Direct reports want more frequent and more useful feedback from their managers.
Some feedback about feedback
Since 2016, Leading Edge has asked thousands of employees at Jewish organizations about their experiences at work. And every year we are struck by a fascinating finding: the vast majority of employees evaluate their managers favorably—they feel that their managers respect and care about them—but they want feedback that is more frequent and useful.
Feedback is for everyone—direct reports, colleagues, supervisors, and ourselves. This article is intended for managers and describes two strategies for giving feedback to direct reports. It also includes some additional tips for ensuring these conversations go smoothly.
This article is just the first in a series of resources on feedback and performance management that we plan to release. Future topics will include power dynamics around feedback, “managing up”, goal setting, performance reviews, and more.
Why effective feedback matters
Effective feedback improves performance and increases trust; ineffective feedback (or no feedback) breeds conflict, negativity, and demotivation.
Managers often avoid giving feedback—or, at least, avoid giving feedback that isn’t positive. You’re busy, your team is busy, and thinking about feedback feels like a distraction; you want to make sure you avoid any awkwardness or conflict; you worry that criticism could undermine trust or damage the relationship you’ve worked hard to build. You may also be concerned that giving feedback may exacerbate existing power dynamics.
In the end, however, when you have insight into how someone might improve, you have the opportunity to positively impact their work quality, future career trajectory, and job satisfaction—and yours as well. If you withhold that insight, your colleague misses out on opportunities to improve while you increase the chances that they will find out the same truth later anyway, potentially with more severe consequences. Meanwhile, your own frustration with the problem may grow.
Two Models for Supervisory Feedback
Situation, Behavior, Impact™ (SBI™)
The SBI™ method, developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, is a simple and effective method for providing difficult feedback. However, it can also be used for giving positive feedback. The SBI model is best for situations in which the feedback is simple, straightforward, and unlikely to be emotionally fraught. The feedback should be given as close to the event as possible, ideally within a week. It follows a simple three-step format:
- First, describe the situation and specify the time/place in which the behavior occurred.
- Then discuss the behavior or actions as you observed them.
- Finally, explain the impact or the result of the behavior.
You should then pause to give the other person a chance to respond. You may also want to clarify how they should approach a similar situation next time, so that they can work to improve for the future.
“Before our meeting yesterday [situation], you did not share an agenda with me [behavior]. This made me feel unprepared and less comfortable participating fully in the meeting [impact].”
“At our staff retreat yesterday [situation], you volunteered to lead a warm-up activity and were thoughtful and deliberate in including everyone [behavior]. It set a positive tone for the rest of the retreat and made our time together feel productive and inclusive [impact].”
“At yesterday’s staff meeting [situation], you arrived 10 minutes late [behavior] and missed an important discussion about our new program. I’m sure there was a legitimate reason, but we had to spend some time catching you up on what you missed instead of moving forward with the rest of the meeting agenda [impact].”
This model focuses on specific actions or behaviors that were observed, without attacking or judging somebody as a person. When you refer to a certain time and place and describe the behavior as it occurred, there is less room for defensiveness or debating; you are simply stating the facts. The recipient of the feedback may still become upset, defensive, or even angry, but framing the conversation this way makes that less likely.
A crucial part of this model is explaining the impact. It can be difficult for people to grasp the impact of their actions on others fully, especially in the workplace. Helping people understand how they are perceived and the ways their actions affect others can be a powerful motivator to change.
The challenge with this model is that not all feedback can be reduced to a specific behavior at a certain moment of time. Sometimes, a more nuanced approach is necessary to unpack a situation. Another challenge of this approach is that SBI™ should only be used by the person who experienced the situation, so a manager needs a different method if working from reports of behavior from others.
The Pendleton Method is a more comprehensive tool that can address more than one specific instance. It also encourages self-reflection and dialogue. There are five steps to the Pendleton Method. The conversation may not flow perfectly into these steps; think of this as a framework rather than a script:
Ask for their input first by saying “in your opinion, what went well?” Or, “from your perspective, what did you do well?” It’s important to push the person to give a real answer for this and to probe them to share something specific that they did well.
