3 Golden Rules of Feedback

by | Aug 27, 2014

} 4 min read
Giving feedback

My college lacrosse coach was a true master of feedback. His timely insights were always spot-on and a huge part of my growth as a player. His input was NOT, however, always filled with sunshine and daisies.

Coach Shay balanced praise and criticism—he was not afraid to give negative feedback when appropriate—and my teammates and I completely trusted what he had to say. His “secret feedback sauce” led to more wins, and I try to keep his approach in mind whenever I deliver feedback of my own.

Feedback is a cornerstone of modern management, and a critical part of goal science thinking here at BetterWorks. It tells us where we are in relation to where we want to be, how the “going is going,” and where we are heading next. When our goals are aspirational and stretch us, feedback is essential. Otherwise, we can easily get lost and give up on the journey.

While the importance of feedback is clear, best practices for giving feedback to employees are much murkier. There are lots of questions like, what is the right balance of the carrot and the stick? Should praise be rationed and savored, or should it be showered out frequently? Is negative feedback essential for growth and improvement, or does it do too much damage to self-esteem?Research on feedback is mixed. For positive feedback, studies have shown that individuals with greater daily positive emotions have, and may continue to grow, greater optimism, competence, and purpose in life. Praise contributes to this greater daily positivity.Negative feedback has its merits too. Researchers have found that negative feedback has a positive effect on task motivation. Specifically, it leads to increased effort, while positive feedback only leads to maintained effort. This makes sense. If you’re on your journey from A to C, but are only at B, you’re going to step on the gas.

So what are we to make of this mixed feedback bag? It’s clear that feedback is too nuanced for specific answers, but luckily there are three golden rules to help cut through the feedback fog:

1. Honesty is the best policy

This is the golden rule of feedback. When trying to decide whether to offer praise or constructive criticism, honesty and openness are the simplest solutions.Ignore the pseudo-science ratios of positive to negative comments (they’re flat out wrong.) Searching for a half-hearted .73 of a compliment to fulfill the magical 5.6 to 1 ratio just won’t work, so stick to the truth. You’ll be surprised how much genuine praise there is to give, and those on the receiving end will know you mean it.

Honesty works both ways. When we deserve to hear constructive feedback or criticism, we should get it. Negative feedback is important for us to grow, and change our ways for the better. Keeping your feedback honest is the best way to find the right balance of carrot and stick, but that doesn’t fully tell us how feedback should be delivered.

2. Process, not person

When giving feedback to employees, one of the most common no-no’s is focusing feedback on the person, and not the process or behavior (it’s no coincidence that Coach Shay’s favorite word is “process”). Our understanding of this distinction stems from Carol Dweck’s famous research on fixed and learning mindsets. When we are praised as a person, we shift to a fixed mindset. Hearing something like, “You’re brilliant!” implies that you’ve made it; cross “brilliance” off the checklist! Praise for process and behavior, on the other hand, emphasizes a learning and growth mindset: “Your effort has been amazing. Imagine your growth and progress if you keep it up!”

This guiding principle is especially critical for negative feedback. At its core, negative feedback tells us there is a discrepancy between where we are and where we want to be. Our rational response is to decrease the gap, and increasing effort is the way to do it. The problem? We aren’t rational.

Devoting effort and energy to closing the gap would make the most sense, but instead, our natural reaction to criticism is to protect our self esteem. Our effort goes into guarding against a bruised ego. Even the most confident among us deal with this irrationality. If we instead direct feedback toward processes, tasks, and motivations, we are spared what often feels like a personal attack. This means valuable effort can be used to improve our behaviors, with our egos still intact.

3. Today, not tomorrow (and definitely not in a year)

When feedback is delivered promptly, and frequently, details of our behaviors and processes are still fresh in our minds. We can actually understand why we deserve the praise or criticism we are receiving. If feedback is given months later, details of tasks are long gone, and feedback shifts from forgotten process to present person (not a good thing as we just learned).

Frequent feedback and progress are closely tied together. Progress is the single most important motivator during the workday, and without proper feedback, it’s impossible to gauge our progress. With feedback in hand, we understand how far we’ve gone, and we harness the power of progress.Since progress is (or should be) a constant in our work lives, feedback needs to be ever-present too. The feedback loops of the past (i.e., annual performance reviews, bi-annual reviews, etc.) turn far too slowly. These loops need to be much smaller, and much greater in number.

So in review…

1. Honesty: It’s the best way to find the balance of carrot and stick.

2. Process, not person: Focus your feedback on tasks and motivations, not on people.

3. Today, not tomorrow: Frequent feedback is relevant feedback, and it fuels progress.

So… what’s your feedback for me?