How to provide effective feedback to team members
“Feedback.” When this word is mentioned it can cause great fear and trepidation, and its avoidance is high. But why is that? We live in a world that uses feedback to perform individual performance appraisals, for organizational and personal improvements, to correct errors and to initiate change. So why is something that is so powerful always mistrusted, misused, and quite often, not even used at all? Perhaps it is because when used incorrectly, feedback can do the opposite - crush morale, decrease performance and maintain the status quo.
By looking at what feedback is really for, how it is used (and misused) today and common mistakes in giving it, we will look at ways to use it in an effective and timely manner, to maximize project team members’ performances.
“Feedback.” This word makes people nervous, tense, and defensive. And not just the receiver, but the giver as well. We live in a world that uses feedback to perform individual performance appraisals, for organizational and personal improvements, to correct errors and to initiate change. So why is something that is so powerful always mistrusted, misused, and quite often, not even used at all? Perhaps it is because when used incorrectly, feedback can do the opposite - crush morale, decrease performance and maintain the status quo. This paper seeks to remove the fear and tension out of feedback, offering project managers an approach to deliver proper feedback and achieve a greater chance of succeeding.
What is Feedback?
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term “feedback” refers to an electrical engineering term: “the return to the input of a part of the output of a machine, system, or process (as for producing changes in an electronic circuit that improve performance or in an automatic control device that provide self-corrective action).” A similar definition is found in Wikipedia. Now here is an interesting fact – in the same dictionary, it also has definitions for positive feedback, and negative feedback, both in an electrical engineering sense.
• “feedback that tends to magnify a process or increase its output”
• “feedback that tends to dampen a process by applying the output against the initial conditions”
It is interesting to see how these electrical-based definitions are probably more accurate than any organizationally based definition. Positive feedback is used to increase output, or performance, while negative feedback seeks to dampen, or reduce, a process or behaviour. This paper discusses feedback in an organizational and individual performance context, but it is very interesting to note the definition of feedback in a more scientific view. In organizations, giving feedback is relaying information back to an individual or group, for performance, for opinion or for improvement.
“There is no such thing as bad feedback.” How many people believe this statement? At a ProjectWorld event in Toronto in 2005, one of the keynote speakers talked about how feedback had become a bad word – it was just another, nice way to say “criticism.” Before the word “feedback” there was “constructive criticism.” When people hear the word “feedback” the underlying association people have is change. “You need to change.” “You should change the way you do that.” It's inherent in human nature to not accept/want change.
Unfortunately, this connotation will not change in people's mind, nor is it this paper's intent to alter this. Project team members will be wary of accepting feedback, which makes it all more significant to bring it up properly.
What is feedback for?
Feedback has been around ever since communication was possible. Even the Bible shows how Adam and Eve were given feedback about making the incorrect choice. Feedback, particularly negative feedback, has always been used as a communications tool to correct something. People use feedback everyday when they talk with friends and family, with children, with pets. But people begin to hesitate when it comes to the workplace, and it is this association with negativity that is the biggest reason.
This is the fundamental point of this paper: feedback is a powerful communications tool and must be used for both positive and corrective actions.
Imagine having no feedback at all. Here is story that illustrates this extreme situation. Once, in a training exercise, a classroom instructor told other participants to completely ignore one of the other managers the next day, without that manager knowing. That manager came in the next day to the classroom. No one looked at him, talked to him or even acknowledged he was there. When he spoke, no one responded, as if he were not there. At first he thought it was a joke, but as the morning went on, he became more upset and angrier. Finally, by the end of the morning, he slouched in his chair and thought “No one cares what I do, I'll just do nothing!” After lunch, the instructor finally went over to him and told him what everyone had been instructed to do. Before this class, this manager had thought that his staff were lazy, unmotivated and couldn't just do their jobs. After being told about the exercise, he realized he had never actually spoken to them and they had simply begun to feel unappreciated and resentful. This manager reached his boiling point only after a few hours – imagine what it feels like when it is days or weeks.
Giving Feedback Today
When Should You Provide Feedback?
As the above example illustrates, people usually wait a long time to deliver feedback, and sometimes not at all. And when it comes to projects, timing is usually even worse. In a short project that is under 6 months, the typical mindset is to wait until after the project is over to deliver any poor performance feedback, since doing so may disrupt team dynamics and create ill will. Positive feedback is usually non-existent in short projects. The closest there is of any kind of feedback is a Lessons Learned document, and we all know how frequently lessons learned documents are produced.
