The next time you need to offer feedback or criticism, think about the goal you’re trying to achieve — and then choose the method of feedback that is best suited to that goal.
The self-improvement site Farnam Street notes that there are three unique types of feedback: appreciation, advice, and evaluation. (They cite Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp’s Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge as their inspiration for this insight.) As Farnam Street explains:
Are we trying to show appreciation, offer advice, or offer an evaluation? (As in a grade or a performance review.) We think we can do it all at the same time, but that tends to be counter-productive.
In other words, everyone knows what’s really inside a criticism sandwich, especially when the two outer compliments are generic or forced.
If you want to provide the kind of feedback people will both listen to and learn from, give specific feedback that is appropriate to both the situation and the goal. People are motivated by honest statements of appreciation, for example — so instead of saying “good job,” try “I saw the way you kept our meeting from derailing this afternoon. Thank you!”
Or, as Farnam Street puts it:
In the appreciation phase, we were trying to direct our comments at the person directly: I value you and I value your effort. It has not gone unnoticed.
When it’s time to give advice, focus less on the person and more on whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish. You’re not telling someone what they did wrong, you’re acknowledging the work they’ve done so far and helping them get a better result.
As for evaluation — well, Farnam Street doesn’t think evaluation is a particularly useful feedback tool. A six-month performance review, for example, provides feedback at a point in time where it’s too late to be effectively incorporated. It’s more helpful to tell people what they’re doing well and/or what they can improve while they’re doing it, so they can remain motivated and make small adjustments as necessary.
We don’t need to assign performance grades all the time if we’re constantly reinforcing good habits and discouraging bad ones in an effective way.
Plus, performance reviews and other formal evaluations tend to be emotionally charged events for the person being evaluated, making it difficult for them to fully hear and understand the feedback being given.
If you want to give the kind of feedback that people will listen to, it’s best to make it specific, honest, applicable, and timely. Be generous with your statements of appreciation and keep your advice focused on the task at hand.
If you’re a manager or employer, save formal evaluations for when you need an official record of performance. After all, if an employee goes into that type of evaluation without having a good idea of what’s going to be discussed, there’s been a feedback failure somewhere in the process — and it’s probably yours.