How to give meaningful feedback

February 19, 2021
Jeff Couillard

Unfortunately, for many leaders, feedback is not often seen as an ‘investment in relationship’ and instead falls into the ‘difficult conversations that eat up time’ category.

There’s a lot of talk out there these days about having “crucial conversations”, “feeding forward”, and “radical candour”, but the reality is that many leaders struggle to give effective, meaningful feedback. And so many employees suffer from not knowing how they’re performing, developing, or valued; are they meeting expectations or not?

Feedback is an investment in relationship.
Dr. Cedar Barstow, Author, Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics

At The Ally Co., we strongly believe that feedback is an investment in relationship. It is the critical link between connection and direction (two primary leadership functions).

Guiding principles for giving meaningful feedback

We’re excited to share a few guiding principles we’ve learned and put into practice with some of the high-performing teams and leaders we have been working with. Keep these in mind as you prepare to offer someone feedback, and see the difference for yourself.

  1. Connect before you direct. Although the intention of most feedback is to change a behaviour (if it’s constructive) or reinforce a behaviour (if it’s positive), any time we give a directive without a clear connection back to the context or the values of the individual, we risk disconnecting in relationship - focusing on the task at hand and accidentally disrupting a sense of connection.

    Have you ever received a well-intended directive that caused you some grief, anger, anxiety, or negatively affected your relationship with the feedback giver? That’s what we’re trying to avoid. It’s not helpful.

  2. All feedback is good feedback. Let’s see feedback as a gift for a moment (visualize if it helps, beautifully wrapped and with a bow on top). In it’s purest form, feedback is about helping others to learn more about the impact they have in the world and how they might grow and change in a positive way. When we approach it as if we’re giving a gift, we need to pause and ask ourselves “what would the person truly appreciate receiving from me?”. Have you ever received a gift that was clearly more important to the “giver” than it was to you? We’re trying to avoid that, too because it’s not inherently meaningful is it?

  3. Feedback means you care. Have you ever had some feedback for someone, and decided not to give it to them? Why do you think that happened…or didn’t happen? We’re going to go out on a limb and assume that either (a) the relationship wasn’t actually that important to you, or (b) the relationship was very important to you, and you were afraid of disrupting it (also known as artificial harmony).

    Either way, understanding that feedback is an investment in relationship and that it’s a gift for the other person helps us understand that giving it is an act of genuine love and care.

Tips to try the next time you give meaningful feedback

The first thing to remember about feedback is that there is something that you (the feedback giver) is hoping for. Ask yourself what that something is. Do you want more of a certain type of behaviour? Do you want someone to stop doing something entirely? Being clear on your intention will help you to frame your feedback and make it specific and actionable.

Tip #1: We generally respond better to positive requests than negative ones.

“Would you be willing to start doing [insert something positive here]?” is a lot more inviting than “Stop doing [insert something negative here]!”

Tip #2: Add context to your request (so it doesn’t feel like a demand).

“Can you start the meeting on time for once?!” sounds demanding with a side of judgment. Alternatively, “I’ve noticed that our last three meetings have started late. I’m feeling frustrated because when this meeting doesn’t start on time, it puts me behind for the rest of the day and causes a lot of stress and juggling of the schedule. Are we willing to start our meetings regardless of whether everyone has arrived yet?”. The latter offers context with a clear request. Sharing how you’re feeling (in this case, frustrated) and what you’re valuing or needing (not falling behind), provides the context for ‘why’ your feedback is important.

Tip #3: Ask for reflection.

Often, we think that we’ve been crystal clear with our feedback, yet the reality is that not only are we filtering our feedback through our own perspective, it’s being interpreted through the perspective of the other individual. Never leave a feedback conversation without asking for the other person to reflect back what they have heard (and to identify what the request/action is). If there’s misalignment or in-congruence between what was said and what was heard, you’ll have a chance to clarify it then and there.

Giving and receiving feedback is a core leadership skill (and really a human one). Feedback is an essential ingredient in using our power with wisdom and skill. And it’s one of the most challenging aspects of leadership, fraught with uncertainty, ambiguity and intention-impact gaps.

Feel free to reach out to chat about how we might be able to help you and your team develop into feedback-giving-superstars!

Questions? Thoughts? Feedback? Whatever it is, we would love to hear from you!