What Are Some of the Best Ways to Set the Stage to Deliver Actionable Feedback?
Updated: Oct 8
Delivering actionable feedback is not something that comes naturally to many people. There are many reasons why leaders don’t give actionable feedback.
They put it off.
They fear confrontation.
They don’t want to be mean.
They only like to give positive feedback.
They hope things will get better on its own.
They don’t realize giving positive feedback is a form of actionable feedback.
They think pointing out what's wrong is the same thing as giving actionable feedback.
Basically, they're afraid to give actionable feedback or they don't know how to give actionable feedback.
In his book Marine Maxims, Colonel Tom Gordon talks about immature leaders who are too quick to assert their authority and address what's wrong but fail to acknowledge things that are going well. We must have balance when providing feedback, and it needs to be actionable.
Delivering actionable feedback is easier said than done. And it can be stressful for all involved.
The ability to give actionable feedback is a learned skill, and with practice and experience, it can be mastered. I can’t promise it will become easy, but it can be delivered the right way.
Feedback That Isn’t Feedback
Take the time to make feedback actionable. If you don’t, you might as well have provided no feedback. Here are some actual examples of feedback people have received from their supervisors:
“If you don’t hear from me, you’re doing fine.”
“Consider it feedback if I’ve ever talked to you.”
“You suck. Suck less.”
How was any of that actually helpful? What was the employee supposed to do with feedback like that?
You should always put time and effort into preparing for a feedback session.
Location Location Location
Have you thought about where you give feedback?
The ideal location and delivery method depends on the type of feedback you are offering. A performance evaluation should be given in a private location with minimal distractions or interruptions. Dedicate that space and time to the employee.
I like giving and receiving feedback in person because it allows opportunity to assess the other person’s non-verbals and ask follow-up questions. But not all feedback has to be that formal, and sometimes you just don’t have time or the ability to give it in person.
Alternatives to face-to-face feedback sessions include using video chat, the phone, or email.
While offering formal feedback over video chat may seem to be the same as face-to-face, it’s not. Ideally both parties are in a private room with no other distractions, but realistically, that’s not always the case. It does allow for real time discussion and you can see the other person’s reactions and non-verbals, but you don't know what else is going on in the room where the other person is sitting.
Giving formal feedback over the phone allows you to hear one another’s tone of voice, but you can’t see facial reactions. Similar to video chat, either party might have distractions where they are.
Email is not real time and doesn’t give you and your subordinate the chance for a true discussion. This is not an ideal format for formal feedback.
How You Can Give Informal Feedback
I can think of few instances where a simple email is appropriate. Something like this works:
Additionally, positive feedback can be emailed, especially if you include other people who might need to know about something good an employee accomplished. But I recommend following up in person too, just to close the loop face-to-face.
Refrain from sending negative feedback through email without connecting it with an in-person discussion. For example, you can have a face-to-face discussion with your team on how to do something better. Then follow it up with an email:
It’s always more effective to have an in-person conversation for constructive feedback. And if it’s feedback to correct behavior in the workplace, it should be documented on paper.
How You Can Give Constructive Feedback
If you have to address a single person’s actions or behavior, offer the constructive feedback in private. When you deliver feedback in private, your subordinate will be able to focus on what you have to say.
Providing constructive feedback in public is counterproductive.
Imagine how you would feel if your boss singled you out in front of your teammates and said:
“You were the least productive sales member this month. Your numbers suck. You’re pathetic. Were you even trying? Why are you even here?”
Not only would you be embarrassed and angry, you’d be focusing on how you feel and not what’s being said. Additionally, your teammates are either feeling bad for you, or they agree with the boss and may start ostracizing you.
This also creates an environment where people hide errors, cut corners or fabricate information just to stay off the boss’s radar.
Be mindful of where you’re correcting undesirable behavior.
Additionally, when you are giving constructive feedback, focus on the behavior and not the person. The point of giving feedback isn't to attack the person but to change behavior. Give time to let your words sink in and offer to answer any questions or clarify your points.
Remember, constructive feedback is meant to help someone improve. Stay professional and don’t be demeaning.
The Importance of Delivery
Your tone and body language signal the importance of what you’re saying. All of it must be appropriate to the situation when you’re providing feedback.
How effective do you think the following feedback session would be?
