We can tangle ourselves in knots when it comes to giving feedback (whether positive or corrective). Particularly us awkward Brits. We dress it up. Put frills and a bow on it. Ahhh – don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Or we feed people sandwiches. Then we get vexed when the recipient of this cat’s cradle of verbiage doesn’t appear to get it…
Here’s a simple point: actionable feedback – that is so clear the recipient is in no doubt about what they need to act upon – needs action words.
Here’s a simple clue: action words aren’t adjectives.
So when participants on Zoomly’s ‘How to Give Effective Feedback’ workshop start saying ‘aggressive’, ‘reactive’, ‘directive’, ‘passive’ in their feedback examples, they soon get the message that these adjectives can do more harm than good.
Why? Adjectives are subjective: the observer’s opinion. One observer may think someone’s being aggressive; another may think they’re being decisive. There’s a difference – who’s right? Both and neither – it’s their opinion, and that’s all it is. The recipient however, may rightly argue that they weren’t being aggressive, or may be unaware that’s how someone perceived them and worse, clueless as to what they did to prompt the criticism.
Here’s a simple tip: actionable feedback uses verbs.
Cue yet another example of the Brits in the room getting tangled in our own language. And those for whom English is a second or third language feeling very pleased with themselves, as they usually have the grammar thing nailed. (By the way, this issue has proved so widespread I’ve included a verbs cheat sheet in The Feedback Book).
Verbs – preferably active verbs – identify the behaviour in question. So our aggressive person may have shouted at or interrupted the person speaking. Or if they seemed decisive, the individual may have made a tough decision, clarified why they’d done so and then moved on. When we use active verbs we’re being so clear about the behaviour that warrants the feedback, an impartial observer would be able to back us up. So be wary of ‘know’ or ‘understand’ for example, as these aren’t active verbs. Thus the employee deemed to be ‘sloppy’ instead arrived late, and the rising star who’s seen as ‘proactive’ instead asks what needs to happen next and does it.
Here’s an exercise to do: switch your adjectives for verbs.
1.Think of someone in your team – anyone will do for this exercise, but you’ll get more benefit if the person is someone whose performance you are responsible for developing. Create two vertical columns and in the left-hand column, write down all the words that spring to mind when you think about how this person does their job.
2. Look back over your list and underline all the words that are adjectives – there will probably be quite a few, possibly the majority.
3. Now, in the right-hand column, for each of your adjectives identify the actual behaviour that has prompted you to apply the description. Remember, the left-hand column’s adjectives are your subjective opinion, formed by your perception of their behaviour. Switch the focus from you to them – what do they actually do? Check out the verbs (from A to W – feel free to come up with X, Y & Z!) in the word cloud if you need help.