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Giving Feedback

by Ross Maynard

Few people come to work to do a bad job. Mistakes and errors usually arise because of weaknesses in working processes – workloads are stretched; skills, experience or training are lacking; operating procedures are poorly defined, impractical or unenforced. In general, these issues are not the fault of the person doing the job.

Feedback, should, therefore, focus on the weaknesses in the system, not on the character failings of the individual (which will be resented).

It is just as important to give positive feedback where it is due, as well as negative feedback where it is needed.

Specific feedback is more helpful than general. Relate the feedback you give (positive or negative) to a specific event or action and describe in detail the context and what was good (or not) and why. We learn better when feedback is relevant and directed at specific actions or activities.

Give positive feedback first. The general rule is to give positive feedback before negative because many people become blinded by the negative feedback and don't absorb what comes after. Nevertheless, this should be used with care because people can get wise to it in a way that means that positive feedback is not received in the spirit it is intended but becomes a warning signal for negative feedback to follow!

Don't shy away from negative feedback. Negative feedback can be hard to impart, particularly if you work closely with the recipient. But negative feedback is not the same as a disciplinary warning. Rather it should be a constructive discussion about what went wrong, why, and what the actions should be to ensure it never happens again. As noted, people rarely set out to make a mistake; and we usually know when we have messed up, or something has gone wrong. Negative feedback shouldn't be a surprise; the key thing is to structure it so it has a mutually positive and empowering outcome, rather than a demoralising one. There are six elements to this:

  1. Give the feedback privately. Negative feedback should not be given in a public forum (unless very minor). The feedback and discussion should take place in a private place. Its content is no-one’s business (unless disciplinary action is required).
  2. Criticise the process not the person. This makes the feedback feel neutral rather than personal and pointed. It also makes it easier to agree improvement actions.
  3. Focus on specifics. Errors arise at a specific point in a process. Seek to identify the process weaknesses and discuss what can be done to rectify them. Again, this neutralises the feedback. Focusing on specific events and actions also makes learning form mistakes easier.
  4. Invite the individual to give their point of view. There are two (or more) angles to every story. Encourage the person whose performance you feel to be below par to describe the events and issues leading up to the problem from their point of view. This allows them to explain themselves fully and will help you understand the person's actions in a different light.
  5. Invite the individual to consider the situation from other points of view. Often those involved in the heat of an issue look at it only from their own perspective. Invite them to consider the situation from the point of view of others involved (for example customers or colleagues) and discuss the potential impacts of the event or action on them.
  6. Agree an Action Plan. The outcome of the negative feedback should be positive – an action plan designed to get everyone back on track and to resolve the problems identified in working procedures. Ideally, the action plan should contain work for both the recipient of the feedback and the person giving it. What support is required to help the person improve? This may be training or shadowing; a review of procedures; or other actions that need management approval.

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