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Give Better Feedback Even When You’re Not In Charge – 5 Tips

by | Sep 12, 2019 | Conflcit

How challenging it is to give feedback which improves the situation!  This reminder came during my recent work with a workplace conflict made much worse by unskilled feedback. 

What causes many of us to shy away from providing feedback to help ourselves and our co-workers to do better?   Even more challenging is to encourage better feedback in your organization when you are not in charge. 

According to Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp in Getting it Done:  How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, our reluctance to provide feedback is because we lack the skill to do it well.  

First of all, not all feedback is alike.  There are at least 3 different purposes in giving feedback – to encourage the recipients, to help them improve their skills, or to help the organization make decisions about promotion, training or firing.

  • APPRECIATION is expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  • ADVICE (or COACHING) consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  • EVALUATION is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.

Evaluation is very frequently used in school environments and in workplace performance review processes.   Whether the test score is A or C,  the job performance is rated “meets expectations” or not, the emotions involved in receiving your evaluation – good or bad — drown out the value of the coaching provided at the same time.   The person being evaluated usually does not absorb the advice provided along with the grading.  The two objectives are at cross-purposes and we need to use them more strategically.

Here are 5 suggestions to improve your feedback.

  1. Separate the Kinds of Feedback 

Offer different kinds of feedback at different times.  At the very least if the situation requires 2 or 3 of the purposes such as during a performance review, provide a clear signal when you are switching from appreciation or coaching to evaluation.

  1. Express Appreciation to Motivate

When should you offer appreciation? Always.

In the words of Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp,

It’s always a good time to spend a moment boosting someone else’s mood, and thus boosting their productivity. The cost is low: it takes only a minute to drop by someone’s office and say, “I’m grateful for your hard work.”

Because the need for appreciation is an emotional need, the most direct way to communicate appreciation is by mentioning your subjective feelings.

  • I was happy with your work.
  • I am proud to work with you.
  • I feel confident that you can handle problems in the office when I am away.
  • I am impressed with how hard you try.

This is more of a challenge if you are not happy with their work.  It is not helpful to fake positive comments.  They will pick up on empty flattery and your purpose of motivation will not be achieved.

Find something positive to acknowledge.   Maybe they tried hard but the bad results were not within their control.  It is more difficult to find a positive when the effort and the results both are not good.  Someone facing a failure from a job performance that should have been better,  will not appreciate comments to rub in the failure.  Their emotions may be improved and they may be more motivated by an expression of empathy.

  1. Offer Advice to Improve Performance

When the purpose of the feedback is appreciation, the comments are directed toward the person.  In contrast, for feedback focused on giving advice or coaching, the comments should be about the person’s performance, the specific behavior that the person could choose to do or not do. Coaching feedback is focused on the performance, and not the person; how to improve the work, not how to improve the human.

Start by asking questions to make sure you understand what the person was trying to do.  Also ask the person when would be a good time to discuss your suggestions and whether there is a particular aspect of their performance on which the person would like your feedback. Before giving your advice, it can also be very useful to ask the person for their thoughts about their performance and how it could be improved.

The two categories of coaching feedback are to reinforce what worked well and offer suggestions about what could be done differently. Make sure the advice is specific and clear and not just a broad “Good job” or “That didn’t work”.    Remember to notice successes and point those out so that the person is more likely to repeat them. 

As with children, we adults find it easier to concentrate on what we should do rather than what we should not do.  Therefore it is more effective to frame your comments in the positive – “Do more of X,” rather than, “Do less of Y”.

Your advice about what could be done differently will seem less threatening after you have identified what has worked well.  Try to limit your suggestions for change to a maximum of 2 or 3 at one time.  The person is not likely to remember a list of 20 changes that you suggest.

  1. Evaluate Only When Needed

By now it should be clear that not all feedback is evaluation.  Usually evaluation is not the best way to improve performance. Reserve evaluation for occasions when it is a necessary part of decisions about human resources like promotion, or firing.

If we are offering feedback about what worked well and what could be done differently, we do not need to provide an evaluation of the person’s work compared with others or with a scale.  A broad comment like telling someone they are the best or worst in the group is not helpful in communicating what they need to do to improve or to build on what they are doing well.   

Occasionally evaluation is needed as a tool to encourage improvement if appreciation and advice have not been sufficient.  Evaluation may be needed to give somebody a “kick in the pants” — to encourage them to try harder

  1. Encourage Feedback When You Are Not In Charge

Back to the person who is not in charge and who would like to improve the skills and assumptions about feedback in their organization.   First, offer appreciation to peers, subordinates, and those to whom you report.   They will likely be grateful for this.

Volunteering to coach your boss could be risky in some organizations.  A better strategy is to request coaching from others in the hierarchy, especially those who report to you.  This demonstrates that you are willing to listen to observations about your performance and helps to create a positive atmosphere for coaching in general.  Then make sure to listen carefully to what you can learn from the feedback.


Finally I am going to take my own advice. If you have feedback about the Common Ground Blog please contact me.  What is working  well?  What should be done differently?

Still curious?  Here is a recent post in the Farnham Street Blog on this topic

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