual and be accompanied by specific strategies or actions that can be implemented.

For example, imagine someone telling someone else, “As you have said you would like to improve your accounting skills, I recommend you go to an evening class.” This is actionable, but not specific. If that same person said, “I recommend X college. They have a regular accounting class every Wednesday evening at 7pm and you can pop in to discuss how they can meet your needs before you book,” that changes everything. Specificity is the key to progress because it empowers the other person to act.

Timely

The more time that elapses between the event occurring and feedback being received, the less impact it will have. Timeliness is key, and actions speak louder than words. If a time is agreed for feedback, and the person delivering it runs over in a previous meeting, arrives late or does not show up at all, what is really being said? “You are not my most important priority.” Timely feedback is more likely to show empathy and retain sufficient coverage to be both specific and actionable, thus meeting the other cornerstones. If it is late or rushed, it is at best likely to lack sufficient detail or the sensitivity to have any real impact.

If you are delivering feedback, be prompt. If you are receiving it, turn up on time and be prepared to chase someone up – even if they are senior – when feedback is not being received promptly.

In summary

If you serve as a leader you have the privilege of working with your team members, guiding them and supporting them. Ask them how they feel. Ask about their families and their health. Ask about their ambitions. Then deliver feedback from the heart. Consider where that person could go, what they could achieve.

They might be future leaders; treat them like they already are and they will make you a great one now, as well as becoming part of the legacy you hope to leave behind.

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