If we want people to act on our suggestions for improvement, the trick may not be what we say, but how much we share. While it’s tempting to try to fix all the wrongs we find in others, going after everything means getting comparatively little in return. It’s neither helpful nor productive to pile on feedback that becomes too overwhelming the moment it is delivered. Being particular about our feedback rescues people from information overload and helps them focus their decision-making energy on one choice at a time. The less we say, the more others will do.
Ask these questions for more honest conversation about work, goals and growth.
Great coaching starts with mirror holding – the things we say and do to help people see themselves in a whole new light. Instead of telling others how to improve, great coaches ask questions that help others chart their own improvement path.
Based on the inspiring leaders I wrote about in The Feedback Fix and my own experiences as a leadership coach, here are five must-have question sets that drive deeply honest conversation about work, goals, and growth.
1. Strengths: What are you good at doing? Which work activities require less effort? What do you take on because you believe you’re the best person to do it? What have you gotten noticed for throughout your career?
2. Passions: What do you enjoy? In a typical work-week, what do you look forward to doing? What do you see on your calendar that energizes you? If you could design your job with no restrictions, how would you spend your time?
3. Values: What feels most useful? Which work outcomes make you most proud? Which of your tasks are most critical to the team or organization? What are the highest priorities for your life and how does your work fit in?
4. Goals: What creates a sense of forward momentum? What are you learning that you’ll use in the future? What do you envision for yourself next? How’s your work today getting you closer to what you want for yourself?
5. Relationships: How do you relate to others? Which working partnerships are best for you? What would an office of your favorite people look like? How does your work enhance your family and social connections?
Asking these kinds of questions helps coaches better understand other people. More importantly, it helps other people better understand themselves – which, after all, is what great coaching should always do.
Before you offer feedback, make sure you PREP first.
It’s a simple four-part formula to make your feedback more specific, actionable and clear. And it’s incredibly easy to do, whether you’re offering unsolicited feedback or asked to weigh in on an issue.
“PREP” stands for Point, Reason, Explain, & Prompt. And it can be applied virtually anytime and in any situation.
Let’s say your boss asks for your thoughts on a new product idea. Instead of offering up a hazy or unfocused praise sandwich, use the PREP method to deliver more specific and substantive feedback.
Point: “I have concerns about the new product.”
Reason: “It seems to me that developing this concept is going to interfere with other important projects.”
Explain: “My team is deep into our current project, and taking on something new will push us off course. That’s gong to cost us valuable time and resources.”
Prompt: “Could we hold off on the new concept until our current project is finished?”
Or, if you see a report doing something that needs correction, try this:
Point: “I think you should consider listening more and talking less when meeting clients.”
Reason: “You’ll actually get a better understanding of their needs this way.”
Explain: “Our clients really appreciate it when they feel heard.”
Prompt: “Would you like me to show a few techniques that have helped me?”
Here’s why the PREP approach is so effective:
- You state your feedback clearly and up front. (Specific)
- You provide clear rationale and context to back up your feedback. (Clear)
- You offer purposeful alternatives instead of just shutting ideas down. (Actionable)
Rather than disguise our feelings or dance around them, we share feedback openly, honestly, and with radical transparency. We tell people where we stand and make sure they understand why we feel that way. And because we offer context and future directions, we don’t alienate others or cause undue resentment.
The PREP approach is an effective way to handle feedback in a variety of settings and situations. Whether you’re offering advice to a report, pointers to your boss, or even guidance to your child, PREP your feedback before you give it. You’ll not only make sure that others hear what you’re saying, but will want to act on it, too.
Are you “bike-shedding” your feedback?
Bike-shedding refers to the act of spending lots of time on unimportant details while leaving crucial matters unattended.
The term traces back to 1955 article in The Economist by C. Northcote Parkinson, a British naval historian and author. “Parkinson’s Law of Triviality” states that people tend to focus on things that are trivial but easy rather than those that are important and hard.
To make his point, Parkinson described a fictitious committee overseeing plans for a nuclear power plant. The members spent the majority of their time discussing relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself – a far more important but detail-heavy undertaking.
Too often, people end up “bike-shedding” their feedback. They focus on easy but trivial issues related to performance while ignoring the bigger and more nuanced conditions surrounding development. It’s easy to tell people who they are. It’s much harder to show them who they are becoming. That requires a coach approach to giving feedback – one that turns feedback givers into mirror holders.
