Make feedback constructive to encourage future success

Ireland’s rugby team is making its way around Australia during a three-test series, and so am I. That’s why I was in Melbourne recently where Barry Corr, the CEO of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce, welcomed me to a corporate lunch before the second match.
The event included a lively panel discussion led by local sports broadcaster and Co Cavan native Catherine Murphy.
She oversaw insights and observations from former Irish rugby team performance analyst Eoin Toolan, who now works for the Melbourne Rebels rugby team, and from former Wallabies hooker Stephen Moore, the nation’s most capped player, raised Down Under by Irish parents.

Eoin and Stephen reviewed a series of plays from the first match between Ireland and the Wallabies (during which I probably don’t need to remind you rugby fans that, er, Ireland lost) to explain what Ireland could try to do better next time. Catherine asked Stephen to recall what it felt like to go “through review sessions” with analysts when he was a player.
His answer jumped out at me. “It can be embarrassing to be called out before your teammates,” he said, “You can break someone’s confidence if it’s not handled properly.”

And that, my dear readers, is precisely the focus of today’s column: how to give constructive feedback properly.
As organisation leaders, team members or just plain professional people, we often must give – and receive – feedback. And while we publicly say we welcome it, in reality we probably don’t welcome it at all.

That’s because when we say we want feedback, most of us are really hoping for reassurance. No one much likes to be told they’re wrong or should be doing something in a different way.
Of course, it’s important to get information about how you can better perform so as to add more value to your career and your company, but we don’t want the information delivered in a negative way – and fear of that scares us. The risk of that negative experience is often associated with feedback. So, here are my top four thoughts on the matter.

1 Public v private

It’s no wonder that, as Stephen pointed out, it could be very embarrassing to sit as a team with an analyst – who wasn’t on the field – going over each play and calling out players in various forms of judgement. Ouch. It’s often said, “praise in public and criticise in private”. I think that’s right. Sometimes, as in the rugby comparison, an issue covers a number of people – and that may be good reason to deliver critical feedback to a group.

But other than that, I can’t think of any situation in which the best scenario is to correct someone in front of their peers. Shining the negative spotlight for all to see will make the issue seem bigger and the person feel smaller. If you’re a manager, talking in private will allow the other person to more freely express themselves and open up.

2 Team effort

Rather than one manager presiding over everyone else, a super way to get a group or a team involved is to guide it as a collective effort. In this situation, perhaps as debrief after a project or event has been completed, each person takes a turn in a discussion – not finger-pointing – format. Speak in general terms about approach or lessons learned, but don’t single out an individual.

3 Make that sandwich

You’ve probably already heard about the ‘sandwich’. This is simply making sure to surround every piece of meaty criticism between two slices of soft positive observations about the person’s work or professional style and effort. An unrelenting stream of negativity is bound to fatigue the receiver and unlikely to get the effect you may be after. So, don’t forget to remind the person of their overall value and contribution to the team.

4 Let them talk

Obviously, when providing feedback, it’s important to design solutions. But what isn’t always obvious is where the solutions should come from.

If you’re the manager, you might think you should have all the answers. Maybe, as with a rugby review, you’ll announce what kind of actions should be taken next time. However, in most cases, it’s better if you ask the other person what they imagine can be done. Rather than describing the situation to them and jumping into what you foresee as the needed change, first ask the person to give their own assessment. Let them do the talking and they’re more likely to come up with a better plan than you even had.
Ireland lost in Brisbane and won in Melbourne. By the time this column runs, we’ll all know how Ireland ultimately fared through the three-test series against Australia. What lessons can be learned for next time? It’s the same delicate question-and-answer cycle we constantly try to incorporate into our communications for business and personal relations.

One of the best phrases I’ve come across in relation to striking that balance is to
“encourage the future, don’t punish the past”.

So, here’s to your future of more encouraging, and therefore more effective, feedback.

Gina London

Gina London

An Emmy-winning former CNN correspondent and anchor with premier clients in five continents, she guides the top companies and executives in the world to more positively connect and engage with their employees, their board and themselves.

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Meet Gina!

An Emmy-winning former CNN correspondent and anchor with premier clients in five continents, she guides the top companies and executives in the world to more positively connect and engage with their employees, their board and themselves.

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