How four powerful questions can help you avoid the pitfalls of giving feedback

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Written by Achieve Breakthrough

How four powerful questions can help you avoid the pitfalls of giving feedback

We all know that giving feedback is a core part of leadership. But while there are frameworks and models to help us understand how to give feedback, it’s just as important to stay mindful of the underlying context that shapes the way we speak with our direct reports. 

Context is decisive. The biases and assumptions we bring to situations can easily lead to pitfalls if we don’t stop to ask ourselves a few powerful questions.


1. Am I giving a consistent quality of feedback? 

For leaders it’s vital that the feedback we give is the same quality for everyone on the team, but often that’s not the case. Studies have shown people tend to feel more comfortable giving feedback to others who are more like them. When that connection isn’t there, the feedback suffers. Our unconscious biases step in to fill the gap and end up shaping how we communicate.

There’s no getting away from the fact that these differences and biases exist, but we can raise our awareness and challenge them. Consider all the ways you are similar to and different from your direct reports. That could be factors as apparent as gender, race or age, or it could be more subtle, like a difference in communication preference.

Understanding the differences between you and your team means taking time to get to know them – even if it means tweaking your schedule. One manager we worked with decided to give longer one-on-ones to reportees from other offices, so they could have more time to get to know them and their projects better.


2. Am I setting consistent criteria? 

It’s not just the quality of feedback that needs to be consistent, but also the criteria for success that informs that feedback. Clear criteria is the path to fairness – without it, your direct reports may find it difficult to respond to your feedback if they feel like they’re playing with a different sized goal to everyone else.

Once again, the context of our inherent biases plays a decisive role here. For example a man who says they disagree with a direction might be praised for their assertiveness or perception, while a woman saying the same may be criticised for being aggressive or non-compliant. When you evaluate a direct report, be mindful of the frames of reference you bring to the situation and try to unhook your interpretations from their behaviour.

  1. 3. Am I filtering what you say based on assumptions?

As humans we’re meaning-making machines and it’s easy to forget that assumptions aren’t facts. 

Imagine if one of your direct reports has a child. If a new role involving travel becomes available you might assume that report won’t be interested because of their family commitments – and you might decide not to mention the opportunity. But if that report learns that others were told of the role, they might interpret your actions differently, thinking that their skills and performance are going unrecognised.

Keeping messaging consistent for all people is a crucial aspect of leadership. Tempering your feedback based on assumptions of what people may or may not want to hear is unlikely to result in the clarity you both need. So long as what you say is well intentioned and isn’t rude, the best strategy is always to say it anyway and give your direct report the opportunity to respond.

  1. 4. Am I making sure that I’m understood?

The bottom line with feedback is that clarity is paramount. The greater the differences between you and the reportee, the thicker the contextual lens you’re speaking through and the higher the chance that your message won’t be received as intended. 

For instance, if you ask someone who worked for years on a production line how long a process will take, you might mean it as a neutral inquiry. But if they are used to straining themselves to meet tight deadlines, they might hear it as a criticism or as a desire for things to move faster. 

Leaders and managers have to be mindful of these filters when giving feedback. That doesn’t mean assuming what your reportee’s filter is and adjusting what you say. Instead it’s about asking if they’ve understood and clarifying if need be. You’re in a dialogue, not a presentation, so you’ve got the option to pause and make sure you’re both on the same page.

Alan Eustace, former Google SVP of Knowledge, said “silence guarantees nothing will change”. Giving effective feedback depends on saying what your direct reports need to hear – and that means speaking with clarity and an awareness of context and filters. This is your challenge and responsibility as a leader, and it’s at the heart of empowering people and organisations to change.

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Published 25/06/2024

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