Corrective Feedback

Corrective Feedback

Today’s newsletter focuses on techniques you can use to talk to people about behavior that you would like them to change. But first, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the various terms used to describe “non-positive feedback,” for lack of a better term.

People often call any type of non-positive feedback “constructive feedback.” To be honest, I think that many people consider the term “constructive feedback” to be a euphemism for “negative feedback.” However, this is not completely accurate because positive feedback, assuming it encourages good behavior, is as likely to be constructive as is non-positive feedback. In addition, not all non-positive feedback is actually negative. For example, you might simply have a preferred working style and you would like the person with whom you are working to work within your parameters. Perhaps a better term is “corrective feedback,” since what your goal is, or should be, is to change, or correct, someone’s behavior for the better.

The reason this matter of semantics is important, is that so many people avoid giving corrective feedback and I think that is due, in part, to the fact that people see corrective feedback as being inherently negative. They don’t want to be negative. They see themselves as collaborative, harmonious, team players, problem solvers, etc. So they avoid any sort of non-positive feedback because it upsets this vision of themselves. I am hopeful that if people see corrective feedback as useful, rather than negative, that they will be more inclined to be honest with their colleagues.

The other reason that people avoid giving corrective feedback is that they don’t really know how to do it. How many times have you been the recipient of someone sidling up to you, asking you if you “have a minute,” blurting out something that feels highly critical, although you’re not exactly sure what they’re talking about, and then scurrying away before you can ask them any questions? I’m guessing it’s happened to many of us a number of times. So here is what you should do instead:

  • Choose a good time and place for the conversation. Make sure it is private. People hate publicly receiving any type of less than positive feedback. In addition, make sure that you have enough time to address any questions that they might have.
  • Prepare. Think through what you want to say ahead of time, and think about what their reaction might be.
  • Watch your tone of voice. Avoid sarcasm and don’t give corrective feedback when you are really angry. Remember, once someone realizes that you have a concern to share, he or she is likely to be as nervous as you.
  • Whenever possible, give corrective feedback face-to- face. This will allow you to watch the person’s body language and adjust your message as necessary. Never give corrective feedback via e-mail.
  • Keep it relatively short and direct. Don’t beat around the bush.
  • Be specific about the person’s behavior and avoid making and stating assumptions about why he or she did or did not do something.
  • Try following this format: Describe the behavior. Describe the impact of the behavior. Tell the person how it makes you or others feel, and why. Then askfollow up questions, as appropriate. For example, “You have been 20 minutes late to our last four weekly meetings, which kept 10 of us waiting each time. This frustrates me because it wastes our time and it means that we can’t get to everything on the agenda. What is going on?”

I think one of the trickier elements of corrective feedback is knowing when to ask questions. There is an effort in the workplace these days to ask more questions and make fewer assumptions, which is great. However, beginning a corrective feedback discussion with open-ended questions can really backfire. Take the example above. Suppose you say, “James, I notice that you’ve had trouble getting to work in time for our weekly meetings. What’s going on?” James may think that you’re just having a nice chat. So he says “Oh, I’ve been trying to exercise more regularly so I’m going to the gym first thing in the morning, which has thrown my schedule out of kilter.” Now you’re off balance because you have to switch the mood of the conversation from, “Gee, aren’t you great to exercise,” to “Cut this out. You’re messing up everyone’s schedule.” It is much better to save your questions for the end, once you’ve stated your concerns.

Remember, giving someone honest feedback can be a real gift. It can provide them with a new perspective and can allow them to modify their behavior before tempers flare or their career is damaged. It’s not always pleasant to do, but it can truly make a difference to someone.


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