Dr. Nicole Tschierske

How to Give Great Feedback to Your Team

How do you know if you’re doing well at work? Can you sense where you stand with others? Or is the yearly appraisal always packed with surprises for you? Also, if you don’t know whether you’re doing well and how others rate your performance, how motivated do you feel to continue doing your best or even going the extra mile? As a leader, how do you give great feedback to your team?

When it comes to motivating your team members, increasing performance, and providing support that reduces stress, giving feedback is one of the most underestimated and underused tools that are immediately available to leaders. So how can you use it to achieve these goals with your team?

How does feedback help? 

Feedback is a tool that drives improvement and advancement in organisations and has tremendous benefits for both the individual and the organisation (Baker et al, 2013).

To understand the impact of feedback, let’s look at what happens in an environment where this tool isn’t utilised. When you don’t give feedback, your employees might think that (Riegel, 2019):

  • No feedback means no trouble. But this sets the bar low in terms of performance expectations and might discourage your team from bringing up ‘troubling’ topics.
  • You think they can’t take feedback well. And as result, your team feels unsupported because you fail to provide them with this opportunity for growth. You also fail to show that you hold everyone to account, and this message gets quickly picked up by the whole team.
  • You don’t believe in them and their ability to change. This is a direct result of the fact that you don’t offer them the resources and opportunities to grow and change. 

With that said, what are great ways to give feedback to your team?

Ways to give feedback to your team

When it comes to giving feedback to your team, you can follow formal processes, such as the annual performance appraisal or 360° feedback, or informal ones. The latter is about the regular, informal feedback you give your team members on a daily or weekly basis. So instead of seeing feedback as yet another task to tick off your to-do list, I encourage you to approach it as a chance to genuinely help your team members grow and show them that you have their best interests in mind.

This is important because the intention behind giving the feedback makes all the difference in how you deliver it, how it’s received, and how it’s acted upon. It’s a key resource for employees to be motivated because as a direct result of the feedback they receive, they know how they’re doing and feel nurtured. Feedback helps them grow.

So how can you make sure the feedback you give is useful and well-received by your team?

How to give great feedback

The Internet is full of articles on giving and receiving feedback. Plus, learning how to do this is a key part of every leadership training on the planet. So rather than going into great details here, I want to share what I learnt from delivering training on the topic. These are things I observed that leaders and managers struggle to do but become fully aware of when they’re at the receiving end of a feedback conversation.

Smoosh positive and negative feedback into one conversation. And don’t use the sandwich technique.Give positive feedback often and leave it at that. Then, find a separate time and place for corrective feedback.
Come with a laundry list of things to a corrective feedback conversation.Focus on the most important issues. This might be one particular situation or pattern you observed.
Think that you know best.Know that your impression and judgment are biassed and subjective. So make it clear that what you are sharing is from your perspective and tell the receiver to also check with others.
Be general and unspecific.Describe the context, the observed behaviour, and the impact a particular situation or behaviour had. Be as precise and specific as possible.
Deliver the feedback (in a way where you are the only one talking). Have a feedback conversation, where you invite the receiver to share their reflections and thoughts as well. 
Tiptoe around hot topics.Deliver your messages in a candid but kind way. Make it about the actions – not about the person.
See it as your duty to correct wrongs and teach someone a lesson.Come with a curious mind and a compassionate heart to a conversation that’s about bringing out the best in others and helping them grow.

The feedforward approach

According to Budworth et al, 2015, using the feedforward technique increases performance compared to traditional appraisals where the feedback rather than feedforward approach is used. This is based on the principle that we grow better when we build and further develop our strengths, rather than when we focus on our weaknesses. That’s because focusing on our weaknesses can hinder our personal improvement and development (Budworth et al, 2019).

The feedforward approach involves an interview-style conversation oriented towards the future where the interviewer (i.e. you – the line manager) puts focus on what’s working, such as strengths and proven practices. From there, you’ll ask your team members to broaden and expand those strengths to new areas and apply those proven strategies to new challenges (Budworth et al, 2019).

