When was the last time you gave someone on your team some constructive criticism and they jumped for joy? Everyone loves to say that they like feedback, and that they want feedback because they know it’s the best way to learn. But when it comes right down to it, people mostly like positive feedback. So how do you deal with a team member who’s doing something wrong? Here’s a couple of tips.

  • First, don’t knock positive feedback alone as a tool. Have you ever seen a trained dolphin show? According to the marine biologists that work with them, everything they’ve learned to do is from 100% positive feedback. Any bad behavior is just ignored. So one option is to just focus on the positives and ignore the negatives.
  • When you do need to give constructive criticism, make sure you’re choosing the right time and place.
  • Feedback takes time to process. I had a colleague who told me every time he takes a new job, he tells his boss to give him any constructive feedback at the end of the day. He goes home mad, sleeps on it, and then wakes up realizing she was probably right. This is is true for a lot of people, and the process even has a nice acronym: SARAH.

How do you feel when someone tells you that you’ve been doing something wrong? Well first you feel:

  1. Shocked – you didn’t know. You feel embarrassed and surprised (and not the good kind of surprise like when someone gives you a box of chocolates).
  2. Angry – what do they know anyway? You work hard. You do your best, and it’s not like you get a pat on the back every time you get it right, so what’s with the negativity?
  3. Rejected – You feel rejected, so you reject that criticism right back. It’s not true. OK maybe it is true but there was a good reason. They saw you on an off day. It’s not you, it’s the client/the boss/the technology
  4. Acceptance – Maybe this is a better way. You’ve been thinking that something wasn’t right for a while. At least now you know what it is, and now you can work on it. Which brings you to (drum roll please…)
  5. Honest Effort to Change – Now that you believe it, you can change it.

The key to effective feedback is that it works best when it’s something the team member asks for, rather than something you push down to them. When someone opts in to hearing constructive feedback, they are far more likely to act on it, not to be shocked or angry, and to move quickly to the final stage of SARAH. To do this, start the conversation with this question:

I have some feedback to share with you about (whatever the issue is). Do you want to hear an idea for how you could get better at that?

At that point you’re giving your team member the choice to engage and hear the feedback, or to say no thanks or not now. They might decide that they do want to hear it, but they are right in the middle of a tight deadline, and would rather have the conversation later in the day. If they say no, it tells you something about their willingness to work on their own professional development. But most importantly it puts them in the frame of mind, of accepting the feedback on their terms, which makes them more likely to act on it.

And finally, feedback needs to be framed in a way that’s useful. Good feedback is:

  • Specific
  • Relevant
  • Timely

If I give a presentation and then ask for feedback, and you tell me that you like my shoes, that’s very specific, but not particularly relevant. When you’re giving feedback, make sure you’re using examples that represent what you would like to see, as well as example of what you think needs to change. And make sure you’re communicating about the issue as close in time as possible to when you see the behavior you think needs to change.

Giving feedback is not easy, but it is an essential part of management. The more you practice, the better you’ll get!

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