But is it even possible to define a model for how to give effective feedback time after time, employee after employee that will result in the desired behavioural change and create the right results?

The answer would seem to be no. Every situation is unique, and every employee’s needs is unique. Some techniques and tools will therefore be more relevant in some situations than in others.

So what should the skilled, ambitious manager do to give feedback that works – every time?

It is my experience from my own time as manager and as management consultant for 10 years that it is essentially a matter of letting go of the ambition that there is a step-by-step recipe that you can trust blindly and that will let you run on autopilot.

If you want your feedback to work every time, you will have to turn off the autopilot and reflect on who you are giving feedback to and in which situation. Also reflect on what you want to achieve with your feedback.

It begins with you

So how do you do that in practice? Here is a summary of my own feedback which I have given managers in connection with using feedback.

  • Focus on yourself before you begin to focus on feedback technique, your employee or your message.

Create an awareness of what makes you react. Make it clear! It may be because you do not reach your targets or because you experience inappropriate behaviour. It could be many things. The point is that you are the one with an experience, which you interpret one way or the other. Examine what the background is that makes you interpret the experience in that way. Could the experience be interpreted differently? The objective is for you to be clear on why you interpret the experience in that way. This is the basis of your feedback.

  • What is the intention of your feedback?

Your need to give feedback could be based on the premise that there is a right and a wrong way to solve a task and that the task has been solved in the wrong way. It could also be based on the fact that an employee has a conscious or unconscious behaviour which prevents the employee from thriving optimally in the workplace. The driving force can come from many places, and we sometimes get things mixed up, resulting in an unclear message. The objective is to make you clear on your intention with providing feedback and on what it is you want to offer the recipient of your feedback. Feedback is basically about giving. So make sure you are clear about: Which gift is it that you want to give and why?

  • Which management style is best suited to the situation?

Depending on the situation, your management style will either support or hamper your feedback. Sometimes, the feedback should be highly specific, instructive and regular, and other times, the situation calls for a more coaching feedback that also follows up. In other cases, the feedback should merely be explorative and supportive. Only seldom will the most experienced of your employees need specific, instructive and regular feedback on his or her daily work tasks, but the employee may need feedback on the new development project that the employee was assigned to last week.

Your feedback should in other words be adapted to the specific situation or task. When this is the case, your feedback will be far better suited to the needs of the recipient, and it will make it more likely that the feedback will be perceived as constructive and positive and therefore more likely that the feedback will make a difference.

There have been written numerous books on the various feedback techniques. A selection of the most popular includes:

  1. Burger (positive, feedback, positive)
  2. AID (Action, impact, desired behaviour)
  3. Hattie (feed up, feedback, feed forward)
  4. SBIF (situation, behaviour, impact, feedback)

In my opinion, these are some of the more effective feedback techniques, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. They have all been described in the literature, and you can find a lot of excellent information about the techniques on the web.

However, this does not change the fundamental fact that we typically evaluate a message based on the intention which we perceive to be behind the message.

Feedback given with a technique focus or on autopilot will therefore rarely create the desired behavioural change. But techniques can help you communicate your intention, but this requires that you are clear on your intention, your mindset and the specific situation that the feedback is concerning.

The technique is not critical. The follow-up is

Last, but certainly not least, there should always be follow-up on feedback given by a manager to an employee. I have often heard managers express frustration that they have already given the feedback once already, and it is not rare to find managers spend oceans of time on preparing (his or her own feelings prior to) a feedback and then to never return to the topic with the employee.

To follow up shows curiosity, caring and interest. I am aware that it can also be perceived as control and mistrust. The behaviour of showing curiosity and caring will often be similar to the behaviour of controlling and showing mistrust. The only real difference is the intention behind the behaviour, which is why it is critical that the intention is crystal clear to both parties.

Follow-up is a way of showing that your intentions are good, and it will therefore also strengthen your general leadership. It is furthermore my experience that it is by following up that you will be able to realise the desired behavioural change and consequently the results.

I would even go so far as to claim that the majority of the value in feedback lies in the follow-up.

So therefore, dear manager: If you want to give feedback that works every time, you must turn off your autopilot and identify your true intention by:

  • Becoming clear on why you interpret the experience as you do
  • Identifying your intention with your feedback
  • Figuring out which management style the situation requires
  • Selecting the technique that can help you communicate your intention
  • Finding a relevant and natural way to follow up and keep the dialogue going to ensure that the desired behavioural change is realised

This approach will create trust among your employees and will ensure that you are perceived to be an honest and committed manager. And trust is critical when you want people to change their behaviour.

Originally, the article was published in the magazine “Ledelse i udvikling” under the name “Giv feedback der virker – hver gang”.