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Giving Effective Feedback Means Knowing When Not to Give It

If your goal is to eat someone's dignity for lunch, you probably need to rethink your feedback strategy.
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It was prolific writer and British Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who first wrote, "If you want a thing well done, do it yourself."

Little did he know that his remark would resonate painfully inside the heads of managers worldwide who have been charged with delegating responsibilities, despite their gnawing feeling that that task would be done better if they could just do it themselves.

But, alas, divvying up and assigning the work to direct reports is core to the role of manager, which means that giving feedback on the work that has been delegated is core to the role as well. Feedback typically comes in three flavors:

Reinforcing or Motivational, a.k.a., "Hmmm, perhaps someone other than me was able to do the thing well!"

When you catch someone doing it right, or even exceeding expectations, your role is to give positive feedback that reinforces the behavior or outcome, and motivates the employee to do more of what worked.

Developmental or Corrective, a.k.a., "Ha! Just as I suspected: I knew that if I wanted it done well, I should have done it myself!"

When you realize that the person or project is falling short of agreed-upon expectations (which assumes that you and your direct report have had a conversation about expectations), you are charged with pointing out opportunities growth and improvement, and asking the employee for his perspective on performance.

Disciplinary, a.k.a., "I never, EVER should have delegated this. What a mess!"

Every once in a while, an employee truly blows it, and you need to give feedback that lays a formal foundation for future errors, problems or offenses. Disciplinary feedback usually results from an ongoing problem that the employee has been asked to address previously (but hasn't) or from a single rule violation that has significant legal, safety, fiscal, public relations or other consequences. Disciplinary feedback usually includes consequences and time-sensitive next steps.

Giving employees specific, timely feedback along with strategies for how to stop, start or continue a desired behavior or outcome is a critical part of a healthy supervisory relationship. In fact, management guru, Ken Blanchard once remarked: "Feedback is the breakfast of champions." However, if your goal is to eat someone's dignity for lunch, you probably need to rethink your feedback strategy.

Even with three sound reasons for giving feedback, there are at least three conditions under which you should stop, drop the feedback plan and roll back the clock before you proceed:

1. When you aren't consistently engaging in the behavior you're giving developmental feedback about, and you're not willing to admit it.

If you're going to reprimand your assistant for being late, you had better be an on-time or compulsively early person yourself. If you're going to speak to your customer service manager about her inconsistent follow-up, your record should be close to spotless. That being said, it's fine to be a work in progress on a skill or behavior that you are giving feedback on as long as you are ready and willing to admit it. You'll have much greater credibility if, rather than denying your challenges, you can say, "I want to speak with you about your paperwork, which you've been turning in late. I recognize that on-time submissions are critical for our department, and I'm working on improving this, too. Let's talk about how we both can meet our deadlines in a more consistent way."

2. When you've given a lot of feedback recently.

The purpose of feedback is to stop, start or continue behaviors -- and behavior modification is no easy feat. Think about the last time you tried to limit your sweets, and start walking more and drink more water, and cut down the caffeine, and set better personal boundaries -- and, and, and. Chances are, the more behaviors you tried to change at once, the fewer changes actually stuck for the long term. This is the problem with traditional annual performance reviews when they serve as the only time that the manager gives feedback. It's a practical and emotional overload, with few lasting results. Instead, make feedback a regular part of your supervisory relationship -- in small, consistent doses. And don't forget that a conversation about feedback doesn't have to include new feedback. It can and should address feedback on progress related to previous feedback, otherwise known as the "How's that been going for you?" conversation.

3. When you suspect that you might (just might!) have ulterior motives for giving the feedback.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will reiterate that the purpose of feedback is to stop, start or continue behaviors. Feedback should not be used to avenge a wrong done unto you, to unload emotions you are having trouble managing, to manipulate someone into favors, to force someone's hand, or for any other reason that isn't clear and clean of a hidden agenda. If you want to maintain the credibility and trust you need to give meaningful, motivating feedback down the road, don't set up roadblocks now that will derail you later.

And as for this article, how'd I do? Your (healthy) feedback is warmly welcome!