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This Seven-Step Guide For Dishing Out Feedback Is Totally Idiot-Proof

Keep this in your back pocket, first-time managers.

This Seven-Step Guide For Dishing Out Feedback Is Totally Idiot-Proof
[Photo: Bernhard Lang/Getty Images]

Giving critical feedback isn’t easy, especially if you’re new at it. But it doesn’t need to be half as hard as many managers think. The main thing is to keep it short and specific. Every good feedback conversation has to accomplish three goals:

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  1. Draw attention to the issue
  2. Create a two-way dialogue about it
  3. Inspire and confirm the commitment to new behavior

How do you do all that as efficiently as possible, without leading to hurt feelings? These seven steps can help you map out a script, no matter how sticky the situation or unfamiliar the experience.

1. Initiate The Conversation

Start things off respectfully. The usual feedback advice is for the person giving the feedback to ask for permission first–and that’s often a good idea. For example: “Can we talk about what happened this morning?” Feedback is best received when you’ve been welcomed to provide it.

Sometimes, though, this approach is less than ideal. You may need to be more direct. But even if you skip asking permission, you can establish respect. You might say, “I need to talk with you today. Is this a convenient time, or would you prefer this afternoon?”

Whichever approach you take, just make sure to have the chat as close to the moment of concern as possible. Don’t wait three days to address something that happened this morning. Take care of it at the first opportunity.

2. Share What You’ve Noticed

Share your concern or observation. When you do, get straight to the point, but use an expression that makes it clear these are your observations.

“I’ve noticed there are paint drips on the floor when you leave the job site.”

“I’ve heard some of your support calls, and I’ve noticed you don’t connect as well as you could with customers.”

“I noticed that you arrived pretty late this morning.”

3. Back It Up With Specifics

Never make a generic observation and leave it at that. Provide specific, supporting evidence you can see.

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“In the last two homes you painted, there were splatters on the hardwood in the dining room and on the rug in the baby’s room.”

“When the customer told you he was calling to disconnect his line because his spouse had died, you didn’t express any empathy. You just said you’d be happy to disconnect the line.”

“Our meeting was scheduled for 9:00, and you arrived a little past 9:30.”

4. Let Them Explain How They See It

After you present the situation, your team member needs a chance to talk. Ask a question in a neutral, curious tone to allow her to share any relevant information. Generally, “What happened?” is all it takes to get the other person’s view of the situation.

“What happened in those rooms?”

“What happened on that call?”

“What happened that put you behind schedule?”

There might very well be an understandable reason for the poor performance you’ve noticed. Maybe the person showed up late because of a car accident. (If so, make sure she’s okay and don’t carry the feedback conversation any further.)

5. Share The Problem-Solving

Once he’s had a chance to share his thoughts, invite him to solve the problem. Start by reviewing your expectations, then ask for his thoughts on how to meet them. If he can’t come up with an effective solution, you can provide specific suggestions on how the employee could improve–but by that point, you’ve already made it clear you’re working together on the issue and making recommendations, not just dictating orders.

“Please put down a drop cloth every time you paint. You should also use masking tape to protect the molding from drips.”

“I suggest you take another moment or two just to listen to what the customer is really saying. Ask yourself what emotion they’ve shared, pause, and express your empathy before you jump into action.”

“You might want to give yourself 30 minutes for a client call before your next appointment.”

Sometimes you might discover that the employee simply needs more training.

6. Make Sure They Get It

You’re not done yet. Ask one or two open-ended questions to check for understanding, and a third yes-or-no question to secure their commitment.

1. “How would your results change if you did that every time?”

2. “What concerns do you have about this approach?”

3. “Can you stick with this from here on out?”

Then end with a fourth question, asking your team member to summarize what you’ve just agreed to:

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4. “Could you please recap for me what you’ll do next time?”

7. Explain Why It Matters

In order to make the new behavior stick, you need to explain why it’s important and express confidence that your employee can do it.

“Keeping homes clean throughout the painting process is part of the service we deliver. That’s why you’ve got to do a quality job.”

“I’ll check back with you on your next three calls to listen for those empathy statements. We can work on that together if we need to.”

“I’ll see you at 9:00 a.m. for next week’s meeting. You’re an important member of the team, and we don’t make the best decisions without you.”

You might conclude with:

“I’m confident you can do this really well.”

“I appreciate you taking the time to make this happen.”

“Thanks for your commitment on this one.”

One of the main reasons other types of feedback chats don’t lead to changed behaviors is because the conversation goes on too long or the employee forgets what they need to do. This formula can help keep things short, specific, and concise–so you’ll see results every time.


This article is adapted from Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul by Karin Hurt and David Dye. It is reprinted with permission.