As we progress through our career – and indeed, life – feedback from those around us can be hugely instructive in helping us to hone our talents and make progress. Good feedback i.e. praise, can make both the giver and the receiver feel great, but when we need to tackle a problem and provide constructive criticism, if delivered badly or taken negatively, it can cause considerable damage.

As leaders we have a responsibility to approach giving feedback with the care and respect it deserves. Here are four steps you can take to maximise your chances of both parties benefiting from the process.

Step #1: Start with a quiet mind

Often when giving feedback, it’s at a moment when we feel we have to speak up. We may have avoided bringing up the subject and the problem has come to a head, or perhaps something significant has happened and we need to take action quickly. Whatever the circumstances, as a leader it falls to us to deliver the message.

At this moment, the very best thing we can do is pause. Take a moment to quieten our mind, think through what we are going to say and consider how the other person may react. Put some thought into how THEY might wish to receive the feedback, rather than how WE might want to hear it.

Step #2: Separate the behaviour from the person

Taking that moment to prepare also gives us a chance to separate the behaviour from the person. When it gets personal it can really hurt and, as soon as emotions come into play, the message is lost and the recipient will stop listening.

If we see poor behaviour in a team member we need to separate the actions from the person and ensure we make the distinction clear when giving feedback. Similarly, if we’re on the receiving end of feedback – even if it’s delivered badly – we should always try not to take it personally.

After all, none of us can change who we are, but we can all change how we behave if we understand how and why it matters. If you want to explore this in more depth, this podcast is worth a listen.

Step #3: Always assume good intent

As we wrote in a previous blog, “As leaders, it can be easy to get into our own heads, particularly during stressful situations, leaping to judgement about the intentions behind people’s behaviours. But the truth is, until we ask the other person – seek first to understand – we simply don’t know what those intentions are.”

When we assume good intent it helps to take the heat of a situation, giving us time to consider more carefully why the other person is acting as they are. It also provides the space for us to show the recipient that, despite what has happened, they are still supported and respected.

Step #4: Don’t get into the weeds

Sometimes when giving feedback we can get sucked into a fraught discussion, particularly if the recipient is having a hard time taking the comments on board. Perhaps they want to go into the minutiae of what happened or start dragging others’ actions into the frame, but it is the leader’s job to maintain the focus of the conversation.

As a leader, one of the most powerful things we can do is help people see things from a higher context, allowing them to understand the limitations in their thinking and subsequent actions.  As a leader, changing the context is one of the most inspirational and moving things we can do for others.

How we can support you

The number one priority when giving feedback is to achieve a good outcome. When we convey the right message in the right way, the recipient will understand why they need to change their behaviour and will feel supported in doing so. After all, the best leaders recognise that healthy conflict, or what Ayman Sawaf calls “constructive discontent” is essential for a learning organisation.

Giving feedback (as well as receiving it) is something we regularly discuss in our mentoring sessions with clients. As a mentoring client recently commented, “It is a great, safe and confidential space to get your thoughts out, reflect and take action.” If you’d value the support of a mentor to help you hone your leadership skills, please get in touch.

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