When you give feedback, choose your frame carefully. You can’t fix everything, and not everything matters. Stick with feedback that helps people become incrementally better. Provide them with small but significant support. It’s easy to build bike sheds. But with the right feedback techniques, we can help people build – and become – so much more.
If you dislike workplace jargon but find yourself using it anyways, you’re not alone.
A recent survey by American Express found that 88% of respondents said they use jargon without understanding it, and 64% reported using words and terms like this “multiple times” weekly.
Want to know what radically transparent feedback looks like? Here’s an actual email sent to Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, by an employee named Jim Haskel:
You deserve a “D-” for your performance today in the meeting. You did not prepare at all, because there is no way you could have and been that disorganized.
In the future, I/we would ask you to take some time and prepare, and maybe even I should come up and start talking to you to get you warmed up or something, but we can’t let this happen again.
Now, if you’re the billionaire CIO of one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, what are the odds that you’d fire Jim Haskel? But not only didn’t Dalio fire Haskel, he sent him an apology. Not just that, he copied the management committee of Bridgewater and asked them to investigate his history to see if this behavior was part of an ongoing pattern.
That’s radical transparency. And it’s why Bridgewater consistently outperforms other firms – they relentlessly probe for feedback that shows where the consensus is wrong.
Even though there’s surprising research that highlights several benefits of giving negative feedback, most people are reluctant to share it with others. This happens because:
- We don’t think they’re smart enough to handle it.
- We don’t think they’re mature enough to handle it.
- We don’t want others to think we’re jerks.
- We don’t want to be mean.
The problem with resisting transparency is that it creates a weak signal. Critical information keeps getting filtered out of conversations or muted entirely. We disguise negative feedback with pleasantries, serve up praise sandwiches, or simply void giving it altogether. By time we come around to breaking the bad news, it’s usually too late for a course correction. Our desire to be “nice” and avoid “rocking the boat” perpetuates the unforced errors that could have otherwise been resolved had we only mustered the courage to speak up with candor, clarity and confidence.
It turns out there are measurable performance benefits to being more honest. A 2010 study by CEB showed that companies with a culture of open communication had a 270% higher 10-year shareholder return (7.9% as compared to 2.1%) than those who operated in silence. And research from management firm Zenger/Folkman showed that employee engagement rose when managers provided honest feedback – what employees needed to know, not simply wanted to hear.
How can you break down barriers to honest feedback?
Begin with those you trust. If the prospect of becoming a transparent organization seems too risky, consider a slow rollout, starting with the people you trust most. Approach close colleagues and offer to give honest feedback about their performance in exchange for transparency about your own. The two-way nature of the arrangement divides the stakes equally and reduces the potential for judgement and acrimony. From there, broaden the effort to include others in the organization, demonstrating how your team’s transparency practices can be duplicated and shared. Transparency should be radical in its design but not in its delivery.
Keep others in the loop. Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits trust and undermines teamwork. If you want to create a transparent environment, everyone in the organization has to work on a “need to know” basis. People can’t be transparent when they’re kept in the dark.
Build a circle of critics. Change starts at the top, and leaders have to model transparency if they want it to spread throughout the culture. In my book The Feedback Fix, I describe how some of the most successful organizations have transformed their feedback processes starting with the way information reaches the CEO. These leaders appoint a circle of “loving critics” – the people who are empowered to give their bosses the honest feedback they need, even when they don’t think they need it at all. When leadership takes an active role in modeling and reinforcing the behavior – like Ray Dalio did at Bridgewater – then radical transparency can become a radical reality.
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People can’t fix what they can’t see. From time to time, it’s our job – as managers, teachers, parents and friends – to see for them. By providing eye-opening feedback, we eliminate some of the tunnel vision that keeps others from recognizing their personal or professional flaws. And while sharing negative feedback can be good news, we need to be particular about how much of it we share at once. Read More
Few people like hearing bad news about themselves. Getting a tough performance review or being called out for a mistake challenges our status and triggers feelings of shame, frustration, and helplessness. Negative feedback floods the brain with stress-inducing hormones that raise our threat awareness and causes a momentary loss of executive functioning. If an unfavorable report makes you think you’ve lost your mind, it’s probably because you have.
But before we write off the criticisms we receive from bosses and friends, here’s the surprising part about negative feedback: It might actually be good for us.