9 ways to make your feedback more effective

July 22, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
It's not just about giving feedback, it's how you give the feedback. (Flickr photo by Greg Anderson Photography)

It’s not just about giving feedback, it’s how you give the feedback. (Flickr photo by Greg Anderson Photography)

Newsroom managers who come to Poynter often return home with a new determination: To give their staffs more feedback.

That’s a good thing, because feedback happens to be what their staffs need most from them. Positive or negative, feedback is the fuel that we all need to improve our work.

But as with so many worthy resolutions, the secret to success lies in the execution.

A colleague recently told me a story about delivering feedback to someone who turned out not to be receptive. The meeting did not go well. That got me thinking about how many factors can influence the way our feedback is heard and responded to — and how many of those factors we can control.

How can you make sure you deliver your feedback in a way that helps ensure it will be received and acted upon?

Here are nine ideas for increasing the chances your feedback will be received as you intend it to be: Input that can help a staffer do better work. Pick a few and give them a shot:

  1. Commit to really paying attention. In order for your feedback to be useful, it needs to be specific and substantive. “The story didn’t work for me,” doesn’t give the writer much to work with. Better would be: “I wonder if you could have quickened the story’s pace if you use one or two fewer dependent clauses.”

    To offer that level of feedback, you need to read the story — or watch the video or study the graphic — and then think about why it worked or came up short. That requires that you make a commitment of your time and attention, but it increases the chances your input will be welcomed and acted upon.

  2. Make feedback routine. This one is common sense: The more often you offer me feedback, the more it becomes part of the way we do business — and the more likely that I will respond positively to it.

    In offices where feedback from the boss amounts to an “event,” the employee’s response might well be defensive or confused, reducing the likelihood anything positive will result.

    Instead, here’s how our ideal workday should go:
    You and your staffer collaborate on work, and then you talk about how it went. Why talk? In order to do even better work tomorrow.

  3. Focus on one thing. If you’re going to offer people feedback routinely, you certainly can’t make every conversation a lengthy, in-depth critique. Better that you focus on just one element of their work: A fuzzy nut graf, great lighting, a revealing interview. Be as specific in your observation as possible, and always point forward: what can we try next time?
  4. Frame your feedback well. A colleague told me her boss always prefaced his feedback to her in a way that helped her hear it as constructive. Think about how different each of your staffers is. One is self-critical, another is insecure, another has some blind spots. Given the same feedback, each will hear it differently—and that requires you to think about how best to customize your input for each staffer. How do you know how to do that? Well…
  5. Work on the entire relationship. Knowing how to frame feedback for an individual staffer requires you actually know the staffer. Which brings us to another point of common sense: the stronger your relationships with your staff, the more likely your feedback will be greeted with trust and openness. After all, if your relationship is strong, you will have demonstrated in all manner of ways — your assignments, your advocacy and your interest in their personal goals — that you are working on their behalf. Once that bond of trust exists, your feedback is much more likely to be welcomed and accepted.
  6. Ask a question. Feedback does not have to be a series of statements. When you like the way someone did something, why not ask why she did it that way? My friend, Jill Geisler, points out that you get several benefits from this tactic: the staffer knows you like the work, and you help the staffer think about what made her approach succeed. The more the staffer thinks about that, the more likely she is to replicate it. Mission accomplished.
  7. Balance the positive and negative. In some newsrooms, staffers complain the only time they get feedback is when they’re being praised — and (being the skeptics that journalists are) they come to disbelieve it. But the remedy for that doesn’t have to be actively searching for something critical to say to everyone. If someone does good work, identify areas in which they can get even better, new approaches they might try, ways they can stretch. Because we all can. And the balance you achieve with your suggestions can help your compliments gain credibility.
  8. Occasionally, go deep. Your day-to-day, routine feedback will usually involve work the staffer did yesterday or today. Occasionally, however, it’s smart to pull back the lens and talk with staffers about their overall work. How’s it going on the beat? How are we performing against those social media goals? How successful is our multimedia storytelling? The combination of constructive day-to-day feedback and insightful, occasional feedback will make those annual reviews much easier to do—and much more valuable.
  9. And every now and then, make a memory. My friend, Gregory Favre, advises managers to “Write praise and speak criticism.” Wise advice.

    Think about it: How many of you have a complimentary note from a boss tucked away in a file somewhere? Most of us do. They remind you of moments when you felt accomplished and appreciated. On the other hand, seldom have I been more deflated than when I received a note from a boss, criticizing my performance. The same sense of permanence that prompts me to keep that complimentary note makes the critical one particularly stinging — as if redemption is unlikely. Usually, the boss doesn’t intend that; but that’s what I experience.

    Speaking the criticism increases the chance I will clearly hear the message and have a chance to talk about it. So from time to time, write down the good stuff. But if the message is critical, talk about it.

And here’s one last suggestion. After you’ve shared feedback with a staffer, invite the staffer to give you some in return. “How am I doing for you?” is a great question to ask people with whom you are truly collaborating. Remember our ideal workday:

We collaborate on work, and then we talk about how it went — so we can do better work tomorrow. Both of us.