How to give better feedback

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Years ago I worked in large hospitals treating stroke and cancer patients.

One of my major tasks was to educate and train the next cohort of clinicians coming up through the ranks. Student clinicians would come to the hospital and get exposed to working with actual patients.

I loved it. I benefited from the guidance of supportive clinical educators when I was a student, and I aspired to be the same.

I enjoyed giving back to the professional community and sharing my knowledge and skills. I never forgot what it was like when I fronted up to work at a hospital for the first time—daunted, scared and curious. I wanted my students to have the best possible experience and enjoy clinical work as much as I did.

One of my major tasks as a clinical educator was to provide feedback to students on their performance. It wasn't easy to find the right balance between positive and negative feedback.

I had to be mindful of their inexperience while offering up constructive suggestions they could work with without crushing their confidence or spirit. Brilliant students would be nervous and fumble when assessing a patient for the first time. Translating book knowledge into clinical expertise takes time.

The lessons I learned giving student clinicians feedback all those years ago still rings true today. I've refined my approach over the years down to these important points.

1. Keep it short. Be specific

I've been on the receiving end of feedback that's gone on and on. The message will be lost if you keep on talking. Don’t ramble on. Stop talking and give the person a chance to digest the feedback and offer comments or clarifying questions.

Be specific. Give clear examples. Tie your feedback to actual behavior. Don't get personal. Leave emotion and judgment out of it. Never blame performance on personality. Don't use giving feedback as an excuse to rant, take out your own frustrations or assign blame.

2. Do it quickly

Feedback is most effective when it's timely. On a busy hospital ward it was easy to delay giving students feedback until the end of the day. I avoided this in favor of giving feedback as soon as possible, no matter how busy I thought I was. 

Don't save up all your feedback. Especially if it's negative, don't deliver it all at once during a daily or weekly check-in.

3. Don't do the 'sandwich' thing

Sandwiching negative feedback in between two pieces of positive feedback might make you feel better about delivering negative feedback, but it is almost never helpful for the recipient. Don't do it.

Be direct. Give lots of positive feedback. I aimed for a ratio of 80:20—giving much more positive than negative. Even the brightest and most capable need to hear positive feedback on a regular basis.

4. Give clear solutions

This one is huge for me. I've had bosses over the years who have given me feedback only to leave me hanging trying to figure out how to correct it.

Negative feedback especially has to come with solutions and a roadmap for improvement. It's not enough to criticize without helping the recipient figure out what to do next. Equally it's important to be open to having your own assumptions about a person challenged as part of the feeback process.

Always approach feedback with the assumption that the person you're working with is capable, smart and wants to improve. Encourage their participation by asking things like, "How do you want to improve?" Or "what might success look like for you in this area?" 

5. Applaud those who actively seek feedback

People who go out of their way to seek feedback from the non-obvious and smaller moments are the true gems of the corporate world. They're among the easiest to give feedback to because they approach you and accept your insights with openness and humility.

In my experience these persons are the most engaged, motivated and emotionally intelligent. They seek feedback from a variety of sources and situations. They're never happy with the status quo, they maintain a growth mindset and they actively build and tap into their challenge network.