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How the Most Effective Leaders Give Feedback

Part 2: How to give feedback when the stakes are high.

Key points

  • Preparing and structuring a feedback message can make it more effective.
  • The content of a feedback message should focus on observable behaviors rather than interpretations and inferences.
  • Asking questions when delivering feedback can build buy-in and create shared understanding.
Christina @wocintechchat on Unsplash
Source: Christina @wocintechchat on Unsplash

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on how effective leaders give feedback. To read part 1, click here.

This post provides a structure for how to think through and deliver a meaningful feedback message when the stakes are high or the message is hard. Feedback structure is often thought of as the cliched “feedback sandwich.” Not only is this not a particularly useful model, but consistently delivering positive and negative feedback at the same time may cause the key message to be missed. And it does not necessarily improve the likelihood of driving behavior change, which is the goal of feedback.

Why It’s Hard to Give Good Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback in an organizational setting is hard because it’s emotionally demanding and the stakes can be high. We have emotional reactions when we get feedback, and we know others will have an emotional reaction when we give feedback. And others’ responses to feedback can be unpredictable, which can make it even more uncomfortable. Also, feedback can lead to real-world consequences that impact people’s lives and livelihoods.

The first thing you can do to improve the feedback you give is simply to prepare for the conversation. Ideally, preparation does two things: It helps you not respond in a reflexive or reactive way, and it helps you focus the content of your message on behavior.

A few years ago, I came up with a simple acronym for how to prepare for hard feedback conversations that I call the “CORE” Model, where CORE stands for Context, Observation, Result, and Expectations.

Set the Context

Take time to set the stage for feedback. Ask a question or make a statement, such as “Do you have a minute to talk about xyz?” or “Can I share some thoughts about xyz?”

It’s helpful to explicitly note the context for two reasons: It helps ensure everyone is focused on the same issue or event, and it provides the opportunity for you to be as specific as possible. When did xyz happen? Where were you? Who was involved?

State Your Observation

Then make an observation. What did you see? What did you hear? I’ve found a useful way to think about this is to consider what part of the feedback event/issue you have recorded on a cell phone. This will get you more focused on observable behavior rather than interpretations and inferences. This is where it pays to report the facts and be objective. Instead of, “You were acting like a jerk.” Try, “You were waving your arms around and yelling.”

Consider a more complex example of a leader who needs to tell her peer that she doesn't trust her. This is tricky because trust is neither objective nor observable, and the likelihood of this kind of feedback becoming personal and destructive is high. But keeping CORE in mind, the leader might focus on an observation, such as "You have canceled three meetings with me in the past two weeks and you haven't emailed me an update about xyz, which makes me feel like I can't rely on you."

Explain the Result

Describe the result. Explain the direct impact of xyz. What did you think or feel? What did you observe others do or say? What was the impact on the business? For example, “You rolled your eyes (observation), and it made me think you weren’t taking the team’s input seriously” (result). Or “You delivered xyz two days late and didn’t warn anyone (observation), and so the team missed the deadline because nobody could cover for you” (result).

This is where many feedback models recommend explaining how someone’s behavior made you feel. This can be a critical part of delivering good feedback, but it’s good to remember that organizations vary widely in their tolerance for discussion of emotions and feelings. Use your judgment in communicating how someone’s behavior impacts you emotionally, and if you feel uncomfortable digging into the emotional side, focus on what you thought, or what kind of reactions you observed in others.

Reaffirm (or Establish) Your Expectations

Clarify your expectations for the future. Don’t stop at feedback! Use the conversation as an opportunity to communicate what you expect in the future (whether it’s a certain type of behavior change, or more of the same type of effective behavior). Something like, “It may be a good idea to apologize to the team. And in the future, I’d like you to voice your objections or hesitations to the team’s input directly so we can arrive at a better solution,” or “Next time, I expect you to tell the team two days in advance if a deadline is in jeopardy.”

Don't Forget to Ask a Question

Finally, close with a question. Remember that feedback is a cycle and the goal should be to have a productive conversation that can help everyone improve. Asking someone "how they see things" or "what they think could be done differently" can help generate ideas and buy-in and create a shared understanding for how to proceed in the future.

A feedback model can be an essential tool to help leaders become more comfortable communicating openly with their employees. Thinking through the CORE model before delivering feedback will not only help you prepare what you're going to say and how, but it will also help ensure that you give feedback that can help drive performance on your team and in your organization.