You Probably Need to Give More Feedback! Here’s How.

One of the most powerful tools managers have for developing staff is providing direct feedback. If you’re like most managers, though, you still probably should be giving a lot more feedback than you are. In fact, by far the biggest mistake that we see managers make with feedback isn’t giving it poorly, but simply not giving it at all.

You can make it significantly easier to give more feedback by doing the following four things.

1. Adopt the SAW method of feedback.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to giving feedback is just not knowing quite how to have the conversation. The SAW model (S = Share what you see, A = Ask questions, W = Wrap up) is a helpful framework for initiating feedback and turning it into a two-way conversation. Here’s how it works:

SHARE what you see

Start by sharing what you’ve observed, and explain why it matters. Point out a pattern (if there is one), but be careful not to make assumptions about why it’s happening; let your employee share their perspective. The main goal with this step is to get what you’re thinking out into the open, so everyone can get on the same page. For instance, you might say, “I noticed that the meeting didn’t start on time, and we didn’t get to all the topics listed on the agenda. Can we talk about what happened? With so many stakeholders present, it’s important that we appear organized and reliable.”

ASK questions

SAW should be a conversation, not a one-way communication. That means that you should ask questions to help you and the staff member both gain a better understanding of what’s going on. You might structure your questions around seeing if the staff member agrees with your assessment (“How do you think that went?” “Are there things I’m missing?”), finding out causes (“Why do you think these things keep happening at the last minute?”), and getting at what the person should do differently (“What would a system that lets you plan backwards look like?”). And during this conversation, it’s important to listen with an open mind; don’t assume you already know the answers to the questions you’re asking.

WRAP-UP with next steps

Once you’ve talked with your staff member about what you saw, and gotten her perspective on it, you should agree on a set of next steps. For positive feedback, this could be as simple as “our members loved your personal outreach – keep it up!” For developmental or corrective feedback, this should be a path forward that emphasizes the specifics of what the employee will do differently. And when you’re wrapping up the meeting, ask for a repeat-back to make sure that nothing was lost in translation.

2. Find ways to break the ice.

“SAW” helps you figure out what to say when you’re giving feedback, but sometimes the hardest part is just finding a way to start the conversation. Here are two ways to make it easier to break the ice:

  • Adopt one or two go-to phrases to initiate feedback that come most naturally to you. Put them in your wallet, tape it to the inside of a desk drawer, put it on a sticky on your computer; simply having a simple phrase at the ready can help you start the conversation. For example:
    • “Can we talk about X went / how we might approach X differently?”
    • “Could I share some thoughts on X?”
    • “Can we SAW this?”
  • Cheat by using email to initiate or “foreshadow” the conversation. Send an email to your employee saying “I’m concerned X isn’t on track. Can we schedule a time today to talk about it?” Another variation: “I’d like to talk about how Y went. Can we talk about that in our check-in today?”

3. Systematize it.

If you’re serious about giving your staff regular feedback, you have to systematize it; otherwise, it’s too likely to not happen (because you’re probably busy and feedback never feels like the most urgent thing, and because – let’s face it – it can feel awkward). Here are some ways to systemize feedback into how you operate.

  • Put a “feedback” or “lessons” bullet on your regular check-in form so it’s just part of what you discuss each week. Adding this space to your agenda should prompt both you and the staff member for reflections on what’s going well and what could go better (or be approached differently).
  • Put “debriefs” on your calendar to happen regularly at the end of major projects. In addition to helping you capture lessons from past projects, debriefs will present an obvious opportunity to talk about what the staff member did that was great and where they might do even better next time.
  • Make “SAW” a thing. Making “SAWing” part of your internal vocabulary will make it easier to use it as a non-emotionally-laden shorthand. For example: “Hey Jojuan, can we SAW this? I’d love to dig in with you for a few minutes today, if you have time later?”

4. Build relationships, credibility, and trust.

Feedback is harder to accept and digest when it feels punitive or like a “gotcha.” Most people take feedback better when it’s coming from a coach or ally – someone who feels like they’re on their side. That means that it’s important to:

  • Recognize when someone has put in a lot of effort and done good work. If someone only hears critical feedback, they’re likely to start wondering why you don’t notice all the good things they’re doing. By recognizing good work, you create space to also talk about what isn’t going quite as well.
  • Solicit feedback yourself. You can model how to take feedback well by periodically inviting it from your staff, both generally (“Is there anything I could be doing differently to make your life easier?”) and specifically (“I know I was pretty hands-off here; would it have helped if I’d been more accessible when you were working on X?”).
  • Connect with your staff on a human level. When your team knows you care about them as people, it’s easier for feedback to feel collaborative rather than punitive.