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The 5 Principles of Effective Feedback

Updated: Oct 4, 2023


3 people at work seated and having a conversation

Most of us know that giving effective feedback is one of the best and easiest ways to improve productivity and morale, so why do so many of us fail miserably and end up leaving our teams high, dry and confused? For most, it is due to not knowing how to give feedback, because it makes us feel uncomfortable or we believe that it will suck up far too much time and effort.


However, if we follow these five simple principles, we can learn to give feedback that will have a positive impact on productivity, improve the morale of our teams and do so without stressing ourselves:


1. Make Feedback a Regular Part of Your Working Day

2. Give Far More Positive than Negative Feedback

3. Build Your Feedback on Concrete Behaviours

4. Focus on Future Successes, not Past Mistakes

5. Deliver all Feedback (Negative and Positive) in Exactly the Same Way


Let’s look at each of these 5 principles in turn:


1. Make Feedback a Regular Part of Your Working Day

2 females smiling while having a discussion at work

Most of us struggle to give and receive feedback because it’s not something we experience regularly. However, when we become accustomed to receiving and giving feedback as part of our daily working lives it stops being awkward and starts to serve its intended useful purpose: to improve performance and increase satisfaction at work.


In 2017, Forbes Magazine reported that 65% of US workers stated that they want more feedback at work and I suspect the number would be much higher if people realized that it is possible for feedback to take place in an open and constructive manner.


So, if employees want more feedback and we know that when done right it will improve performance and productivity, the message is clear: managers must develop the habit of giving effective feedback on a daily basis.


Some will say that they don’t have the time to give feedback this often, but when you do it right and become proficient at it, you can give highly effective feedback in 30 seconds or less.


2. Give Far More Positive than Negative Feedback

Male and female co-workers speaking while looking at computer

Some see the only purpose of feedback is to correct undesired behaviours. If this is the case, no wonder so many don’t relish either giving or receiving feedback; the entire process is negative. Just think though, when we see a team member doing something well, why wouldn’t we want the person to know that their positive behaviours have been noticed and that we want them to continue doing them?


It’s not just about giving some positive feedback; we need to ensure that we give much more positive feedback. Negativity Bias refers to our tendency to be impacted by and learn significantly more from negative information and interactions than from the positive ones. What this means is that if we give a team member one piece of positive feedback and another that is negative, the negative will almost certainly have the greater impact. You might think that this is OK as it will result in improvements to the negative behaviours, but over time, and not that much time, the emotional reaction to work will become negative causing morale and productivity to be impacted.


By how much should positive feedback outnumber negative feedback to create a healthy working environment? According to the Gottman Institute, the magic ratio, at least when it comes to happy marriages, is 5 to 1 in terms of positive to negative interactions, and in the absence of any better data, that’s what I choose to aim for when I’m giving feedback: 5 positive for every piece of negative feedback.


3. Build Your Feedback on Concrete Behaviours

2 men dressed in work attire walking while having a conversation

At the core of all feedback, negative and positive, needs to be specific behaviours. It can be something they did, such as submitting a report that was error-free or one contained errors, or it could be something they didn’t do, such as not reacting emotionally to an angry customer or missing a deadline. The key is that it has to be a specific behaviour that we can describe.


Once we have a specific behaviour, we can provide a clear roadmap to the team member: either keep doing it or do it differently, whichever is the case.


Avoid giving feedback based on your perception of another person’s attitude, as it can start an argument that is impossible to win unless you are a mind reader. If you believe that a member of your team has either a good or bad attitude, you need to describe the behaviours that fuel your beliefs. If you can’t identify any such behaviours, I suggest that you move on without saying anything, as it is more likely that the problem is you and not them.


4. Focus on Future Successes, not Past Mistakes

2 women seated at desk at work having a discussion

If the purpose of feedback is to improve performance in the future, isn’t this where we should focus? What we want is for employees to visualize themselves doing it right next time rather than on what they did wrong last time.


When we talk about past misdeeds the other person is likely to become defensive and waste time and emotional energy (yours and theirs) on justifying what they did. Is there any reason why you would knowingly initiate this type of conversation by choosing to focus on past behaviours?


The great thing is that it only takes a slight adjustment to the questions we ask. Replace “what happened?” or “what went wrong?” with “how will you do it differently next time?” Instantly, they are talking and thinking about positive future behaviours (which we can change) rather than past negative ones (which we can’t).


5. Deliver all Feedback (Negative and Positive) in Exactly the Same Way

Male and female co-workers seated and having a conversation

Effective feedback is a dispassionate way to improve performance by providing useful information upon which the receiver can choose to act. Feedback is not praise or punishment. If you want to praise or punish, do so outside the feedback framework.


If you deliver all feedback in the same tone of voice, situation and using similar phraseology, your team will quickly learn to treat all feedback in the same, positive way. They will understand that whether you are reinforcing positive behaviours or asking for negative behaviours, your objective is to help them.


Let’s say you need to give me feedback about timely submission of a report. Whether it’s positive or negative you should use the same positive tone of voice and in a way that you are not overheard by others. If the report was on time you could say:


“Nick, thanks for submitting the report on time today, it meant that our operational review meeting was productive. Keep up the good work.”


Alternatively, in a situation when the report was late, you might, using the same tone and with reasonable privacy, say:


“Hey Nick, you sent today’s report late which meant that we didn’t have all the details we needed for the ops meeting. Can you ensure that you send it on time next week please?”


If you choose to publicly announce that I sent the report on-time, that is praise and when you take someone aside and express your displeasure in a grim tone of voice, that’s punishment. And as we already know, praise and punishment are not part of feedback.


Once you understand these five principles, we need to learn a simple and repeatable system for delivering amazingly effective feedback. The best place I know is Manager Tools and you can get all you need totally free of charge from their podcast.


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