When should you provide feedback? The answer is of course, any time. Provide feedback whenever the situation warrants; and as close as possible to the time of the originating situation. Don't wait for a “scheduled” time. The impact of what you want and need to communicate will be lessened or lost completely. As an example, a co-instructor was assigned for a 2-day course, to assist the lead instructor. The co-instructor could not participate on the first day, and attended on the second day. As an instructor, part of his/her duties was to provide feedback on students’ presentation styles. As he could not participate the first day, he was a bit unsure of what had been already covered in the course and relied heavily on his own experience in order to give positive and developmental feedback. At the morning break, not too long after the start of the day, the lead instructor came over to the co-instructor and told him he was providing excellent feedback to other students. This made him feel very confident in my abilities and his experience, and he continued to give feedback throughout the day. What if the lead instructor had waited until the end of the day? The co-instructor would have felt unsure throughout the day, not knowing if he had been helpful or not. By providing feedback immediately, the lead instructor was able to maximize the co-instructor's performance.
Along the same lines, a manager once was accessing the online ticketing system that his team used to request issues from one of the more troublesome vendors. He noticed that in one of the tickets, the history showed that one of the newer team members had logged a ticket and received some generic pushback from the vendor. The team member had then identified areas for the vendor to look at from the original information provided, and the vendor acknowledged and continued to work on the ticket. After reading this, the manager immediately went over to the team member and praised him for not backing down and earning the respect of the vendor, which was not an easy thing to do with this vendor. This built the team member's confidence level and he went on to become very technically skilled in this application.
Again, the answer to when one should provide feedback, is at any time and as soon as possible. Giving feedback does not have to be a formal event.
Common Mistakes When Giving Feedback Today
Giving feedback can be a bit of an art form and it's very easily done poorly. It takes practice and preparation to do it correctly. Most often, the delivery is done without preparation, or not done at all. Here are the most prevalent common mistakes when giving feedback:
Not giving feedback at all
This is the biggest mistake of all. As identified from the earlier example, the avoidance of feedback can have an enormous impact on staff and the project team. Not giving any feedback can lead to resentment, poor performance and non-communication, even if the job or task is being done properly.
The other flipside to not giving feedback is delivering it too late. This is particularly common in projects, where a project manager or team lead may believe things are best said later, both positive and negative. Project managers view giving feedback as potentially creating conflict. And as project managers we are told to resolve conflicts, not make them! And yet we all know avoidance just defers problems and make them grow, not go away. Even A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) states the best way to solve issues is through confrontation:
“Successful conflict management results in greater productivity and positive working relationships.” (188.8.131.52)
Only giving negative feedback
This does not mean that when you give bad feedback to someone you must give them good feedback at the same time. As illustrated in earlier examples, giving positive feedback, at the right time, can be a big motivator to your project team. Too often people, and project managers in particular, only see the negatives and believe that the positives are just team members “doing their job.”
Being non-specific with feedback
Saying “great job” without indicating what originated the comment doesn't help at all. The same applies to the reverse condition. When giving negative feedback to someone, such as “You were very late to the status meeting, don't let it happen again”, give additional details and impacts. Now the comment “You were very late to the status meeting, don't let it happen again” becomes “Because you were late to this morning's status meeting, all the other participants were held up and delayed in their next meetings. We could not proceed until you were there because your status was on the critical path and everyone needed to hear it first. Please ensure you are on time for future meetings.”
Not practicing your delivery
Too many projects managers just wing it. Just do it and hope there are no fireworks or long-term damage. If the feedback delivery is done poorly, it can potentially make things worse than what was started with. This is probably one of the biggest deterrents in giving feedback – the risk that things may get worse. Which is why practicing the delivery is essential. Just like giving a presentation, understand who the audience is and how you expect them to react. Will they reject negative feedback? Will they make excuses? Do they like to accept positive feedback in front of others or privately?
A real-life situation occurred where feedback was to be given to an employee that he was too defensive. Imagine what that discussion would be like! The discussion was rehearsed many times in the supervisor's thoughts, going over and over what the employee might say or retort, before finally speaking to him. As it turns out the employee already knew this about himself well and accepted the feedback. The discussion was still over an hour long, a little over what had been anticipated, but with good results during and after the discussion.
Not getting agreement on an outcome
After the discussion is held, how often does it seem like the feedback had no effect at all? And rather than bring it up again, both sides usually will just let it slide away. The opportunity to change things has passed with little effect.
When delivering feedback, be sure to state what the expected behaviour/performance is. As project managers we are used to comparing project performance to baselines. It is the same here. What is the baseline behaviour or performance that you expect from your team members? You and the team member must have an agreement before the discussion can be closed. This does not necessarily mean that you are always right and the team member must change – sometimes it is a matter of understanding what each person is expecting and a little compromise. But do not downplay the performance expectations if overall project performance is suffering. Lastly, follow up on an action plan to ensure the feedback has been realized.
