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How the Most Effective Leaders Give Feedback

Part 1: What effective feedback is, what it does, and what makes it work.

Key points

  • Feedback is information that helps us regulate ourselves and our environment.
  • Effective feedback in organizations drives behavioral change.
  • Giving effective feedback depends on the source, the content, the recipient, and the context of the message.
  • The most effective leaders not only give effective feedback; they continually seek it from others.
Volodymyr Hryshchenko/Unsplash
Source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko/Unsplash

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on how effective leaders give feedback.

Recently in my consulting and coaching work at Tuesday Advisors, I’ve seen a lot of interest in the topic of feedback, specifically around how to give feedback more effectively.

When talking about effective feedback, I think it can be helpful to take a brief step back and consider what exactly feedback is, what it does, and what makes it effective.

What is feedback?

Simply put, feedback is information. In a psychological context, it is information that reflects the outcomes and reactions to our (or others’) behaviors.

We get feedback from the world around us all the time, from tasks, objects, machines, other people, and ourselves. In fact, our inner monologue is probably the most prolific source of feedback in our lives.

In a work context, feedback usually comes in the form of information about a person’s performance of a task, which is used—ideally—to help them improve.

What does feedback do?

Feedback helps us regulate ourselves and our environment.

The classic model of how feedback operates is control theory. Control theory suggests that we have—either in our mind or in our environment—some goal or standard that we’re comparing ourselves to. That comparison gives us information about how we’re stacking up based on our current performance and our desired performance.

The simplest example of this is weight loss. I have a goal—say, I want to weigh 190 lbs—which represents the desired state. But I currently weigh 200 lbs. When I get on the scale, I get feedback about how my current state compares to my desired state. This comparison then elicits a response of some kind—an action or behavior—that affects my current state.

When feedback indicates a gap between our current and our desired state, we respond in one of four ways. And, lucky you, I’ve wrangled together four “R” words to make it (hopefully) a bit more memorable:

  • Reach — Increase our effort to close the gap (try harder).
  • Revise — Edit the standard (alter our vision of the desired state).
  • Reorient — Abandon the standard (change focus entirely).
  • Reduce — Question the feedback (label it unhelpful or inaccurate).

Here’s a work-related example.

Say I’m selling widgets, and my boss and I sit down together and come up with a goal: sell 20 widgets this month. Then, five days from the end of the month, my boss checks in and asks how many widgets I’ve sold—say 17.

That’s a simple type of feedback because even the question will spark a comparison in my mind that will cause me to evaluate where I stand against the standard and make some mental calculations…

  • Reach — Hit the phones and try to make my number before the month ends.
  • Revise — Ask my boss if I can lower the goal this month for X, Y, or Z reason.
  • Reorient — Decide it doesn’t matter to me whether I hit my goal or not, or decide I’m pushing a few deals to next month so I can exceed my goal.
  • Reduce — Decide that my boss actually doesn’t know what it takes to make a sales number, and why should I care anyway?

Now, consider how much more complex and nuanced this all gets when the feedback is about behaviors or goals that are more abstract and harder to measure, as they often are in a workplace setting (e.g., becoming “more strategic” or a “better listener”).

What makes feedback effective?

The ultimate goal of feedback is to drive behavioral change—how does that happen? There are three key components that drive change in feedback, including 1) the source of the feedback, 2) the content of the feedback message, and 3) the recipient of feedback.

The Source

Feedback is more likely to be viewed as accurate when it comes from a trustworthy source. And the key to trust here is high-quality, supportive relationships. Relationship quality is also related to how someone perceives the fairness of feedback.

The Content

If the ultimate goal of feedback is to drive behavior change, then the content of the feedback needs to focus on behavior, the more specific, the better.

Research consistently shows that negative feedback—that is, feedback that emphasizes the gap between current and desired performance—is most effective when it focuses on individual actions and behaviors. People are more likely to respond favorably to behavioral, task-related feedback because they feel they have some control over the actions required to change in the future. Person-centered feedback is almost always counterproductive for several reasons:

  • Feedback that targets the individual as a person directs their attention inward rather than at the task at hand. For example, telling a salesperson they need to be more outgoing to build relationships with clients may be less effective than saying they need to increase the number of client meetings they have every month.
  • Changing someone’s ability or personality is quite challenging and (if even possible) almost certainly occurs over a timeline that makes feedback irrelevant.
  • Person-focused feedback frequently results in bigger emotional reactions, like defensiveness and feeling hurt, and increases the likelihood that the person will dismiss the feedback outright.

The Recipient

There’s a whole host of research about how different individual differences (i.e., personality, motivation, locus of control, etc.) impact how an individual is likely to respond to feedback. It’s all quite interesting, but it’s not terribly useful information, and it’s certainly not as practical as focusing on what you can do as a leader to give better feedback.

Finally, let us not forget...

The Context.

The context in which feedback occurs is important to consider. Certainly, there’s the immediate context, such as where you are, who is around, and how you are delivering feedback (e.g., verbal, written, etc.). But the culture and the feedback environment of the organization in which feedback occurs are equally important.

Culture is the shared values, beliefs, and norms that shape behavior. It sets the tone for how employees approach their work, and it shapes how people perceive feedback. In “low-feedback” environments, feedback can be viewed as punishment or as being called out. In “high-feedback” environments, people expect to receive constant feedback and view it as a source of learning and improvement.

In the most favorable feedback environments, leaders not only continuously give effective feedback to others, but more importantly, they seek feedback from others and are expected to learn from and use feedback.

References

Gregory, J. B. & Levy, P. E. (2015). Using Feedback in Organizational Consulting. American Psychological Association.

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