Whatever job role you work in, it is incredibly important to be able to provide effective and constructive feedback to others without causing offence and in a way that motivates the other person to change behaviour. Giving feedback is an essential skill: especially with critical feedback, if it isn’t done effectively, or even avoided, it can have a hugely negative impact on the other person’s motivation and engagement (Bakker and Leiter, 2010).
In her review of over twenty-five years of psychological research into feedback, Valerie Shute defines feedback as information communicated with the intention of changing the other person’s behaviour or thinking to improve learning and performance. It is usually given to the person in response to behaviour, processes, or effectiveness: on the ‘how’ things have been done or ‘what’ has been done (Besieux, 2017). Shute (2008) also highlights that feedback is not only crucial to improving skills and knowledge, but also to increasing motivation. And if corrective feedback, it should be given about specific behaviour at a specific time, rather than including generalised attitudes and behaviours that may have occurred over a longer period.
Another key point to come out of Shute’s (2008) review is that feedback is significantly more effective when it includes suggestions on how to improve, rather than just saying what went wrong, known as elaborative feedback. Here the feedback usually addresses the behaviour (what went wrong and why), plus the impact and what may need to change, and is much more effective for motivating changes in thinking and behaviour.
Feedback is often challenging but can be very influential: giving feedback in a structured way can help someone understand the impact of their actions and what they need to do differently, as well as diffuse what could be a challenging conversation.
Giving powerful feedback
Always first consider your personal motive for giving feedback: will it be beneficial for both you and the other person? Why are you giving feedback? The purpose should be to change behaviour and motivate, so it is crucial to have this in mind when planning a feedback conversation. What is the outcome that you are looking for?
For more powerful feedback, prepare and structure the conversation using the quick and easy AID feedback model below, making notes of your thoughts under each heading. This will help create a feedback statement, ensuring the conversation is clear, concise and useful. Once you have prepared, also make sure that the time and place is right for the feedback (i.e., not when other colleagues are present, unless positive feedback, nor right before an important meeting!)
- Action – What did they do? What did you see? What evidence/facts are there?
This is the specific action that made feedback necessary, and the emphasis is on the behaviour or actions, not your interpretation of them. Try to keep the conversation about what was seen or heard, and not make assumptions about the other person’s intentions, personality or character (i.e., the facts, not the individual). Basing feedback on specific examples (try to avoid general statements), makes the feedback less likely to be open to challenge.
One way to sound less accusatory, and avoid defensiveness and not resolving the issue, is to use ‘I’, rather than ‘you’, statements. For example, ‘I feel that the work is not being completed on time’, sounds less blaming than ‘you never get work completed on time’. Try to remain objective: it is a person with a problem, not a problem person!
It is also vital to limit feedback to one area in any conversation. Too many areas are confusing and feel unachievable and could perhaps make the other person feel ‘picked on’ and unmotivated to take any action at all.
Finally, it is just as important to prepare for giving positive feedback, keeping this distinct from any critical feedback (don’t be tempted to do the ‘feedback sandwich’!) Positive feedback can have a huge influence on motivation and further improvements, as well as encouraging the person to share good practice and mentor less experienced colleagues.
- Impact – What was the impact of that action? How did this performance effect the team/customer/organisation? What evidence is there?
This is such an important, and often missed, part of giving powerful feedback, where an explanation is provided of the impact of the action or behaviour and the outcomes it has caused. Has their behaviour affected you, the team or other colleagues, clients or the organisation as a whole? Don't speculate but stick to the facts, supplying specific examples.
If your relationship with the person is stronger (perhaps they are part of your team and receive regular feedback) you could encourage them to ‘self-assess’, working out themselves how the action or behaviour affected you or others. Ask questions such as ‘how might this have affected me/your team?’ or ‘what impact could this have had on the client?’.
And when giving positive feedback, it is much more powerful to go beyond saying ‘well done’; include why it was good or what made the difference this time.
- Desired outcome – What needs to change going forwards (or could be repeated and shared as best practice)?
This last stage determines what happens next (e.g., improvements for next time or avoid a further error). Sometimes feedback needs to be more ‘tell-do’, such as when the other person or the organisation is at risk, but remember that this can be difficult to hear. Always ask a question to encourage two-way discussion, e.g., ‘what are your thoughts?’.
In most cases, feedback will be given to enable positive development, and so emphasis should be on building on strengths or positives to gain buy-in and change behaviour. How could they avoid the same thing happening again? Using open questions, asking what the other person believes could be improved, may provide surprisingly brilliant suggestions, as well as being a more powerful way of helping them effect change!
Feedback or coaching?
Many people become confused about the differences between feedback and coaching, and often mix these techniques. This can sometimes be confusing and demotivating for both parties and may not lead to change. In addition, the behaviour or issue identified may keep reoccurring (the feedback advice does not seem to be working) or seems to be part of a larger developmental issue. Consider carefully whether the next conversation should be a feedback or coaching one.
Remember that feedback happens because of something the other person has done or said: it is based on past action, which is an important distinction from coaching. Moreover, feedback is given from your perspective (not the person receiving feedback); it’s a story or statement about what was observed and the result that it had.
In contrast, coaching is focused on the future, helping the other person develop and reach their goals. It involves open-ended questioning techniques, not statements, to help the other person explore alternative solutions and find the best way forward for themselves. It enables real behavioural change.
Therefore, feedback should be given often, as soon as possible after the behaviour has occurred (for both critical and positive feedback); however, coaching requires more preparation time and involves a more in-depth conversation between coach and coachee. It is significantly more effective when both parties know the meeting will be focusing on just the coaching!
OSCAR is a successful coaching model, and you can find out more about it in our Coaching with the OSCAR Model article.
What about receiving feedback?
Just as importantly, do we take the time to reflect on how we receive feedback? This is one of the most effective and powerful ways that people can understand and develop themselves. How can positive change take place if we don't know what needs to be developed?
Here are some tips for receiving feedback. Do also have a think about the AID model and how it might help you make improvements and changes yourself.
- accept praise graciously
- listen attentively
- question for clarification if you do not understand the feedback
- ask for specific examples
- decide whether and how to act on the feedback
- dismiss the feedback
- argue with the feedback – the giver’s perception is as valid as your perception
- justify what you did – your intentions may have been honourable, but it is the impact that you are receiving feedback on
There are also further resources you may find useful in the Applying Psychology at Work Hub, including:
Bakker, A. B. and Leiter, M. B. (2010) Work Engagement: A Handbook of Essential Theory and Research. London: Psychology Press.
Besieux, T. (2017) ‘Why I hate feedback: Anchoring effective feedback within organizations’, Business Horizons, 60(4), pp. 435–9, doi: 10.1016/j.bushor.2017.03.001.
Shute, V. (2008) ‘Focus on formative feedback’, Review of Educational Research, 78(1), pp. 153–89. doi: 10.3102/0034654307313795.