Giving Effective Feedback
The term “SMART” has been associated with objectives for a long time. The acronym stands for “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.” When creating SMART objectives, these guidelines are used to make sure individuals have a target level to reach. Examples of SMART objectives are:
- Provide accurate deliverable estimates that are within 10% of actuals within the first 6 months, and are within 5% of actuals within the subsequent 6 months.
- Reduce errors and rework in personal deliverables to zero severity 1 defects and under 5 severity 2 defects, through use of internal reviews and automated test scripting, from January to December 2008 on all projects.
- Increase division revenue by a minimum of 15% by end of fiscal year and decrease division costs by at least 5%
- Improve membership retention by reducing attrition from 20% to 15% over the next calendar year.
When results are generated, they are compared to the objectives that were set out beforehand. The same should be done when creating and delivering feedback.
Feedback should refer to specific events or situations. Simply stating “You are always late for meetings” is not specific. It is better to state: “You were late for many meetings, including the weekly status meeting for the past 4 weeks and the peer review meeting last week on Thursday.” The more specific example(s) that you can list are better. Remember, the same holds true for positive feedback.
The impact of the behaviour or incident must be explained. If a deliverable was completed late, it may hold up subsequent tasks and activities, increasing cost and delaying schedules. If a team member continually arrives late to work, resentment by other team members may set in and decrease morale and reduce productivity. Without explaining the impact of the poor performance, the message delivered in corrective feedback will be less effective. And likewise, positive feedback must include the beneficial impact of a team member's actions.
In the above example, timeliness was a feedback topic. To make it measurable, add how late the team member was on average. The measurable part is usually quantifiable, such as the number of errors, the delayed time in minutes or hours, a dollar figure, etc. It ties in with the specifics of the feedback.
Just as an objective is meant to be achievable, so is feedback. Perhaps it is not possible for the team member’s performance to be corrected immediately, and requires gradual improvement over a period of time.
This ties in closely with the Achievable section. It may not be realistic that a team member who is a recent graduate and/or new to the organization is able to produce high quality results. They may still produce a large number of poor quality results that require feedback to be delivered, but it would not be realistic to expect perfection from them. The underlying assumption to the Realistic attribute is that the team member has the appropriate skills to do the necessary work.
There are 2 aspects to this attribute: the time of the originating situation and the time period for corrective actions to occur. The first aspect ties in again with specifics. Reference the time of the situation(s) when delivering the feedback to a team member. The second aspect is all about the action plan and how much time it takes to realize improvements. Remember, one of the common mistakes is not getting to an agreement before leaving the feedback conversation. You should have an action plan already created when you deliver the feedback – this is the time to reveal it and get buy in. Depending on the length of your project and how much more involvement the team member has in the remainder will determine the length of your action plan. If a team member is constantly late for meetings, an obvious action plan is to have that team member show on time beginning at the next meeting.
By creating SMART feedback, you will ensure you have an excellent framework for generating performance improvements when it is time to deliver the feedback.
Set expectations up front
As project managers, we are always striving to be proactive, to plan more upfront, identify and plan for risks and to decrease the amount of firefighting that inevitably occurs. And yet we do these things for critical paths, resource loading, external dependencies and customer delays, but we rarely take the time to plan for team members’ performances. Most often, it is simply assumed that team members know what to do. And unwritten assumptions will always be proven wrong, as project managers know explicitly.
Simple techniques, straight out of PMBOK and best practices, will help mitigate for poor performance. Here are several techniques:
Project Roles and Responsibilities & Objectives
State the project manager's expectations within the project Roles and Responsibilities forms. Document even simple, assumed performance aspects like timeliness, status report due date frequency, communication needs, work hours, etc. Even something such as work hours should be defined, especially given today's distributed environments.
Creating a project WBS and assigning accountability will identify the expectations of team members and their responsibilities. In the past, I have had team members not know what they were accountable for and their own deliverable. One team member believed she would just contribute by documentation and did not understand she was also responsible for driving completion of the document through stakeholder interviews.
Kick off meeting
This sounds like common sense, and it is. Setting the project manager's expectations of team members up front and right at the start of the project will set the direction. Document and provide minutes of the meeting to ensure the team is on the right track.
One on one discussions
While it is ideal to have everything in writing, realistically, it's not always possible. Even having a 10-minute verbal conversation is better than nothing at all. A project once used a Technical Writer for a short term of only 4 weeks. The project manager did not have time to write out a roles and responsibilities document, but instead sat down with her for 30 minutes when she first arrived. She wrote down the expectations the project manager listed out to her so there was record of deliverables. The project manager stated that he expected her to initiate review time with him, knowing his own schedule and working personality. She did this well, emailing and phoning the project manager when appropriate to focus his time on specific documents. At the end of her project role, she commented to the project manager that had he not explained his expectations of her, she would have simply emailed documents over to him and waited for a response, which would have never arrived. And it would have affected the project manager's opinion and feedback to her manager.
