Paul Michaels has thought long and hard about the art and discipline of feedback. It is a mechanism he uses to motivate and lead others as well as to foster group cohesiveness, mutual respect, and support. Although he believes that there is no silver bullet for how leaders should provide and receive feedback, his insights, drawn from years of experience, are sharp and worth considering. We sought his expertise for answering the following questions:
QUESTION: "Is feedback an art, a science, or a discipline?"
MICHAELS: "Unlike a lot of managers, I don't think giving feedback is 'a delicate art.' In fact, I think it's a lot like digging trenches: You've got to put lots of muscle into it, day after day."
QUESTION: "How often should a leader provide feedback?"
MICHAELS: "I believe the best leaders don't give people feedback once a quarter or even once a month. Sure, formal evaluation and performance discussions should be conducted several times a year. However, I give my team members feedback and informal coaching every day. When you don't have time to give feedback, you're really saying you don't have time to lead."
QUESTION: "Is there a distinction between giving feedback to high performers and to underachievers?"
MICHAELS: "Interestingly, my direct reports not only don't dread feedback, they actually solicit it. I've found that it's usually the highest-performing employees who are most apt to seek feedback. They are looking to improve. But the people who are insecure avoid feedback. They pretend that they know everything already and don't need anyone else's opinion. With these people, you have to get across the message that not knowing everything and asking others for feedback is perfectly natural and acceptable."
QUESTION: "What's your best advice to leaders about how to give feedback?"
MICHAELS: "People rarely come into management possessing all the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to advance. They must develop, and it's a leader's responsibility to develop the next generation of leaders. Feedback has to be timely and very specific. If somebody does something that is not in line with their potential, you don't wait a month or three months or until their annual review to tell them about it. You pull them into a room right away and say, 'Look, when you did this, when you acted this way, I didn't like it, and this is why."'
QUESTION: "Anything else?"
MICHAELS: "I like to deliver feedback with clarity, candor, and insightand a little bit of humor helps. Basically, you reiterate your expectations, and just as you share coaching on how to improve, you also tell your people how proud you are when they exceed expectations. Communicate what the consequences will be if the unacceptable behavior continues. The more direct you are, the better. I'm not talking about threatening or passing judgment on the person's character. But view the situation as a business issue that needs to be resolved: 'Here's what has to change; here's what will happen if it doesn't; here's when we'll meet again to review your progress.' The goal is to have people work more effectively, develop new skills, and grow professionally."
QUESTION: "But being direct can be threatening, can't it?"
MICHAELS: "We tend to go lightly when providing feedback because we are afraid of hurting people's feelings. But, in my experience, people aren't as thin-skinned as we think. In fact, some of them are so thick- skinned that you have to make your point over and over. Then you have to ask them to repeat it back to you several times to make sure they've gotten it. We've probably all worked for someone who was direct, as well as for someone who avoided 'tough' conversations. People usually prefer to know where they stand and trust a leader who is willing to give them the unvarnished truth. You lose credibility if you are not willing to address a performance issue as well as recognize the wins."
QUESTION: "And the payoff?"
MICHAELS: "It's very hard to give people honest feedback, but it's so worth it. There is nothing more exciting or more fun than to watch somebody to whom you've given tough feedback really respond, address the issue, and show improvement. There's nothing more heartening, exciting, and rewarding for both of you!"