This works because the positive emotions and cognitions we experience during such a conversation expand our repertoire, both mentally and behaviourally. And this, in turn, stimulates growth. Also, the process helps to activate personal and relational resources (Budworth et al, 2019). Here are further details on this: 

  • Personal resources. When we’re in a more positive emotional state, we can think more creatively. This allows us to formulate new ideas on how to approach a situation, solve a problem, or achieve a goal, for example. A positive emotional state also increases our self-efficacy, i.e. our belief that we have what it takes to tackle a specific problem. 
  • Relational resources. The feedforward approach improves the quality of the relationship between you and your employee. By actively listening and focusing on their personal success, you build a high-quality relationship with them which, in turn, supports motivation and performance. 

How to conduct a feedforward conversation

As great as the ‘performance improvement’ conversation style is, it may not work in all cases (Budworth et al, 2019). A feedforward conversation might feel unnatural and awkward if you’re trying it for the first time with a long-standing employee. You may feel you don’t yet have the skills to do it authentically, but it will become easier over time and with plenty of practice, so give it a go.  

It’s also worth noting that perceptions of fairness and justice in the company can influence how well the feedforward conversation is received. After all, one great conversation cannot make up for what demotivates and frustrates us day in and day out. Plus, the individual preferences of your team members might mean that some could have a hard time taking a new, different, and more strength-based approach. So feel free to experiment and adjust based on your observations. 

Kluger & Nir (2010) described a step-by-step protocol that consists of three parts:

  1. Identify and recall a success story.
  2. Discover the root causes of success.
  3. Transfer the insight to an upcoming challenge or new goal.

Say you’re the leader of a team of project managers. A member of your team is about to take on a new project, and you want to prepare with them. Here is a loose example of how the conversation might go based on the above steps.

1. Find a success story

First of all, frame and ask. For example, “You’ve been working as a project manager for a long time now, and I’m sure you’ve had both positive and negative experiences in past projects. Today I’d like you to focus only on positive aspects and moments of excellence. What’s a story from a past project where you felt at your best, alive and in flow, and you were satisfied with your work, even before you knew the end result of your actions?” Make sure you’re talking about a specific event here – it’s not a generalised statement.

Once your employee has found a story that makes them sit up straight and gets their face glowing with pride, continue asking: “Can you recall a peak moment in that story? What did you think then and how did you feel?” Make sure you don’t cut them short here. You want them to reminisce in detail.

2. Uncovers success factors

Ask questions such as, “What was it about you that made this story possible? Which of your strengths, capabilities, and actions contributed to the success?” Go for quantity here – ideally, take notes as they talk and aim to end up with a list of no less than 15 items. 

You may also want to ask how others contributed. Make them think beyond the obvious project team members. Were there other supporters who were less prominent but still helpful? Then ask something along the lines of, „What other organisational factors made this story possible?“ Keep asking ‘what else’ as a follow-up. Hopefully, at the end of this, you will end up with an impressive list of internal and external resources.

3. Ask feedforward questions

And finally, ask the feedforward questions, such as, “What you just shared appears to be your personal success factors for excellent project management. When you think of setting up this new project, how can you incorporate all those conditions? What exactly will you do?” The more you can help them formulate and note down clear steps, the better. Because planning the work and approaching new challenges with intention is always better than stumbling into a situation and hoping for the best!

Give feedback that fosters a growth mindset

You may have come across this idea before, which was first discovered and researched by Carol Dweck in 2006, where you think of a sliding scale with fixed mindset on one end and growth mindset on the other one. Whether we’re leaning more towards one side or the other depends on the situation we’re in, the challenges we face, the people who are in the room, and many other factors. 