“I need you here at 9 am when we open,” the boss said with a giggle. “But I mean, you can be late sometimes. Just not all the time. Like 5 or 10 minutes is okay. Unless we have a customer.” She said the last sentence very quickly while wringing her hands and avoiding eye contact with her subordinate.
If you’re asking someone to improve something they’re doing, but laugh it off in the same breath, your subordinate will either be confused or unable to take you seriously.
If you think something is important, but present it like it’s no big deal, your subordinate will think it’s no big deal.
If you’re disproportionately angry about something and spend the feedback session yelling and screaming, your subordinate will be focused on your reaction and not your words.
In addition to tone and body language, think about the words you use. Avoid accusatory sentences and using absolute words like always or never. Using these words can put people on the defense. When people are feeling defensive, they start thinking about ways it's not true, which means they've stopped listening.
How Ready Are You?
As you prepare to deliver feedback sessions, evaluate your readiness to provide feedback. This takes self-awareness and willingness to move outside of your comfort zone.
Are you the kind of person who avoids confrontation? Do you only like to give positive feedback, and gloss over the negative? Or do you avoid talking about the negative altogether and hope your employee improves on his own?
If so, please understand this is not helping anyone.
Most people aren’t going to have an epiphany and suddenly decide to improve on their own. The more likely scenario that will play out is this: You stew over their below-average performance, hoping they get better, but they don’t. Their teammates begin to resent them, or they begin to resent you for not doing anything about it.
Prepare for the Feedback Session through Visualization
Visualize how you want the feedback session to go. Prepare what you want to say and how you’ll say it. Think about the questions or reactions your subordinate might have and consider ways you can respond.
You should know your subordinate well enough to know how the information will be received. You won’t be able to predict it all, but at least you’ve thought it through.
When I delivered negative feedback, I've had people react by crying, yelling, laughing and sitting in stoic silence.
Typically, your high performers will accept feedback graciously, no matter what you have to say. If you suggest ways to improve, they will take it to heart and work on those suggestions right away. If you tell them they’re doing exceptionally well, they will still seek ways to improve.
Sometimes you’ll get employees who have never received negative feedback before. They’re used to people telling them how well they’re doing, or getting no feedback at all. They may find it difficult to accept suggestions for improvement. After all, they’ve been doing it this way for years, why should they change? These conversations can become contentious and you may have to put more work into preparing for these feedback sessions.
Preparing Actionable Feedback
In addition to visualizing the feedback session, put to paper what your thoughts and suggestions are for the employee. If you have an impromptu feedback session, be sure to give yourself some time to think through what you want to say and what you expect to get out of the discussion. Make sure what you have to say is helpful and actionable.
A common method people like to use to deliver actionble feedback is the the sandwich method. This consists of telling the employee something positive that you liked, then discussing something that needs improvement, and concluding with another piece of positive feedback. This is meant to soften the blow for the employee, and can also help with leaders who are uncomfortable delivering negative feedback.
However, the feedback sandwich method may not be the most effective method for your situation. It can be confusing and detract from the point of your conversation. People tend to have negativity bias in which they fixate on negative information and define themselves by it. This happens even if they received positive feedback at the same time.
Some people prefer a more direct approach because it's clear. If you beat around the bush before getting to your point you're not being direct.
Whether you use the sandwich method or a different method, I recommend the following three-step process you can use to provide actionable feedback:
1. Focus on the desired end-result.
Talk about what you are trying to achieve and why. Emphasize the behavior and not the person.
2. Discuss ways to achieve that end-result.
You can ask the employee to do a self-assessment of their performance and compare it to how you’ve assessed them. You can talk about the behavior or incident and brainstorm ideas together on how it could have been handled differently for a better result. Or you can develop an improvement plan together and include the objective, actionable items and progress milestones, or use the SMART method to develop a plan.
3. Agree on an action plan.
This commits the employee to taking an active role in achieving the end-result.
Deliver Actionable Feedback the Right Way for Best Results
Actionable feedback shouldn’t be something that’s just given without any thought. Prepare for it by delivering it in the right location with the right tone, words and body language. Remember to focus on the actions or behavior and not the person.
Finally, you need to be open to feedback yourself. Be approachable so people believe you when you actively seek feedback. Accept it graciously and don’t argue about it. You don’t have to agree or disagree with them, but you should thank them for giving you something to think about.
After all, the purpose of actionable feedback is improvement, regardless of who is receiving it!
Comment below: Why do you think people are reluctant to give feedback?