The Art of Giving Feedback

I think it's very important to have a feedback loop, where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing it better.   - Elon Musk

Feedback – as they say – is a gift. And mastering the art of giving feedback is important to your success as a project manager.

My first role outside of grad school was to help leaders shape their teams’ behaviors. It was applied behavior science in a business setting, and the psychologist in me loved it!

The leaders had to do three things to prep people to change their behaviors. First, they needed to provide their teams with direction so they knew what was expected of them. Second, they had to train their teams if the needed competencies or skills did not exist. And lastly, they needed to give their teams the opportunity to actually perform the behaviors. Then after the team members either exhibited the desired behaviors or not, leaders were coached to provide positive or negative consequences as sources of motivation.

While all of the steps that happen before a behavior is performed are important, the positive and negative consequences that come afterward had much more of an influence on behavior change. And providing feedback was a major part of this success.

From that point on, the importance of giving (and receiving) feedback was ingrained in my brain so much that I really consider it to be a building block for any successful partnership – whether it is a project team, a manager and her direct reports, or even a personal relationship. Making sure people know where they stand is the only way they will know whether they should keep doing all of the good things they are doing and/or adjust where there are some gaps.

There is a ton of literature and research you can find on giving feedback. Here are the points that I think are important in mastering this art.

  Image courtesy of aechan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of aechan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Have the intent to help, not harm. This one is so important. You should not give feedback to people with the intent to embarrass them or make them feel bad. Deliver your feedback in a way that shows that you care about the person, and that you have her best interests in mind. So basically… be nice and stay positive!

Be very clear and specific. Telling someone that they are not doing a good job without providing details about what exactly could be improved is not helpful. Be specific and direct about the areas of opportunity so that your teammate (or boss or friend) knows what she needs to work on. Same thing goes for thanking people. Instead of just saying, “thank you so much” with no indication of what you are actually thankful for – say something like, “thank you so much for sending me the report on time and for adding all of the information we discussed” instead. Including details about what was good about the task performed will make it much clearer to the person what behaviors she should continue to exhibit.

Give feedback in the moment, or soon thereafter. Immediate feedback is always better because the actions are fresh in everyone’s minds. You can be more accurate and specific an hour after something happened, as opposed to waiting weeks or months for the performance management process to dictate when feedback should be given – when the situation in question is likely a distant memory. Immediate feedback allows the recipient the opportunity to adjust her actions sooner rather than later – perhaps avoiding any other potential issues.

Do not only focus on the negative. No one is perfect, and we all can use some input on how we are doing so that we can meet or exceed expectations. But feedback does not need to be limited to things that are not going well. You should give people positive feedback, as well, so they understand what they should keep doing. And if you feel so inclined, you can turn that feedback into recognition by CC’ing the person’s boss in an email, providing specific examples of exemplary performance.

Be open to receiving feedback yourself. Don’t dish it if you can’t take it… is that the saying? You should be asking people for feedback all the time. Otherwise, how do you know where you stand, and how can you continuously improve your performance? I often ask my manager and my key project stakeholders how I am doing so that I know whether I am meeting expectations or not. And I am much more interested in the constructive feedback than the positive feedback – although it is nice to get a little praise every once in a while.

So ask yourself – does giving positive and constructive feedback come naturally to you? Do you take the right opportunities to provide specific feedback to your teammates? Is your intent to help them be better at what they do?

Practice giving feedback over the next few weeks and take note of what you say, how you say it, when you say it, and what the outcomes are of the conversations. With practice, you will be able to master the art of giving feedback, which in turn will have a positive effect on project outcomes.