The Informal Feedback Formula

May 27, 2021

Feedback should be a part of every effective business communication. A chief complaint among workers across industries is that feedback is not given at the right time and in the right way to be meaningful and useful.  The annual or semi-annual performance review is inadequate to satisfy self-development and increased productivity. Delivered by the right person, in the right way, at the right time, and in the right format; informal feedback can be a powerful tool. This also leads to building trust, increased motivation, and improved performance. Building skills in delivering ongoing continuous feedback is essential.

Right Person:

If feedback is from a manager to a worker, it is best if the manager has had positive interactions with the worker and the relationship between them is professional, trusting, and mutually satisfying. Mistakes are made when a young, inexperienced manager is eager to improve the team and delivers negative/corrective feedback too early in the relationship. This is often perceived as insincere and can be damaging. With a younger manager delivering feedback to an older worker, it could be perceived as disrespectful.

Right Way: 

There are two main types of feedback: positive and negative. There is really no good way to deliver negative feedback. Example: “You don’t take feedback well, so it is difficult to discuss issues with you.” There are several things wrong with this statement. It will be perceived as an attack because it includes “you”. It is non-specific and doesn’t provide clues as to what a more desirable behavior would look like. When a worker feels attacked, they will become defensive, and the interaction will turn into a power struggle. This is frustrating for a manager and causes a worker to disengage. A Lose/Lose.

Carefully plan and structure negative feedback delivery. I use an adapted version of Appreciative Inquiry and focus on describing the behavior and its consequences.

Here is the formula. 

1. Describe the behavior. 

2. Get in touch with your own feelings and describe the effect on the situation. 

It is helpful to have a list of feeling words in a notepad so they will be top of mind. I also like to have a notepad with one page for each of my direct reports and make notes for each employee as time goes along. The act of writing it helps me internalize it so that I know what I want to talk about to them when I find myself in an informal conversation. 

3. Always use an “I” message to structure the feedback. 

Example: “I feel frustrated because when I offer feedback, I intend it to be constructive and I’m feeling like it is often not received in the helpful way that I intended it.” This takes a bit longer to construct and some may argue that it does not deliver the same message. I believe that it does. Notice the absence of the word ‘you’.

Right Time:

Once you have your feedback delivery plan in place be sure to time the delivery of the feedback as close as possible to when the behavior is observed. Remember that workers do not like to hear about something only twice a year. Most of them welcome an opportunity to informally discuss behavior and create a plan for change in an informal setting. Before lunch and at 4:30 are bad times to deliver feedback. Hunger and fatigue sabotage receiving and understanding feedback delivered at this time. A feedback conversation delivered first thing in the morning competes with demands and deadlines. The receiver will be distracted. Mid-morning and midafternoon in the middle of the week are good bets. On Monday, people are oozing out of their weekend. On Friday, people are thinking about their weekend. Pick the middle of the week. Keep in mind that if an employee is stressed due to recent illness, personal or professional challenges, your delivery style may need to change or even be postponed. Challenge yourself to look desirable behavior in your employees. This is psychologically beneficial to you as well as to the receiver of the feedback. 

Right Way (Delivery Style):

It is important to consider the information processing styles of the receiver of the feedback. Generational cohorts have distinct preferences when receiving feedback. Older workers prefer face to face. Younger ones like technology. In addition, humans have a preferred learning style: Visual, Auditory, or Kinesthetic. With advancements in technology, it is possible to provide feedback through text, and email. Just because we CAN does not mean we SHOULD. I remember the first time I got a job offer in a text message; I was astounded. The limitations of these methods prevent a high level of engagement in the comments and will limit the application of the behavior. 

Kinesthetic learners will benefit more from face-to-face feedback. When that cannot happen due to pandemic restrictions or geographic separation, using remote meeting platforms is a good second choice. In delivering feedback that is not face to face, I recommend sending a written summary of the feedback points and asking for acknowledgement of them. You can get creative and use a collaborative workspace and edit a document together. If not leave a space for the receiver to write comments on a document that you would email and ask for it to be returned to you.  Auditory learners will benefit from receiving feedback over the telephone. Kinesthetic people hate that type of communication. If you are not sure, ask them. They will appreciate you asking the question. For those that prefer a telephone conversation, again be sure to send a summary of the feedback. My rule: always close the feedback loop. Say it. Then get confirmation that what you thought you said is what the receiver thought they heard!

In my opinion texting is never an appropriate way to deliver feedback. There are many things wrong with it.

  1. It is like a sound byte
  2. It has no context
  3. It has no emotion
  4. It is easily mis-interpreted
  5. It would be difficult to deliver an ‘I’ message by text.
  6. Texts are short. (Although some people write very long texts; it isn’t appropriate)
  7. It is difficult to ensure the message was received in the way it was intended. 

Email is almost never an appropriate way to deliver feedback; except if it is simple positive feedback. One example would be: ‘Hey Jane, thanks so much for your assistance with the gold project. I appreciate your ability to manage the details.’ 

Delivering informal feedback requires planning and preparation. It also requires patience and a collaborative, conversational skill set as well as an ability to effectively use ‘I’ messages. An awareness of the worker’s communication and learning styles also is helpful. It helps to have a good foundational relationship with the feedback receiver and at least a minimal level of trust. Delivered appropriately, timely, and with a little advance planning, and in the right manner it can reap many rewards in terms of effectiveness, relationship building and improvement in performance. It is worth the extra effort! Watch for more tips next month on informal feedback! 

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