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August 26, 2020

Motivate with Feedback: Focus on the 4 Fs of Feedback (and the Future)


Sharing feedback with colleagues is a critical part of working together successfully. Yet many people I talk with feel they could do a better job giving feedback, whether by being more prompt or direct, or simply by ensuring a conversation happens. Giving feedback can feel uncomfortable, maybe even more so when it has to be delivered virtually.

Personal discomfort aside, the truth is that most of us could be significantly more effective at work with regular input on what we’re doing well and what could be better. Timely, frequent and specific feedback helps everyone improve. We can better recognize blind spots, know what to keep doing and when to change course, and benefit from building relationships with those who give us the gift of their advice.

So how can we give feedback that gets results?

Research shows that for people to be motivated through feedback, the conversation must focus on the future.

Recent studies published in The Public Library of Science (PLoS) Journal found that the willingness to change is greater when a feedback discussion focuses on future behavior, rather than on what happened in the past. By contrast, feedback conversations that focused on explaining past performance actually turned minor disagreements into major ones. “What mattered most for motivation to improve was how much the feedback conversation focused on generating new ideas for future success,” explains study co-author Jackie Gnepp.

These results reinforce what we see in other aspects of leadership and change management – when people are involved in creating the path forward, they are more likely to be engaged and adopt changes to achieve a collective goal. Sharing feedback is a personal conversation, so why not use the time and dialogue to identify actionable and positive ways to improve?

The Four Fs of Feedback

When you’re ready for a conversation, follow this proven methodology, “The Four Fs of Feedback” so people listen and act on your suggestions:

1. FRAME: Ask permission. Then, share your motivation and intent

First, ask whether now’s a good time for you to share feedback: “I have some feedback that I think will be helpful for you. Are you open to that right now?” If not, make an appointment. This ensures your employee or peer is in the right frame of mind for a productive conversation. If someone’s having a bad day or not feeling open, it’s better to postpone this crucial conversation for another day rather than charge forward and reduce your chances that the conversation to be a win-win.

Then, set up the discussion with your motivation and intent for sharing feedback. State your motivation in a way that establishes the benefit to the listener. This helps the listener know why you’re sharing this information and not read into your actions with their own meaning. Reinforce that the purpose of the feedback is to be helpful and to talk about lessons learned that can be applied in the future. In other words, you’re telling them explicitly why you’re sharing this feedback and telling them directly why they should be open to hearing the feedback (because it’s going to benefit them!).

The goal is collaboration, not accusation ─ when employees feel defensive they are less likely to respond to and act on the comments. Here’s what an effective approach might sound like: “I need to share some feedback with you so you can be even more successful in working with me. My intention is (use those exact words) for this to be helpful to you and for our collaboration to be more effective. Plus, if it were me, I would want to receive this feedback.”

2. FEEDBACK FOR THE FUTURE: One behavior then consequence.

Then, discuss one specific and observable behavior and then the consequence. If there are a number of things you want to coach on, pick the most important to address first. One behavior at a time sets everyone up for the greatest chance of success. For example, “This behavior had this negative consequence (explain)” or “When you do (behavior), this is the (negative) result.” Feedback should never be personal – avoid emotionally charged language or judgments and just state the facts as they are.

Think about it this way – it’s almost as if you had a video camera and were showing the individual a brief clip of a behavior of theirs and the consequence.

3. FEELINGS: “How do you feel about what I just said?”

Now, cultivate a two-way conversation by asking for a response in a very specific way. This demonstrates you genuinely care about the person’s point of view and aren’t just focused on delivering a corrective message. At this stage, you want to open up the possibility for both a feeling and thinking response. You might not get it, but if you ask, “What do you think?” chances are you’ll get only a thinking response. A feeling response is a much richer response for the listener and often conveys more information that’s helpful to everyone involved. The way to achieve this is to ask directly, “How do you feel about what I just said?” Then, stop talking and listen.

Listen actively and restate what you’re hearing to show you understand their point of view and are interested in any context you might not know about. Let them respond without interruption, then clarify or amplify if needed.

If there’s defensiveness, especially after you set this up by sharing your motivation and intent, move directly to discuss the alternative behavior you’d like to see in the future. Here, don’t get caught in debating things: you shared the behavior and consequence in a way that they could hear it, and now you need to ask for what you want to see instead in the future. Now’s not the time for excuses or reasons; rather, it’s time to take individual responsibility for one’s actions. The alternative behavior you discuss is not up for discussion. This might sound like, “What I want to see in the future instead is (alternative behavior).”

4. FOLLOW UP: How can I help you here?

Last, discuss specific next steps, including asking what you can do to help. Be direct by asking, “How can I help you with this in the future?” This is another way to show you care.

Also, take the opportunity to point out that feedback has become an important part of your leadership style, and that you’re fostering an environment in which it will be common. Make sure your employees understand feedback is a two-way street, and that you expect them to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and other ideas with you in the spirit of continuous improvement. Of course, this means you must be open to their input and take appropriate action, demonstrating the same behaviors when receiving feedback that you expect of your people when you give it. You might even take the time to share this model with them.

Being timely and direct with feedback is essential for success. Add a little humanity and caring, and you have a recipe to inspire future improvement and build valued, trusting relationships.

Who do you owe developmental feedback to right now, and when will you share it?

—David Grossman

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