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Give the gift of feedback, urges our talent doctor Dr Rob Yeung. Plus what not to wear to work, the distracting power of social media, and more

This article was first published in the February 2013 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Talent Doctor: feedback

When was the last time you criticised or complimented someone? Or perhaps more importantly, can you think of any occasions on which you could or should have said something to a colleague but didn’t?

Being able to give feedback is one of the most useful but underused or abused skills we can deploy in the workplace. Few people enjoy giving negative feedback, but managers should learn to think of feedback as a gift. If you don’t criticise someone, then that person could continue making the same mistake or carry on doing things more slowly than they might otherwise. Think about it this way: if you were doing something wrongly or poorly, wouldn’t you want someone to give you the gift of insight and let you know?

And, of course, not all feedback has to be negative. Positive feedback – praise or recognition – is just as important for telling colleagues they’re doing a good job.

So how can we get better at giving effective feedback? Here are three simple principles:

Begin by asking yourself why you want to give someone feedback. You should only ever speak up for one of two reasons: either to reinforce good behaviour or to help someone change ineffective behaviour. Any other reason and perhaps you shouldn’t say anything. Too often, people give feedback even when the recipient already knows there is a problem; in such cases the aim is really to say ‘I told you so’. That only creates resentment, so don’t do it.

Specify only the behaviour you observed. You can’t know how someone was feeling. So don’t say ‘you were angry’. The feedback recipient can easily retort ‘no I wasn’t, I was passionate’ or ‘I was only being insistent’. By debating someone’s intent, you get diverted from your goal in giving feedback.

Instead, report only the words you heard or the behaviour you saw – for example ‘you shook your head and spoke much more loudly than you usually do’ or ‘you hardly spoke during that meeting at all’. By describing not only what was said but also how it was said, you can keep things factual and dispassionate.

Explain the impact the behaviour had on you. Say ‘I felt shocked by how loudly you spoke’ or ‘I felt disappointed that you didn’t say more’ or whatever else you thought or felt. The benefit of saying ‘I felt…’ or ‘I thought…’ is that it can’t be debated. The recipient of your feedback simply can’t argue about your personal thoughts or feelings.

When giving positive feedback, simply sharing a positive message with a colleague is enough.

If, however, your feedback is negative, then the two of you are going to need to work out how to handle such a situation in future. But following the three principles outlined here will allow you to raise the issue in as non-confrontational a way as possible. And that is a better start than most people manage to make when it comes to criticising others.

Dr Rob Yeung is a psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace and author of over 20 bestselling career and management books including E is for Exceptional: The New Science of Success (Pan Books).He also appears frequently as a business commentator on the BBC and CNN. 

Last updated: 8 Apr 2014