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Leadership Mistake Five: Too Few Specifics in Feedback

This lesson is a part of an audio course Leadership Lessons from Your Followers by Andy Edwards

In the previous failure, we spoke of leaders being open to feedback and challenge. In fact, most leaders would believe that part of their job is to PROVIDE feedback and challenge to their followers… and they'd be right. When they feel they are being led well, followers want that. The trouble is, the WAY in which most leaders do this creates our fifth failure.

Failing to be specific in their positive and constructive feedback.

In my live workshops, I often ask the question; "There are two types of feedback; Positive and…" I await someone to call out the answer. And at least 50% of the time the answer comes; "Negative!"

The point here is that, if you are giving negative feedback, how much of it do you a) think is being listened to and b) is being taken on board as an instrument of improvement?

Most leaders understand the benefits of positive feedback – to a point! Which I'll explain shortly. However, they must also understand that the opposite of positive feedback in the work environment is CONSTRUCTIVE (not negative) feedback. And both positive and constructive feedback can be worthwhile and valuable "gifts" to your follower. And followers want BOTH types.

But, listen to the fifth failure again: failing to be specific in their positive and constructive feedback.

Did you hear it? The idea that either type of feedback works best if it is specific.

Think about it, the five feedback options open to a leader are:

  1. Positive and generic. "Hey, well done today!"

  2. Positive and specific. "Andy, I heard you on the phone just then. Your calm response to what was obviously an irate customer completely turned things around. The company's relationship with that person remains intact thanks to your professionalism. Well done!"

  3. No feedback given… simply ignored.

  4. Constructive and specific. "Andy, when you told that customer they were wrong, it might have come across as a little dismissive. Which is why I think they hung up on you. I believe, between us, we could work out a better way to handle this type of call, would that be useful to you?"

  5. Constructive and generic. "Hey, you are going to need to do better tomorrow."

Followers say that the worst outcome of those five is number three which is no feedback whatsoever.

Under these circumstances, followers feel unimportant and ineffective whatever they do. No support from the leader whether positive or constructive is a big no-no for your followers. They need something!

The next worst is generic constructive. This is usually considered by followers to be "Negative feedback". They have been told they are rubbish but have no idea what to do about it!

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the next worst outcome is the positive generic. It's a bit like a sugar rush for followers: nice at the time but the come-down leaves them a little hollow. They remain unsure of what was good. Was this compliment actually a bit of a palliative (and the boss doesn't really know what's happening)?

The best two types of feedback you can give are the specific versions. When you have a good relationship with them, your followers will delight in the attention you have given them and how you are utterly clear on what has happened or needs to happen.

When issuing constructive and specific feedback, followers will understand the gap between what happened/what they did and what the better version might be. They know what is necessary to fill that gap; a great opportunity to improve!

Unsurprisingly, all followers love to receive positive and specific feedback. This type of feedback isolates a behavior or skill and matches it up specifically with a positive outcome or result. Leaders should know that when we acknowledge and reward in others the specific behavior we want, it tends to happen again.

There are many feedback models available to leaders. One I particularly like is called S.T.A.R. Feedback.

S stands for Situation, T for Task, A for Action, and R for Result.

So giving positive feedback might sound like this using the star Model:

S (Situation): Hey Andy, I saw that customer who came into your office earlier, the one who looked upset.

T (Task): Yeah… Do you remember she was the one who wanted help in applying for the grant?

A (Action): I saw that you gave her the forms she needed and I heard how patient you were as to how she should fill them out.

R (Result): I also noted how much she thanked you for your help and left looking relieved. Well done!

Giving Feedback for Improvement (or "Constructive Feedback") adds an extra AR at the end, to provide Alternative Action and Better Result. It might sound like this using the STAR model.

S (Situation): Hey Andy, a customer has just complained to me about the service he received from your office.

T (Task): He had wanted your help to resolve a problem with his account.

A (Action): Apparently, before he could finish his request, you interrupted him and said there was nothing you could do.

R (Result): He left feeling really upset and wanting to close his account.

A (Alternative Action): It might have helped if you had reviewed the circumstances with him, explained why he could not get what he wanted from you, and referred him to the appropriate office.

R (Better Result): That way, he would have more readily understood our regulations and felt better about the interaction, and kept his custom with us.

Whichever model you choose to use, if any, be sure that wherever possible you are specific with your feedback so that your team member understands the impact of their actions both positive and otherwise – one to reinforce and help them capitalize on - and the other to help them improve.

Your task is to consider how you give your feedback… do you only supply feedback when things are going wrong? Perhaps you see feedback as belonging solely belonging in the formal setting of a one to one or appraisal? Nothing wrong with this, but do expand your feedback frequency so that there is a feeling of encouragement and support in your team?

Our next lesson looks at the sixth of our seven leadership failures. Failure to say a simple Thank you!

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Written by

Andy Edwards