Feedback is an accepted indicator of continuous improvement and is the topic of many Leadership, HR, and Change Management books. Most would agree that getting feedback is an important accelerant for professional and personal growth. Yet, most people are not good at giving feedback, oscillating between opinionated generalities to premature remediation. This often leaves the receiver with one of two choices, blindly accepting the feedback without critically processing the information internally or seeming defensive in order to provide their own point of view. Both involve the receiver being positioned reactively versus being active in the consequences of their actions and proactive in their improvement.

Recently, @mattbarcomb and I discussed the potential inauthenticity of “the compliment sandwich”. (A “compliment sandwich” is giving positive feedback before and after negative feedback.) This led to up-skilling ‘giving feedback’ so it becomes the capability of ‘giving constructive feedback’. We started with describing the aspects of “positive feedback”, “negative feedback”, and landed on the critical factor– “constructive feedback.”

So, what makes feedback constructive?

While it’s easy to refer to the importance of feedback, providing feedback is hard. Harder yet is providing constructive feedback, which is another reason why it’s rare. To provide constructive feedback, you must slow yourself down to be thoughtful and considered. What results is not only more meaningful effective feedback for the receiver but also enables the provider of feedback professional and personal growth. Making feedback constructive requires internal reflection and critical thought due to consideration and synthesizing of one’s own perspectives, feelings, and biases.

  • Be Specific and Fact-based. When feedback is given, the receiver needs to connect the facts, the “what’s”, or behavior with the result, or impression. It is useful to substantiate the feedback with specific examples to draw that connection. Avoid generalities. Remember, the receiver of the feedback may not have intended the result or impression, so provide kind candor.
  • Frame Feedback with Perspective and Context. Given that interactions and actions are the results of many situational variables, it helps to couch specificity with the context and environment. Acknowledging perspective helps frame the situation, which depersonalizes the feedback and focuses on a more systematic approach in which the receiver is but one variable. This allows the receiver to be an active rational participant in the ideas for improvement.
  • Be Involved in the Path Forward. A vital part of feedback is what to do with that feedback. It is likely that improvements will need to be learned. The learning can be accelerated with help, especially from an outside perspective. Ideally, if you are taking the time to provide feedback, you should also be involved in the path forward to improvement. However, in some cases, the person giving feedback might not be able to be involved– either not having time, ability, knowledge, or interest. This falls on the provider to own those limitations.

Constructing constructive feedback is a hard skill to learn. In order to be effective, it requires accounting for who is receiving the feedback and how to set them up for success. Receiving and providing feedback is a learning experience for all involved. In general, learning something new can be difficult. Further, learning in front of others can leave you feeling exposed. But, getting good at constructive feedback is worthwhile; growing leadership skills, connecting you with others, and building a reputation of trustworthiness.

Mastering Constructive Feedback.

Providing feedback can feel awkward and sometimes even hostile. It’s no wonder that many feel dread while learning and practicing constructive feedback. Finding your style comes with practice and patience. In the meantime, here are some tips:

  • Adopt a Strengths-based Strategy. In the book The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker wrote: “The effective executive builds on strengths–their own strengths, the strengths of superiors, colleagues, subordinates; and on the strengths of the situation.” The discipline of “appreciative inquiry” (created by David Cooperrider) also focuses on strengths as an advantage– “build organizations around what works rather than fix what doesn’t.” Leveraging strengths and minimizing the impact of weaknesses, accelerates improvement (versus trying to get good at weaknesses). At a minimum, acknowledging the constraint of limited time and energy is a worthwhile consideration when discussing growth, improvement, and goals.
  • Be Humble and Balanced. In many cases, the person who is responsible for providing feedback is not the same person who was involved or present in the originating experience. The responsibility of providing feedback can feel authoritative, especially when you are in a position of authority. Regardless of your role, the purpose of feedback is to help someone eventually be self-sufficient on their own, not blindly follow you. Being honest about your own blindspots can communicate credibility and impartiality while enabling the receiver to critically assess the feedback. Not only does checking your ego go a long way to being a trusted, respected, and reliable source of feedback but also models learning as a process over an expectation of omniscience.
  • Servant Leadership. Becoming a leader of people is hard, requiring experience and patience. A good leader balances sincerity and tact. An exceptional leader can do this while empowering others. Many traditional models of leadership promote hierarchy and worse, models of learning where the role of the learner is to receive, file, and store information, regurgitating that information. (Read more about Banks Model of Education.) Further, leaders, coaches, and mentors get valuable information from learners. After all, learning never stops even for experts who have decades of experience. At a minimum, hearing from others with less experience is information about how to better communicate. Learn from the student and master the content.

Be Authentic.

Like any drill or practice, there is a chance of coming across as inauthentic because what you have not yet mastered, you are still learning and it is not yet part of you. (There a great quote by Van Gogh who responded to a friend who criticized his work– “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.”) We’ve discussed that the prevalent mechanisms for feedback aren’t sufficient towards building and accelerating the benefits of a strengths-based strategy – like exceptional individual contribution and subsequent, innovative collaborative work.

Back to the compliment sandwich. Both positive and negative feedback can be constructive and need to be in order to be effective. Classically, negative feedback is useful for understanding what to stop doing or improve on. It is the more common way feedback is expressed, e.g. corporate yearly reviews, traditional sports coaching, parents telling kids to stop doing whatever. However, positive feedback is also useful when it’s done well. It provides context to understand what to continue doing and what you could excel at.

If we agree that the compliment sandwich can be an early method of trying a strengths-based strategy and that we as individuals are learning to execute strengths-based strategies while providing feedback, then yes, there is a risk of coming across as inauthentic. Again, when anyone is learning to do something it can be awkward, coming across inauthentic.

But the compliment sandwich can be done constructively– that is both positive and negative feedback are specific and relevant within the context. In addition to the overarching benefits of strengths-based strategies, the compliment sandwich does two important things that give it an advantage over other forms of feedback:

  1. The receiver has (more) choices. Choices provide options. These options are to focus on accelerating what they are doing well or to focus on minimizing the effects of what is not well. This provides the receiver latitude- control and freedom- which builds confidence, an important ingredient to learning. (“In fact, research has suggested that 40% of people’s happiness comes from the choices they make.”-HBR Oct. 2017)
  2. Starts to rewire mindset towards positivity. The provider of feedback can start to realize the benefits of that positivity. Many studies support increased job satisfaction and quality of life from positive psychology. One way this is done is by increasing the number of positive to negative thoughts– “the magic ratio” of 5:1 positive to negative, from researcher and psychologist Dr. John Gottman.

A compliment sandwich is just a tool that can help you get better at more constructive feedback mechanisms. Learning and mastering anything takes time and practice. And if you believe in the benefits of more positive based personal and professional growth, the compliment sandwich can be a good simple way to learn how to implement positive, rewarding action and can come across sincerely.