How To Give Feedback That Actually Inspires Improvement

No, writing: "Get better or you're fired" on a Post-it is not the answer.

What's it like to work without any feedback? To JetBlue chairman Joel Peterson, it's like "driving a car with no speedometer, learning to cook without ever tasting your food, or playing basketball without a scoreboard."

But simply giving feedback isn't enough: If the commentary is vague and constructively critiquing[]un-constructively negative, he says, then there won't be a path for improvement. Without specificity, the feedback will be for naught.

1) So get specific.

The reason we suck at changing our habits is because we give ourselves hazy goals like "get smarter" or "eat healthier" rather than clear projects like "read one more book a month" or "eat a salad for lunch three times a week."

The more specific we are with the actions we want to see, so research has found, the easier it is to change our behavior. This goes for things we're trying to change in ourselves—and in the changes we'd like to see in others. As Peterson says:

There’s no point in telling someone they need to be "more punctual" or "more diplomatic." Give examples and specific suggestions for improvement. Replace "you need to be more punctual" with "let’s keep track of what time we start our weekly staff meetings in the coming month and then talk about how it went."

2) Pick out the points of progress.

"Look for opportunities to praise successes even as you offer suggestions for improvement," Peterson says. "Celebrating performance has a salutary effect on everyone and is much more powerful than disciplining shortcomings."

Why? Because as Harvard Business School research director Teresa Amabile has told us, when people have a sense of progress in their day—even if it's incremental—they'll feel more empowered, more creative, and more productive.

3) But sometimes you might need to light a fire.

Part of optimizing for happiness is keeping it real. As Peterson says, sometimes you need to tell people that unless they make specific changes, they might be on their way out.

If you're in such a make-or-break situation, he says, you need to make things clear:

Let them know if something is getting in the way of their professional development, and that it could lead to dismissal if unaddressed. If this feedback is offered encouragingly—along with a plan to follow up—it can light fires that lead to improvement.

4) Then the co-investment, then follow up.

So if we're going to ask somebody to change their behavior, we have to touch into our empathy skills and help them see their path to improvement. Then celebrate it.

"By noting improvements on the spot, you'll reinforce that you're paying attention," Peterson adds. "Check in soon about the plan you made together, and as you notice efforts to improve, point them out."

Hat tip: LinkedIn

[Image: Flickr user Khaled]

Add New Comment


  • Pete Burden

    I'd also always suggest being careful about giving feedback to others in the first place. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

    So first, reflect whether you are speaking more about yourself than the other. Often when we say something about other people we are really talking about ourselves. So check carefully first, if you don't want to look a fool.

    Then do speak about yourself and not the other. Talk about your experience - not your judgement of the other person.

    In other words describe what you actually see (not what you imagine), describe how you are feeling (yes what you are feeling, not just what you are thinking) and describe some real impact on you - not on something vague like the 'organisation'.

    Finally, but perhaps firstly in the order you do things, remember to make clear why you are giving another feedback. If it isn't to strengthen the relationship and offer something of value don't do it. Are you sure you are not trying to make yourself feel good (and them bad)?

    This is why even positive feedback in public can be dangerous. Some people (some introverts for example) don't like being discussed in public. However much you might like being praised, not everyone does. So try to be empathic, and respectful of others' needs.

  • Janet Tate Crum

    I would add: try to phrase negative feedback in a way that makes it easy for people to accept it. Avoid an accusing tone and, as the article says, focus on specific examples, especially those you have observed yourself. For example, instead of saying, "You're always late," try, "I noticed that you have been late 3 times this pay period." Also avoid critiquing personal characteristics or making unfounded inferences. For example, if you tell someone, "You don't care about our customers," you are being vague and assuming you know how s/he feels. Try instead, "I notice that you aren't responding to customer emails within our target timeframe of ___."

  • karenticktin

    Best piece of advice I ever got re: feedback was to assume that everyone is doing the best they can and therefore they welcome feedback. Makes for a better dialogue.

  • David C. Leum

    This is such simple advice with profound implications within the work environment. I have been guilty of short criticism and praise with my employees. However, I have learned that by providing examples with the critique or praise that my employees respond faster with corrective behavior and beam with praise. All it takes is that added example with the behavior that makes the difference, and the effort applied to same is rather, well, effortless. The reward for such simple application to such a principle has had a profound effect, not only on the individual but with their co-workers and the work environment as a whole. Thanks Drake for your article! It is a reinforcing adage to a hard learned lesson as an employer.