Monday, October 22, 2012

Feedback - a gift that nobody likes to give?

This post was originally published on Start Up Smart.

I recently shared with the Sneaking Duck and Shoes of Prey teams some training on giving and receiving feedback. I learned my approach at McKinsey and it has been tremendously useful for me both at work and at home.

I started with a question: “who likes to get specific and helpful suggestions to help them work better”. Everyone put up their hands. But when I asked “who is entirely comfortable sharing feedback with colleagues”, nobody put up their hands. I think there is a huge opportunity from effective feedback and the model below is aimed at finding a realising this.

Below is how I try approach feedback - what other approaches have people found successful?

Getting the environment right

I’ve learned through my career that feedback only works in an environment where both parties are completely comfortable that mutual improvement is the goal. As soon as there is any sign of politics, revenge or point-scoring it’s a disaster. Creating this environment takes times and trust - I’ve put below a few key ways to create this:

Be objective – fact-based discussions are less likely to lead to emotive discussions
Be direct – addressing things head-on helps both sides understand what is the issue than ‘hinting’
Avoid defensiveness – re-hashing the past often leads to frayed tempers and emotion
Keep specific – if you don’t have specific examples, you perhaps don’t have something useful to share
Lead people through the whole story – don’t start with the solution
Think about the setting – is a public or private forum best?
Be considered – it’s probably best to write feedback down ahead of time

The model

The model that McKinsey taught me works like this:

Step 1 - Observation
Giver: Shares a specific observation. Done in a factual, non emotive, way. It should be sufficiently precise and clear that discussion isn’t necessary.
Receiver: Listens. Calms defensiveness.
Example “I notice that you have been 15 minutes late to the last 3 team meetings”

Step 2 - Impact
Giver: Shares a specific, observable impact that is directly related to the action. Again, it should precise clear
Feedback receiver: Listens. Calms defensiveness.
Example “This has the impact that meetings start late and the rest of the team has to wait when they could be doing other things”

Step 3 - The pause
Giver: Pauses. This is really the most critical step. You’re probably a bit nervous and rushing - you’ve thought about the conversation 100 times, but remember it’s the first time for the other person. Breath!
Receiver: Clarifying questions, if necessary. The key here is clarifying - about ensuring shared understanding of the observation and the impact. It’s essential to avoid the traps of explanations, defensiveness or anger. It’s important not to move onto discussion until the issue is clear and agreed.

Step 4 - Suggestion and discussion
Giver: Make a clear and specific suggestion as to how to avoid this in future (or continue if it’s positive feedback!). This will be just a suggestion - you may not know the whole story, so it’s unlikely you can legislate a solution, even as the boss.
Feedback receiver: Listen, and engage in discussion about how to avoid this in future. Remember, we’ve only got to step 4 if the observation and impact are agreed.
Example: “One suggestion is to set a 10 minute reminder on your phone”

At this point, as the feedback giver, you may well learn something you didn’t know that renders your suggestion useless. For example, perhaps the person’s issue is that their only public transport option doesn’t get them to the office in time and that a better suggestion is to move the meeting.


I have found this approach very useful personally and professionally. After sharing with the team I got positive feedback - it will be interesting to see how effectively we are able to put it into practice.

What other feedback approaches have people found effective?

Photo credit


  1. I really like this blog and this particular post Michael.

    I have recently tried crowdsourcing for feedback and wrote about the experience here:

    It's a useful way of receiving feedback from people who may otherwise not provide it in the course of everyday work.

  2. Interesting - tools that help make it easy to get feedback seem like a good idea.

    You said that the feedback was 'complaining' about your system. Had the feedback objectively stated the (perceived) issue and the impact, do you think it would have been easier for you to absorb and also to discuss?