For example, when it comes to facilitating workshops, I’m always in my growth mindset, and no challenge can put me off track. But when it comes to finances or even doing simple math, my calculator laughs at me every day – I don’t even try! Why? Because I feel comfortable facilitating workshops or meetings with almost anyone – regardless of someone’s hierarchical status or level of experience. I can remain assertive, sure of myself, and willing to playfully learn and navigate difficulties. But a few managers in the business somehow may trigger my fixed mindset, and all of a sudden everything I can focus on is not making a mistake so I can be sure they think highly of me and respect me.

These examples illustrate that:

  • A fixed mindset is fear-based. When we’re in a fixed mindset, our biggest concern is to be impressive, and we obsess about outcomes.
  • A growth mindset, on the other hand, is confidence based. We are more focused on learning and growing and on the process, rather than being distracted by the end results.

It should come as no surprise that the type of mindset we’re in can also make a difference in how we receive feedback. If you trigger a growth mindset in your team members, they know they can learn from failure. In other words, even negative or constructive feedback will spark learning. But when they’re in a fixed mindset, failure is fatal, and negative feedback hurts.

This means that the way we interpret our own abilities influences how we receive feedback and act on it. We will either defensively try to protect our own self-esteem (fixed mindset) or we’ll feel positively challenged to leave our comfort zone and improve (growth mindset) (Forsythe & Johnson, 2017).

This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to learn when we’re in our fixed mindset, but rejection and arguing kick in as a defense mechanism. In those situations, we are standing in our own way, so we need a compassionate, helping hand to tap into our growth mindset again.

How to encourage a growth mindset in your team

So how can you, as a leader, help your team to foster a growth mindset? Based on the Growth Mindset Feedback Tool for teachers from MindsetWorks.com, here are some language frames you can use in different situations.

When someone in your team struggles despite showing effort, you could say things such as:

  • „OK, so you didn’t do as well as you wanted to. Let’s look at this as an opportunity to learn.“
  • Or „You might be struggling right now, but you are making progress. I can see your growth in ____________.“
  • Or „I admire your persistence and appreciate your mental effort. It will pay off.“

If you find that someone’s lacking specific skills needed for improvement, consider the following language:

  • „Let me add new information to help you solve this.“ or „Here are some strategies to figure this out.“
  • „Can you describe your process for completing this task? What parts were difficult for you?“
  • „Let’s ask [another colleague] for advice. They may be able to explain it in a new way, suggest some ideas, or recommend some strategies.“

When you observe that someone in your team is making progress, consider the following:

  • „Do you realise how much progress you’ve made?“
  • Or „That’s a tough problem/task/concept you’ve been working on for a while. What strategies are you using? They are really working for you.“
  • Or „Your hard work is clearly evident in your process/project/essay/assignment.“

If they succeed following a strong effort, say things like:

  • „I am very proud of you for not giving up, and look what you have to show for it! All that hard work and effort paid off!“
  • „Congratulations – you really used great strategies for studying, managing your time, controlling your behaviour, etc.“
  • Or „The next time you have a challenge like this, what will you do? What choices did you make that you think contributed to your success?“

When you see someone succeed easily without much effort, you could lead with:

  • „It’s great that you have that down. Now we need to find something a bit more challenging so you can grow.“ Or „We need to raise the bar for you now. You are ready for something more difficult.“
  • Or ask, „What skill would you like to work on next? What topic would you like to learn more about next?“
  • „Can you help Billy learn what you’ve learnt? By helping others, we not only contribute to their success but also deepen our own understanding.“

And finally, if you see that someone isn’t putting much effort in or succeeding, try:

  • „I understand that this may seem daunting at first. How can we break this down into smaller tasks so it’s not so overwhelming?“
  • „It looks like you’re not putting much effort into this task. Is this the way you see it? If not, what is it that you are doing, and how can I help you with some new strategies?“
  • „What are the barriers to your success? How can I help you overcome them?“

So will this change the way you give feedback? Are there any new techniques or approaches you would like to try after reading this? How will you give great feedback to your team?

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​