What’s The Best Way For A Manager To Provide Feedback?

The only way team members will get better is with feedback
The only way team members will get better is with feedback
Image Credit: Paula Grubb

One of the more challenging tasks that a manager has to do is to provide the members of your team with feedback. We need to keep in mind that feedback can take on many different forms. If someone does something that is very good or produces a good result, we want to let them know to do more of that. However, if someone does something that produces a bad result, we need to take them aside and talk about what they did wrong. Just exactly what is the best way to give feedback to team members?

How To Provide Feedback

So manager, just exactly are we supposed to go about providing feedback to the members of our team? Most of us were taught to deliver constructive feedback by using what has been called the feedback sandwich: we start with a positive, share a negative, and then close with a positive. Unfortunately, it turns out that the feedback sandwich is always tough to swallow for members of our team.

You might tell one of your team members “I really appreciate how you always come prepared to the team meetings. But you sometimes run over everyone else with all your facts and figures and your productivity results. Still: I want you to know that you’re a really valuable member of the team.” The meat of this sandwich – the “you run over everyone else with your facts and figures” part – was probably true. However, the bread – the two positives – didn’t soften the blow very much. In fact, it might end up making the team member angry.

In effect, when a manager uses the sandwich he or she is saying, “I need to give you some negative feedback… but first I’m going to say something nice so you won’t think I hate you. And once I’ve told you what I wanted to tell you, then I’ll say something nice so you won’t be mad at me when you leave.” That’s the key problem with the feedback sandwich. In the end the team members receiving the feedback feel manipulated. And even if at first they don’t feel that way, give it some time. Since our positive qualities tend to stay consistent, using the same bread eventually starts to taste stale to the team member. What is the likelihood of positive change? According to research, the feedback sandwich almost always fails to correct negative or subpar behaviors.

A Better Feedback Approach: Benevolent Honesty

Ok, so if the sandwich approach is not the right way to give feedback, then what is? A better approach is what is called benevolent honesty. In benevolent honesty the communicators focus on delivering negative information truthfully and directly, but also employ additional strategies to ensure that the manager’s words actually lead to long-term improvement. For example, a professor might emphasize that a student is capable of achieving high standards when giving critical feedback. All though this strategy might seem intuitive, communicators often fail to make their benevolent intentions clear. They seem to forget in the moment that others do not have access to that same information.

These findings dovetail nicely with a study conducted in 2014 that shows including one sentence can make feedback up to 40 percent more effective: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” That phrase contains three distinct signals: (1) You are part of this group, (2) This group is special; we have higher standards here, and (3) I believe you can reach those standards. Instead of delivering a feedback sandwich, the result is more like delivering a relationship sandwich. There is no manipulation. No platitudes. Not irrelevant compliments. No false hope. Just clear, direct feedback — delivered inside a message of connection, belonging, and trust between the manager and the person that they are talking to.

This is the real difference between a feedback sandwich and benevolent honesty. The feedback sandwich theoretically helps the feedback giver reduce the likelihood of creating conflict during a tough conversation. (“Maybe if I throw in a few compliments, maybe he won’t get mad.”) Managers need to realize that how a difficult conversation might feel to the person giving feedback doesn’t matter. The only thing that really matters is whether the feedback helps the recipient improve his or her performance. We need to understand that this is something a feedback sandwich is terrible at producing. The next time you need to have a difficult conversation with a team member forget the feedback sandwich. Forget leading and closing with a compliment. Instead, you need to just be direct and truthful… while showing that you care about that person’s performance or well-being because you care about them. You want to show that you want things to be better for them as a result of the conversation. Not just to be easier for you.

What All Of This Means For You

As a manager, you want to have the best team possible working for you. You probably do have good people on your team, but they are also probably not perfect. What this means is that you are going to have to provide them with feedback in order to point out areas where they can improve. How you go about providing this feedback is critically important – you are the one who is going to help them to become better.

Traditionally feedback has been given using something called the sandwich technique. We start out with a complement, then tell the team member what we want them to fix, and then end up with another complement. The problem is that this technique does not work very well. We need a new approach. One such technique is called benevolent honesty. When you are practicing benevolent honesty you provide feedback by focusing on delivering negative information truthfully and directly. It turns out that when you deliver feedback this way, it can result in long term improvements.

The reason that we provide feedback is because we want to make the members of our team better. The challenge that we have is that providing feedback is difficult to do. We need to understand that the way we may have being doing it does not produce the results that we want. If we can change how we provide feedback, then perhaps it will become better for everyone!

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: How often do you think that a manager should provide a team member with feedback?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

When you signed up to be a manager, did anyone tell you about the rough parts of the job? There are a lot of different parts of being a manager that are tough to do, but letting members of your team go is probably just about the hardest thing to do. There are a lot of different reasons why you may find yourself forced into this position, but no matter how you got there, you have a job to do. Do you know how to fire team members?