Language smooths over rough edges for honest feedback, creates culture businesses thrive on

Language smooths over rough edges for honest feedback, creates culture businesses thrive on


Words matter, especially in a feedback conversation. Consider the impact of calling sushi “raw, dead fish”, or a colonoscopy…well, never mind. Keep language focused on effectiveness and avoid judgmental words such as good/bad and right/wrong. Even less-charged words such as like/don’t like and agree/disagree should be avoided.

You might be tempted to gush, “What a great job! I love what you did!” but I assure you that this judgmental language will not serve you nearly so well when it’s time to discuss the dark side. Here’s language that keeps the conversation in the realm of effectiveness and steers clear of troublesome pitfalls:

• What’s working?… and we should continue to do it, or do more?

• What’s NOT working?…and we should change it?

• What’s missing?…and we should add it?

If there are things missing, or that we should change, ask:

• What should we add, or start doing?…or what could we do more?

• What should we stop doing?…or perhaps we should do less?

Finally, here’s my favourite feedback language – what I call the “magic wand” question that can open up possibilities no practical, realistic person would dare consider:

• If anything were possible, if we were guaranteed success, what would we instantly create or change that would transform ourselves, our team, our project, our organisation, for the better? Let that one sink in for a while, at least long enough for the shock of your expansive “possibility thinking” to make it through the wall of cynicism that protects many employees from further disappointment.

Integrate feedback into work practices

If you want to create a culture of feedback, you must incorporate feedback processes into your routine business processes. A great example for project managers is the post-project review. (Can we please stop calling them postmortems?!) Design feedback into daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual routines. For example:

• Having a meeting?

o Schedule the last five minutes for feedback on the meeting.

• Thinking about installing new beverage and snack stations in your office?

o Post a flip chart near the existing ones asking people for their ideas and suggestions.

• Scheduling a team offsite?

o Solicit ideas from the people on your team about the location, agenda and menu as well as what must happen, and what must not happen.

• Considering redesigning your project management lifecycle?

o Ask your stakeholders for their inputs before rolling out your fancy new process.

Use tools to increase effectiveness

You could spend many hours, and a lot of money, teaching everyone how to give and receive feedback effectively. And, like federally mandated fire extinguisher training, you could hold a refresher course every couple of years. Or…you could provide tools that easily and effortlessly guide your teams in the art of feedback without all of that rigmarole.

Based loosely on the recently popular “nudge theory”, this involves using tools that make it easy to give and receive feedback, and that naturally result in keeping feedback goal-centred and using the language of feedback. Here are a few tools that I’ve found particularly useful.

Feedback notes

These sticky notes explicitly incorporate non-judgmental language into the feedback process with the added benefit of making feedback anonymous, especially important when trust has not yet been established.

Trainer’s warehouse

Plus/Delta: This is a quick and easy way to solicit feedback, even from large groups. It literally takes only a few minutes. And you can do it without the fancy sticky notes, even verbally if you’ve established sufficient trust to make that work.

At the end of a meeting, task or project, ask, “What worked about this, and we should continue – or even do more – in future meetings?” This is the “Plus”. (Do the positive first!) Then move to the “Delta” – geek-speak for “change” – by asking, “What might we change in the future to work better?”

Every person need only say their inputs aloud, or write their thoughts on an individual sticky note so you can group them by theme and title afterward. Here’s an example of some feedback from the end of the first day of our feedback workshop in Austria.

Feedback starfish

Want more detailed feedback? Or perhaps you simply like echinoderms? In this technique you make a “feedback starfish” on a flip chart like the one shown below. It’s vital that you place your goal at the centre of this starfish (many examples I’ve seen don’t include this) and explain your goal clearly to the people who will be giving feedback. For example, if looking for feedback for to help you become a better leader you might ask, “If you were absolutely committed to helping me become the kind of leader I admire (describe in detail), what advice would you give me? …what ideas do you have for me?”

Ask each person to share their advice on sticky notes after you leave the room – one idea per sticky note. I’ve convinced several executives to participate in this leadership feedback experiment, and it’s always enlightening.

Note: Give everyone the same colour and size of sticky notes and same type and colour of pen so you’re not tempted to try to figure out who said what!

Transformational positive feedback

I recently read a terrific book called “Extraordinary Influence”. WOW! In it I discovered an incredible feedback tool with the power to transform individuals into the best possible version of themselves. Positive comments aren’t normally considered transformational, but that’s because of the trivial way they are often offered. We say things like “Good job!”, “Well done”, and “Thanks!”, but…fail to flesh out our recognition with details that have the power to shape future positive behaviours.

This book helped me understand that we can plant the seeds of tomorrow’s extraordinary contributions using today’s skillfully designed and sincerely delivered appreciation. What transforms a hollow “thank you” into a transformative experience? Of course, we need to make our comments specific, selective, and timely. But that’s just “Attitude of Gratitude 101”.

If you want to get your PhD in appreciation you need to include the What, How, Why and Who in your positive feedback. Here’s a simple tool that I developed to make that easy. Just open your heart (Yikes! So touchy feely!!) and think deeply about these four questions:

• WHAT did this person do that you appreciate?

• HOW did they do it? What approach did they follow that contributed positively?

• WHY did they take this approach? What positively motivated them?

• WHO are they, at their core, that makes this kind of approach come naturally to them?

Here’s an example. I’m sure you can do better:

Hone your feedback mojo! At the recommendation of a friend who is the Chief People Officer for one of my clients, I recently read a book called Radical Candor. What’s so radical about being open and honest with each other in the workplace? It’s been my practice for my entire career. (Okay, maybe I overdid it. One of my managers told me I tend to call a spade a frickin’ shovel. Point well taken.)

Effective feedback isn’t rocket science! There’s plenty of guidance on how to do it well, and there’s just no excuse for doing it badly.

When you give feedback, focus on positive comments about what’s working. What’s rewarded is repeated. Make a habit of asking for feedback from people you trust and respect. Make sure both giving and receiving feedback are always done in the service of a goal that the receiver cares about. And if you do find yourself the target of some clumsily delivered or hurtful feedback, remember that the interpretation of that feedback – and the decision about whether to act on it – is within your control.

Over the years, I’ve kept this response handy for when people say, “Kimberly, you’re hyperactive!” I look them straight in the eyes, and with a big smile on my face, reply “Thank you for noticing! I do bring a great deal of energy and passion to my work. In fact, it was you who inspired this in me!”

Stunned silence is the usual response. Sometimes what people think of us is none of our business.

If you were determined to make this article more valuable and effective for readers, what specifically would you change? Looking forward to your feedback!

  • A Tell report / Kimberly Wiefling is president of Wiefling Consulting.

Ms Wiefling is co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, and author of Scrappy Project Management; a global business leadership consultant, and a force of nature – the good kind! She specialises in global team effectiveness – helping teams achieve what seems impossible but is merely difficult.

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