There are many ways we can characterize the kind of feedback you can give as a leader. Some of the common ways feedback can be described are positive vs. negative, uplifting vs. browbeating and constructive vs. destructive. You've probably been on the receiving end of at least one or two of these methods!
Some leaders believe it's best to keep feedback as uplifting as possible. Others prefer to focus on what's wrong or missing in the name of constructive feedback. Most managers at least attempt to strike a balance. After all, if you give people too much negative feedback without pointing out the things they are doing right or well, they might get discouraged. On the other hand, putting a positive spin on everything can dilute the impact of your feedback. Add individual personalities to the mix and striking that balance can feel like walking a tight rope.
There is, however, ultimately only one way you know that your approach to feedback is working: You get the behavior, the change and/or the results you intended when you delivered the feedback.
The question is: How can you improve your ability to give feedback that reliably produces the impact you want?
Looking in the mirror
It's time to do a little self-awareness inventory. Take a moment to ask yourself: Does the way you deliver feedback – the tone, the language, etc. – have an effect on how that feedback is received?
For instance, I've been yelled at, which is not my preferred way to receive feedback, and I can honestly say it had me quickly make a necessary change. But at other times being yelled at only served to stifle my spirit and did not improve my performance.
Here's a question many of us have asked: Is being positive a more effective way to approach giving feedback than being negative?
I'll suggest this depends on so many situational and personality factors that it is hard to say definitively either way. While positive feedback is often easier to listen to, that does not necessarily translate into hearing what employees need to hear. And while using language that "softens the blow" may make tough feedback easier to digest, consider that the most useful feedback might be very hard for someone to hear regardless. Besides, as my colleague, Wally Bock, says, "Sugar-coating legitimate criticism robs it of nutritional value."
However, there are two ingredients of effective feedback that transcend circumstances, style and personality. They are commitment and clarity.
When someone knows what you are committed to and more specifically that you are committed to them-their success, their satisfaction and their future – it's easier to hear what you have to say no matter how difficult the feedback may be. But don't assume the employee knows what you are committed to and that you are committed to them. Leading with your commitment is a very effective way to encourage people to hear what you have to say.
Effective feedback has two parts – the intended impact of the feedback and the feedback itself. The clearer you are about both of these things before you attempt to give feedback will make the difference between obtaining the desired impact vs. creating distress or confusion. Clarity is power. Take the time to get clear before you deliver feedback.
By attending to both commitment and clarity every time you deliver feedback, you will increase the likelihood that the feedback you give has the intended impact, regardless of the dynamics involved in the delivery. In fact, I'll suggest that commitment and clarity are the foundation of effective communication of any kind. Master these two things and you will not only give better feedback, you will also become a better communicator.