Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

How to Give ‘Real Time Feedback’ Without Being a Jerk

“Oh, do I have some feedback for YOU,” Donna said. Donna had just been promoted to manager at a beverage firm and felt it was time to wield her managerial power. She was ready to tell her direct report, Jon, how he was messing up in ‘real time’. Jon, you see, had accidentally copied the wrong people on an email chain and also misspelled the word “extemporaneous”. Donna couldn’t wait to tell Jon about the mess up and make an example of his bad move at the next team meeting under the hashtag #emailrigour.

We’ve all been Donna. The “jerk” that couldn’t wait to give someone a piece of our mind and then rub their nose in their error like a puppy during potty training.

We’ve also all been Jon, the recipient of poorly given critique that makes us feel like a schmuck and secretly fantasize of our manager’s demise.

The thing is…we all make mistakes. Passive aggression, bullheadedness, and performance mishaps are part of our career hopscotch. Continual feedback is invaluable to ensure we stay on the self-improvement journey, both in our own behavior and how we help others improve theirs. Like the Goldilocks tale-it can’t be too hot (brutal) and give someone performance anxiety. Neither can it be too cold (wimpy and unclear) and leave people confused as to what to do. It needs to be ‘just right’….and help course correct to a better you.

The trick is in the art of giving and receiving…

Whether it’s a professional, familial or a romantic situation, I’ve created a feedback process that seems to work. It ensures I don’t come across as a jerk, but rather an ally in work AND love.

Step 1: Decide if it’s worth it.

People are flawed individuals. Constantly harping on a minor part of their personality may be futile. The thing you wish them to correct may be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. You don’t need to critique everything (like a typo in an email or they way they chew gum) or you’ll wear them down. Pick the things that really matter. After all, you do not want someone constantly telling you everything minor thing you do wrong. Learn what to let go.

Step 2: Shut up if Hangry.

If either you or the feedback recipient is tired, hungry or frustrated, it’s just not going to go well. Emotions will start a boxing match, leaving calm logic pinned down for the count. In my romantic relationship, I’ve had far more success having a rational discussion once I’ve distanced myself from the subject material. It’s more of ‘the right time’ than ‘real time.’

Step 3: Ask permission

Many times we want to swoop into a situation liked a caped avenger to provide crucial feedback instantaneously. But if someone isn’t ready to receive the feedback, (like if they are hangry) then it will only serve to annoy them. You need to ask someone if they are ready for what you want to share. And just like dating, no means no.

Step 4: Provide context for the feedback

Cite specific examples to make a situation clear in someone’s mind. 10 years ago I was trying to teach a friend to ski. The instruction wasn’t going well and in exasperation, I threw up my poles and said, “Well, you’re just skiing all wrong.” My friend, not knowing how to improve, just became frustrated and decided to never try skiing ever again. He also unfriended me from facebook.

Step 4: Discuss the situational impact (feelings) or the firm (results)

In non- violent communication, romantic partners are urged to use “I” statements and talk how a situation made them FEEL as opposed to making a judgement of what someone DID. No one can argue with how you feel, and it reduces our tendency to become defensive. In a firm, talking about feelings may not be the right path. But you CAN talk about the results of the firm. This, once again, makes the conversation less about THEM, and more about the company’s success. Who doesn’t want to make the company successful?

Step 5: Offer a plausible solution.

Offer up some possible things they could do differently. Otherwise it just feels like you are dumping on them. It could be a different way to react or a better way to code. Make them feel that there are ways out of their situation and they aren’t in it alone.

Step 6: Support them

Tell them that you’ll be happy to talk about their next attempt and help them become better. This is very important for managers to build trust with their team. You want to make sure everyone feels safe coming to you for advice so that they feel you are in it with them. This “group effort’ leads to better results and a more positive working environment. AND when someone hears that you have “feedback” for them, they no longer tremble with fear of being chastised, but are optimistic about receiving a new opportunity.

When I was at at my past design firm, the act of giving GOOD feedback was considered a sacred part of the culture. It was as ritualized as a Japanese tea ceremony and as prepared for as navy seals combat. Our mission: to provide a consistent path for self improvement without wilting someone’s self esteem.Even in fail happy Silicon Valley, we knew critique shouldn’t make someone feel like irreparable failure, but have an opportunity for success.

Of course, feedback doesn’t have to be as ritualized-it can be really simple and organic. Just remember the golden rule. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Don’t be their dictator, be their ally. Then feedback is no longer a daunting task, but an enjoyable one. Even if it’s about an email gone awry.

To err is human. To provide good feedback, divine.

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