Do's and Don'ts of Giving Feedback
Here are the top things you should not do when delivering feedback:
- Find excuses not to provide feedback
- Not giving any feedback is not right and will eventually make things worse
- Waiting too long after a situation to give feedback, positive or negative
- Not correcting poor performance early on will just make it continue for a longer time. Correct it early.
- Not recognizing positive performance early enough may cause a team member to “slip” back to regular or mediocre performance. Address is early to get the most out of your team member
- Not being specific, not providing examples
- Non-specific feedback will have very little effect after delivery and will soon be forgotten
- Not practicing your delivery
- Without practice, performance may even become worse if not delivered properly. Know your audience and rehearse your delivery, even if it in your mind only.
- Waiting for a pre-set time, such as annual appraisals
- A team member could be performing poorly for a significant length of time before knowing about it. Or even worse, they could be terminated without ever being told what the problem was.
- Become emotional
- Becoming emotional takes away from the facts and makes the feedback forgettable, as well as create bad feelings among the team member
- Downplay the feedback
- Minimizing the impact and/or feedback will have very little effect after delivery and will soon be forgotten
- Only giving positive feedback when you have to deliver negative feedback
- Sometimes known as the “sandwich.” Positive feedback delivered standalone will cause a significant greater improvement than delivering it with negative feedback
- Not providing the downstream impact of behaviour/performance
- Without the impact, chances are a team member won't realize what their performance is causing and will likely forget about the feedback after time
- Comparing to others
- This will only cause friction and resentment between team members. Avoid this at all times.
- Not provide opportunities to giving bi-directional feedback
- Feedback is a two-way street. The project manager is not perfect either, so be open to feedback from team members. Even small changes by the project manager can cause positive and negative impacts to the team.
- Not getting buy in/agreement on an action plan
- Without agreement on an action plan, a feedback session might as well have not happened. The discussion will be likely forgotten over time and the team member will go back to what they were doing before.
Here are the top things you should do when delivering feedback:
- Practice & rehearse
- Know your audience and think how they will react to your message. Negative feedback in particular is always hard to hear by anyone, so deliver it in a way that it will be listened to and not forgotten
- Set expectations up front
- Ideally this is documented, but even a quick verbal discussion on expectations is better than nothing at all. Set the performance baseline at the beginning of the project/team member involvement.
- Discussing one on one
- Deliver feedback, especially negative feedback privately. Don't deliver it in front of other team members. They'll save face and will make the message heard more clearly without any distractions.
- Giving positive feedback
- People always forget to deliver positive feedback and thus lose many opportunities to make a team member deliver consistently high performance, instead of high performance once in a while
- Using a calm voice
- Stick to the facts and don't get emotional. Calmness conveys confidence and seriousness to the message.
- Documenting situations for later reference
- This doesn't have to be formal documentation, just making notes is equally correct. It can be something a project manager can refer to later on, for date/time and action plan formed. Writing notes also shows the seriousness of the feedback discussion to the team member. If it's a recurring problem or a serious issue, then formal documentation may be needed.
- Think long term
- Don't just think about the performance on the current project; think about the team member's performance on their next project, and their career. Give them feedback that they can use in their lifetime and you will get long term improvement from those who make the corrections.
- Giving feedback immediately
- Feedback will lose its effectiveness exponentially the longer the delay in delivering it. Refer to the previous example of the co-instructor teaching a class.
- Have a specific outcome in mind
- This is based on one of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Know what you want to see happen before you deliver the feedback. Incorporate this into your rehearsals.
- Give feedback early and often at the start of a project or the start of a project phase
- The more corrective feedback you provide at the start of a project or project phase will save rework and errors that may occur later. Like the 80/20 rule in reverse, deliver 80% of your feedback in the beginning 20% of the project phase, and the results will be better in the end.
Project feedback is an incredibly powerful tool that should be used to the project manager's advantage to deliver a successful project. Providing effective feedback to project team members in a timely manner will minimize poor performance and maximize desired performance early. Those who choose not to use feedback as a management tool will suffer from undesired performance. Delivering feedback, especially for project managers, is a hard thing to do, but absolutely necessary. Ultimately, the word “feedback” will still make people feel nervous, tense and defensive, but it should not for the giver using the above tools and techniques.
Merriam-Webster dictionary (2007)
Project Management Institute. (2000) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). (2000 ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute
Stephen Covey. (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Free Press
© 2007, Rubin Jen
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Cancún, Mexico