Feedback is important. How it’s delivered, how it’s received, how it’s acted on and how it’s followed up on all matters. It’s a key skill of a great leader.
I’ve given feedback that landed perfectly and was received well. But I’ve also botched the delivery more times than I care to think about.
Throughout a working relationship, there is a variety of types of feedback that need to be given in a variety of situations and settings. And feedback needs to be delivered differently for various personality types and experience levels. So, I have a handful of ways I give employee feedback from formal to informal, verbal to written, from ‘off the cuff’ to a planned sit down meeting, from unspoken to spoken ‘perhaps a little bit too gruffly’.
One favorite technique I like to use before giving feedback now is an old (possibly Buddhist?) adage:
“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”
Clearly, this is a really, really simple set of questions. You might think it’s too simple, but I actually find them to be incredibly useful.
Asking myself these questions prior to providing any type of feedback helps me calibrate what I am doing and be thoughtful in my approach.
Is it true?
Of course, it’s true! Right? Isn’t it?
Have you ever given feedback only to later realize you were wrong? Or that it didn’t matter that much in the big scheme of things? Or the scenario you thought happened really didn’t happen that way? We are often wrong. Ask two people to describe the same situation and you will get two different answers, both of which are “true”.
Just because you are leading your people doesn’t mean you are always right, or what you perceive is actual fact. Trickier still is that you will sometimes have to give feedback on something you haven’t directly witnessed or experienced with that person. It may be something you are hearing repeatedly that needs to be addressed.
Asking myself ‘is it true’ gives me a moment to pause. It allows me to look at things from different angles. When I ask this question thoughtfully I sometimes am surprised by the answer.
Is it necessary?
You might be a control freak. Or have those tendencies. Lots of entrepreneurs do, as do more than a few managers. I do, and if left unchecked it can cause me to overload people with feedback.
By asking the “is it necessary” question and reflecting on the resulting internal answer, I am able to filter out the petty or inconsequential feedback. The only feedback that actually matters is that which helps the business, or the individual, meet its goals.
This question has also taught me that a lot of feedback really ends up coming down to personal preference. If I have 10 tidbits of feedback floating around in my head, only a few really have to be said to help better the business, the individual or the company culture. Asking the ‘is it necessary’ question forces me to separate the most important feedback from the stuff that doesn’t really matter. It gives a bit of needed perspective and context. It calms the chatter in my mind, especially during times of heightened stress when I may be more prone to spew a non-stop list of things I wish were different.
Is it kind?
This is a tough one. At least for me. No matter the situation, I want to be kind. Being kind builds people up versus tears them down. It can help build confidence in the employee. But most importantly, it ensures there is a level of respect in the delivery of the feedback.
I think to myself, ‘am I delivering this feedback in a way that someone outside looking in would consider to be kind?’.
I think I have a kind heart, but I know for sure that I don’t always come off as kind. I am incredibly direct and sometimes wear my frustration on my sleeve. If I am giving constructive criticism, my goal is to not display negativity (especially in my facial expressions and tone of voice), because it will cause the other person to shut down and they may not be as receptive to my message. So, asking this question in advance helps me consider how to approach the feedback and the resulting conversation with the employee. I want to act in a way that is kind, in all situations, as I believe it helps build a better workplace culture.
So while there are lots of ways to give feedback, asking these questions has helped me shape my leadership style and helped me coach my managers who also need to give feedback to their direct reports. These questions allow me to not jump on the feedback bandwagon but to really think about what needs to be said, why and how. I don’t always get it right, and I don’t always remember in advance. But these questions are something I keep handy and I refer to them often to try to train my mind to bring this mindset into every interaction where feedback needs to be given.