Be specific – two little words that have the power to change your behavior and the behavior of others. Yet, business professionals are rarely specific when giving feedback to their employees, colleagues or bosses. Why is that? Well, the obvious reason is that most people fear hurting others’ feelings. As a result, they give general, amorphous feedback, and hope that the listener will recognize the real meaning behind their words, and then go on to fix the offending behaviors on their own. Not surprisingly, this approach is hardly effective; rather, the best managers and leaders are the ones who offer specific feedback that provides their employees with a better understanding of exactly which behaviors make or prevent them from being successful.
Here’s an example you have probably experienced sometime in your career. After finishing a presentation your boss says, “You did a great job in the meeting today!” While well-intentioned, this statement does little else than provide you with a nice compliment and a post-meeting glow; however, this does not tell you specifically what you did well, leaving you without a concrete understanding of how you can reinforce your positive presentation behaviors in future meetings.
But, if your boss was more specific and explained, “You did a great job in the meeting today. You spoke with energy and passion about the subject. Your eye contact was direct and sustained, making you look confident, like you owned the room.” This feedback identifies the specific behaviors that made your presentation successful, allowing you to strengthen those behaviors so that your next performances are as good, or even better, than the one being critiqued.
So, in what ways can you be clearer when giving feedback, and how can you elicit more information when given a vague response to your performance? Here are a few tips I like to give my clients:
Know yourself. As Ann Landers said, “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” Self-awareness is critical to your success, so take time to identify your specific pluses and areas in need of improvement, which I call deltas. If you have difficulty recognizing what these are, ask your colleagues, boss, friends and even your family, many of whom I’m sure will be more than happy to tell you a delta or two.
Don’t wing it! When you are the one giving feedback, write down exactly and specifically which behaviors are pluses, which are deltas and why. Whenever possible (and good leaders do this often), offer suggestions on how they might correct a particular problem. For example, “I’ve noticed that during meetings, you have a tendency to focus on me rather than addressing the whole group. I think that makes the team feel unimportant, and I have noticed that their attention wanders. To combat this, engage everyone in the conversation by speaking and giving eye contact to each individual.”
Ask lots of questions. When you are on the receiving end, make sure to ask for specific behavioral examples that will help you to understand why you are doing well or not. Don’t stop asking for details until you are 100 percent clear on what behaviors you should maintain or work on.
Don’t take it personally! This advice goes both ways. You can’t change your behaviors if you are overly sensitive to feedback. Remember that the criticism you receive is meant to serve you and help you grow. In the same way, if you are too concerned about hurting someone’s feelings or making them angry when providing constructive criticism you will not give them the necessary information they need to make changes. Be direct, compassionate and BE SPECIFIC!