When effectively administered, feedback is a powerful way to build knowledge, increase skills, increase motivation, and develop reflective habits of mind. Unfortunately, sometimes the feedback we give (and get) is ineffectual or even counterproductive.
Ways to offer meaningful feedback (taken from various research in psychology and cognitive sciences):
1. Supply information about what the individual is doing, rather than simply praise or criticism.
Specific information about how the person is performing a task is much more helpful than mere praise or, especially, criticism. In particular, feedback is most effective when it provides information on what exactly the person is doing right, and on what he/she is doing differently (and more successfully) than other tries. Or, suggest ideas as to what might improve their work in the future with examples.
2. State observations, not interpretations.
Observations are what you see occur; interpretations are your analysis or opinion of what you see occur. Tell what you’ve noticed, not what you think of it, and report the behavior you notice at a concrete level, instead of as a characterization of the behavior. Observations have a far more factual and nonjudgmental aspect than do interpretations.
3. Take care in how you present feedback.
Sometimes, we when we are not careful, feedback may actually reduce motivation. For example, sometimes when people sense that their performance is being criticized they might feel self-consciousness. To avoid this, take care to fully explain what you mean by your feedback, and always deliver it with respect and a positive tone. A second concern is that individuals will interpret feedback as an attempt to control them, e.g. when feedback is phrased as, “This is how you should do it.” Instead, try to use specific, descriptive phrases, such as, ‘trying it this way [provide example] might help to make your diagram a little more clear’.
Avoid “need to” phrases, which send implied messages that something wasn’t done well.
For example, “Jane, you need to get your reports turned in on time, and you need to spell check them.” This message is not really performance feedback. It implies that Jane did not do something well with her reports, but it doesn’t report exactly what happened. Providing clarity on what occurred is the aim of feedback.
4. Orient feedback around goals.
Information about performance means little if it’s not understood in relation to an ultimate goal. Three questions that feedback can help answer are:
(1) “Where am I going?” (That is: What is my goal?)
(2) “How am I going?” (That is: What progress is being made toward my goal?)
(3) “Where to next?” (That is: What actions must be taken to make further progress?)
Feedback is most effective when it directly addresses advancement toward a goal, and not other, less-pertinent aspects of performance. E.g. during a research presentation explaining volcanoes, feedback such as, they forgot their name or misspelled volcano once, does not help to further their progress).
5. Be positive.
Give at least as much positive feedback as you do negative. Positive feedback stimulates reward centers in the brain, leaving the recipient open to taking new direction. Meanwhile, negative feedback indicates that an adjustment needs to be made and the threat response turns on and defensiveness sets in. You don’t need to avoid negative/corrective feedback altogether. Just make sure you follow it up with a suggested solution or outcome.
In positive feedback situations, express appreciation.
Appreciation alone is praise. Yet when you add it to the specifics of constructive feedback, your message carries an extra oomph of sincerity. For example: “Sue, your handling of all the processing work while John did the callbacks made for an efficient effort and showed good teamwork. Everything you did was accurate, as well. Thanks so much for helping out. Such initiative is a real value to the team.”
Ensure you are providing corrective feedback in a helpful manner.
The purpose of negative feedback is to create awareness that can lead to correction or improvement in performance. If you can’t give negative feedback in a helpful manner, in the language and tone of concern, you defeat its purpose.
6. Be specific.
People generally respond better to specific, positive direction. Avoid saying things like, “You need to be more talkative in meetings.” It’s too vague and can be interpreted in a lot of personal ways. Say something specific and positive pointed at the task you want accomplished, such as, “You’re smart. I want to hear at least one opinion from you in every meeting we’re in together going forward.”