We already know that great leaders need to give feedback. But since giving quality, behavior-changing feedback is really hard to do, oftentimes the default becomes simply giving feedback without any regard to how.
But that’s misguided. Feedback for the sake of feedback doesn’t change behavior. "Give feedback" is not something that belongs on a leader’s to-do list.
The difference between a good leader and world-class leader is how he or she gives feedback: in the right way for that specific individual, for that specific situation. It’s all about context and customization.
So how do leaders learn how to deliver behavior-changing feedback?
It all starts with finding the right pressure to apply. And since each employee and each scenario is different, how you give feedback is about customization.
A great feedback-giving leader evaluates the individual. Ideally, over time, they’ve gotten to know the employee. They understand their habits, behaviors, motivations, and triggers.
They also understand the context of the scenario. They know what work, trend, or issue needs to be addressed. That may sound obvious, but next time you’re giving feedback, think on why you’re giving it beyond the standard, "Because he’s screwing up and needs it!"
If you come to each feedback conversation armed with these understandings, you’re going to be able to start tailoring your feedback.
As a simple hypothetical example, consider Kevin. He’s been with the company for eight years. He was on the team when there was no office, no significant product traction, but he has poured his heart and soul into the company. But Kevin has recently started getting pretty liberal working from home. It used to be a day here and there, but now he’s pretty much in the office one day a week and the speed and quality of his work is suffering. Remote working philosophy discussion aside, this is an issue.
Given the relationship and the context, a great leader knows that Kevin needs a low level of pressure firm enough to drive your message home, but not so hard that it bends all out of shape.
That sort of feedback could be provided as simply as, "Kevin. We need you here in the office. The team looks to you as an example. If I’m not aware of something, let’s talk about it." Done. Feedback given, objective communicated contextually. Given Kevin’s experience and history, he will get that. It was subtle but it will resonate. It was the right amount of pressure. And if there is something going on like, say, an unexpected change in childcare needs, the floor is now open for conversation.
Should this kind of feedback not resonate, effective leaders will turn up the pressure in a way that is progressive, but not sharp. The goal is to send the message home in one shot, but sometimes you need to nudge a little harder until it's there.
Consider if our leader approached Kevin with a meek, "Hey Kev. Just wanted to check to make sure your computer in the office is okay." It’s highly unlikely that this message will change Kevin’s behavior. That sort of pressure does nothing to convey concerns. In fact, it will probably be difficult for Kevin to figure out exactly what his boss is getting at.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider the extreme message, "Kevin. You’re abusing the work-from-home policy. The next time this happens, you’re fired." Sure, that’ll get Kevin in the office five (maybe even six) days a week, but he’s now uncomfortable in his position and may be worried enough to start looking for a new job.
Ultimately, a leader that can give the right feedback in the right context will change behaviors. They will achieve that results-producing mix of being liked (because they contextually appreciate their employees) and respected (because they apply the right amount of customized pressure).
Is learning how to give feedback easy? No. But each time you do, think it through first. Recall the ideas of customization and context and think about the hammer and nail. Consistently remind yourself that giving quality feedback is about changing behaviors, and great performers deserve content and delivery of your feedback to always be tailored.
—Luc Levesque is the founder of TravelPod.com and is also a vice president at TripAdvisor, which acquired his company in 2007. He is passionate about building and growing high-performing teams, building innovative web products and optimizing SEO, SEM, viral loops, and whatever else it takes to scale online businesses to reach millions of customers. Connect with him on Twitter: @luclevesque.