Share feedback around strengths. If you agree with their self-assessment of what went well, let them know you agree. Try to share other areas where they excelled in order to show that you are noticing their strengths and not just the areas for improvement. Specific praise is important so that employees know what actions to repeat and continue.
Ask what they could improve or do differently next time. Give them time to respond, but do try to get them to come up with something. If they ask for your input, tell them you want to hear their thoughts first.
Share feedback around what they could do differently next time. Be as specific as possible and give them practical ways to improve. Again, if you agree with their self-assessment, that’s a great place to start, but try to add onto it or find something different to say as well.
Together, agree on an action plan. This ensures that you and your direct-report are aligned around the next steps. When your employee has a focused plan of action, they know how to improve and you can continue to offer feedback along the way.
The Pendleton Method takes more of a coaching stance by offering more engagement, two-way communication, and opportunities for both parties to process the conversation. It is well-suited to situations in which the feedback is broader than an isolated moment and when the feedback may be sensitive or difficult to receive.
Find the right time
Whether speaking in-person or remotely, make sure that the feedback recipient feels comfortable and ready to receive the feedback. Try asking beforehand if they are ready to hear feedback. Giving them an opportunity to delay the conversation—especially if they are stressed or overwhelmed—will create a more supportive and respectful tone and ensure that the conversation does not feel like an ambush.
Consider initiating the conversation with one of the questions below:
- Do you have 10 minutes to talk about the staff meeting yesterday?
- Can I share some thoughts with you about your last email to Tanya?
- May I give you some quick feedback on your presentation this morning?
For some people, it can be more difficult to give (and receive) feedback virtually as it’s not easy to pick up on someone’s emotions through a screen. When giving feedback virtually, take extra steps to check in with your employee to make sure they are ready for a feedback conversation.
While we cannot control how people feel, it is important that feedback recipients be reassured that they are not being judged, or criticized; it is important to state (even if it feels obvious) that the purpose of the conversation is to help them grow and develop. Explain that you believe in their abilities and are trying to push them and guide them to achieve their best work yet. When you demonstrate that you care and are giving feedback for the right reasons, people are more likely to be open and listen.
While it’s certainly possible to speak too negatively—which can result in anger or defensiveness—it’s also important not to be artificially positive. If you have praise to give as part of your feedback, then include that, but make sure that it’s genuine. People can generally sense if you don’t mean it and are just being nice to soften the blow.
Some managers are hesitant to give negative feedback to direct reports who may have different identities from them; this typically stems from a fear of being misinterpreted or perceived as discriminatory. However, not giving honest feedback can be more harmful and inequitable, as all employees deserve honest, straightforward information so that they can develop and advance professionally. We will continue to explore these issues and the many types of power dynamics in a future article.
Focus on one thing at a time
If you give feedback on a variety of topics or issues during the same conversation, you risk overwhelming or confusing the recipient. Focus on the most important issue and, if there are multiple areas of feedback, wait and give another round of feedback later as a separate conversation.
Feedback is most effective when given soon after the event happens. The more time that passes, the more the event fades or distorts in people’s memories over time. Even with positive feedback, it’s always better to give it sooner rather than later, so that employees know what specific action they did well and can work to ensure they repeat that behavior.
Make it a habit
Do what you can to make feedback consistent and ongoing. The more often you give feedback, the more comfortable it will be for everyone. Providing ongoing feedback establishes a culture of open dialogue, helping reinforce positive behaviors and shifting away from negative ones. It also ensures that managers will provide feedback more consistently and equitably across their team.
Try scheduling time for quick feedback conversations at the end of weekly check-ins. We recommend keeping a running record of weekly feedback using a template, such as this one from The Management Center. You don’t need to add to it every week, but having all prior feedback in one place allows you to refer back to it as needed and monitor progress. It also includes a place for managers to acknowledge their own areas for improvement, encouraging direct reports to provide feedback upwards to their supervisors.
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To support organizations in creating even better places to work, Leading Edge conducts an annual Employee Experience Survey. Over the past four years, over 20,000 professionals at 234 organizations have participated.