(Originally published under the title "The Three Foundations for Providing Feedback to Employees" on "Brainwaves," the blog of the University of Vermont's Continuing and Distance Education Department)

Sometimes, we just call it feedback -- a performance review, a disciplinary action, a pat on the back -- and simply leave it at that. But it’s much, much more.

Feedback is information, but it’s also wisdom. Feedback is nourishment. It feeds people’s and organizations’ need to grow, adapt, and thrive. It creates the capacity to repair, renew, and evolve. And, it is what the best leaders are great at. In a great organization, feedback happens all the time, in all directions, and is welcomed and embraced.

After all, feedback is central to the love affair with the truth that great leaders know is vital to all organizations -- the truth of who we are, the truth of our impact on others, the truth of our markets and our customers, and the truth of what we do well and what we don’t do well.

Yes, feedback is sometimes simply a performance review, or a pat on the back. Whatever form it takes (and it takes many) there are a number of very specific beliefs and behaviors that are foundational to great feedback. Here are three that we see in the very best leaders, and in the very best feedback:

It always builds, and never tears down.

Great feedback never raises its voice in anger, never belittles, and never humiliates, no matter the nature and the size of the mistake. It does not roll its eyes, sneer or snort in disgust.

It speaks the truth in love. It understands that people are imperfect, and have imperfect days. It believes in people’s ability and desire to rise above those imperfections and do good, meaningful work. It accepts the principle that no one wakes up in the morning eager to fail. Great feedback cares about people and wants them to learn, grow, and succeed. That’s why feedback exists, and it delivers that message in the spirit and the voice in which it is given.

It always challenges, but never threatens.

Great feedback never seeks to strike fear into people’s hearts. It doesn’t criminalize mistakes, or summarily execute employees for making them. It doesn’t feed on ultimatums. It doesn’t threaten with grotesque and disruptive consequences, or with subtle and sweetly whispered suggestions about job security.

It pushes people to grow. It understands people don’t work well when they’re scared and distracted. It encourages people to learn, and to strive to not make the same mistake twice. It challenges people to leave their comfort zones, and to reach higher and try harder. Great feedback is clear about expectations, and embraces accountability.

It always gives, and never steals.

Great feedback never robs people of their dignity. It never deprives them of a chance to make it right. It doesn’t steal their voice. It doesn’t disturb the peace or steal stability.

It is a gift. It is the gift of the space and permission to learn, or to correct a course of action. It gives clarity, encouragement, insight, meaning and truth. It gives hope. It casts credit and success far and wide. It shares information and learning. It connects people and builds relationships. It gives time - to conversations and relationship building, and to the hard work and investment that makes great feedback so valuable.

There is a simple, practical way to build great feedback skills. Whenever you have the opportunity to give feedback, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is what I’m about to say (and how I’m going to say it) going to build the person in front of me, or tear them down?

  2. Is what I’m about to say (and how I’m going to say it) going to challenge the person in front of me, or threaten them?

  3. Is what I’m about to say (and how I’m going to say it) going to be a gift to the person in front of me, or will it steal from them?

These are tough questions, tougher than they look on the surface. It is easy to delude ourselves with answers that justify our motives, rather than serve as a genuine reflection of the truth of what comes out of our mouths.

In any case, feedback is difficult to excel at, but delivers an exceptional return on investment. To do it well consistently demands a life- and career-long commitment, regardless of whether your goal is to make money or to change the world. Understanding its foundations is the first step.


AuthorJoseph Fusco