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How to Give Behaviourally Informed Feedback

Feedback. It’s out there in every aspect of our lives. It’s the likes we get on social media, the way people interact with us, or choose not to, the things we get to and don’t get to do. You cannot avoid it. Every single thing you do can be criticized, commented on, thought about, or discussed behind your back. Yikes. Without going full Black Mirror, let’s restrict ourselves to direct feedback, specifically in a professional setting. I think most of us are aware of the ‘shit sandwich’ technique, which really is just good feedback, followed by not-so-good feedback, followed by good feedback, so we can end on ‘a happy note’. And from a behavioural science perspective that makes sense. Applying the peak-end rule, people will remember the most intense part (bad or good) as well as the ending of an experience best, and will base their judgement of their experience on these two parts almost exclusively. So ending on a high note is sure to make the memory of the experience better. But that’s just changing the experience, and not the process and possible outcomes of the feedback.

What’s the point of feedback, really? If it’s positive it can be used as a form of praise. If it’s negative it’s probably to improve whatever is going on, so the employee can grow into a better employee, or well, it’s a justification for getting axed. Let’s stick with the former. If a minimum of two people are making the time to have a feedback session let’s at the bare minimum come prepared.

  1. First, both of you should know that it is in fact a feedback meeting. Otherwise it’s simply a trap, and I can promise you it’s a very unpleasant one that will do absolutely nothing positive for any working relationship.

  2. Second, it helps a lot if both of you actually know what is being discussed. Is this a specific feedback meeting (e.g. you just finished a project with a specific stakeholder and everyone’s role in that project is being reviewed) or is this something like an annual review meeting, where we’re talking performance in general? These two types require completely different types of preparation.

  3. Third, and this is to explain the preparation part: it actually helps if there is a standardized format for these types of meetings. I’m not talking a minute by minute schedule, but more of a template. There being a script (of sorts) means that these meetings can be compared, referenced and that actual progress can be tracked. But for that to happen constructively, you need to be specific.

  4. So fourth: specificity. I hate review meetings where people stay in the abstract. Doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative either. The sentences ‘you displayed great leadership skills’ or ‘you fail to display great leadership skills’ are equally void of meaning if you cannot back them up with a concrete example (or a few). Tell the person opposite you which behaviour you thought was great (or not so great) in very specific situations. If great, mention why it was great and how it could translate to other situations. If not so great, mention why it wasn’t great and how it could have been done better in that specific situation, or even other/similar situations.

Yes, I am aware this is a lot of work. But if you can’t bring yourself to do this you really shouldn’t be a people manager. And if you’re being managed by someone who has no desire to put in this level of work, just know that this person has absolutely no interest in growing you as a person. Better to be aware of it…

So what could a template like this look like? Well, that’s still very much up to personal preference, but it should at least mention things you did well, examples of excellence if you will. And then of course also examples of not-so-excellence. But, followed by what should have been done instead. The thing I love most about having templates like this is that you can also compare across employees. Now this sounds horrific, but it can be very helpful in a de-biasing kind of way. If you feel like someone has displayed ‘great leadership skills’ but you cannot for the life of you come up with examples, well guess what? You just like this person and are biased towards them. The opposite holds true as well. Which brings me to another key point: this is NOT a one-way street. As a manager, you have your viewpoints of the situation, and the person you’re giving feedback to will have theirs. The truth? Well according to the saying it lies somewhere in the middle. But I’m not sure if that’s relevant in this power dynamic. What I’m trying to say is that this document (the template) is something that needs to be populated beforehand. And the reason for that is simple: it’s to even out the power imbalance. The one thing to avoid is that you enter a meeting like this, you tell a person the things they’ve done well, the things they haven’t done well and how they ought to improve. You are prepared (hopefully), and they may also be, to some extent, as you are likely to be able to pre-empt some feedback. But not all of it. Who wants to be in a meeting where you’re talking to someone who’s completely caught off guard by what you’re saying? Especially if it’s negative and they had no idea. Let’s not do that.

What we should be doing is to have this document populated before and circulated (only to the people in question, of course). So they can also give their side of the story. Not as a way to argue, not combatively, but as a way of explaining why certain things happened the way they did (from their perspective) and possibly make their manager aware of factors that they were not aware of before. This is supposed to be a conversation, not a punch down. It’s also a great way to have someone way more invested in this process, because they can actually have a say. Which leads to the last point of the feedback session: the agreement. After having heard all (both?) sides of the story, it’s important that all parties agree to what is being worked on next, and how that is going to get done. Again, move away from the abstract and get specific. If you want someone to display leadership skills, make sure everyone is on the same page as to what that means. This doesn’t mean that the more senior person has to spell it out, but you should at least have a discussion on what great leadership looks like, and how this can be exemplified in the person’s current position. This is also a great way to check yourself as a manager – if you’re giving feedback in which you’re asking a person to do something (e.g. lead) but you yourself cannot come up with a way for them to do that, or to signal leadership values, you’re just an ass. So let’s make sure we agree on the points of improvement, write them down, save this document and make sure that we track progress against it. Because once you’ve populated this document once, well, the next feedback session almost writes itself!

All in all, there are ways to give behaviourally informed feedback. And no, it doesn’t mean to cut all the negative points, the criticism or the areas for improvement. I’d actually quite seriously caution against that. Because what happens if you give someone nothing but positive feedback? If you’re telling someone they are exceeding every expectation and just absolutely nailing all aspects of their job, but you also have no desire (or capacity) to promote them or additionally reward the fact that they go beyond what’s expected, well then don’t be surprised if they become demotivated, will start performing worse or just leave when they’ve deemed the experience to have been ‘sufficiently long enough for their CV’. So make sure the feedback is consistent, both across the individual and the context you’re in and do not send out mixed messages!


Behavioural Science

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