Too often I encounter managers who obsess on how to give constructive and corrective in such a way that doesn’t make them sound overly critical, mean or if you’re a woman the dreaded “bitchy.”** The result a “feedback” session that skirts around the issue avoiding specific improvement steps which leaves the employee not understanding the gravity of the situation. Or, a blunt conversation that focuses on the big picture — “you’re letting the team down” or “you’re work is not up to par” or “you’re not cutting it” – that effectively conveys the serious performance issue without any of the specifics he/she needs to improve.

Feedback, positive or corrective, without specifics is a waste of time.

Feedback without Specifics is Just Noise As say often, “feedback is the gift” – a gift that keeps on giving. Indeed I dedicated a chapter to the topic in “Millennials & Management” and shared the most embarrassing feedback I received in my career, without which I would have been stuck wondering why I wasn’t advancing.

The feedback that I had to hear, absorb and apply was that my appearance was not professional enough for me to advance. My managers tried dropping me hints along the way but I could not hear them, because I didn’t understand what they were saying was for me. Finally Malinda took me and gave me very descriptive, very prescriptive feedback – literally from head to toe – about what I needed to do to present myself in a more professional way. I still get embarrassed when I tell the story, but with the details I was able to address the issues and correct the situation. In fact, they turned me loose on four other colleagues to give the same talk and coaching.

Earlier in my career, my new-to-leadership manager told me that I was “on the right track” but that I “could improve my writing.” When I asked what to do to become a better writer she said, “You know, get better.” I was left to my own devices to figure what that meant. Needless to say I left that job soon thereafter to go work for Malinda. A former magazine editor, Malinda gave great writing feedback: “don’t use the passive voice,” “mix up your sentence structure,” “if you write ‘in other words,’ delete what comes before it –specific instruction that I could apply myself to improve.

If you haven’t had the exact conversation that you’ve worked out in your head out loud with your employee, he has no idea about what’s getting in his way.

Sarah Green Carmichael of HBR IdeaCast recently interviewed Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of Zenger/Folkman who have used data to show the dramatic impact of specificity in criticism. You can listen to their podcast here.

Positive Feedback Needs To Be Specific Too

As Tom Rath explains in Are You Fully Charged, “simply telling someone they did a ‘good job’ on a project is nice but not very helpful…The more specific your language is during even brief interactions, the greater the influence.” He has a lot of other great things to say and I strongly encourage you to read his book – it will change how you show up every day for the better.

With this in mind, make sure you give positive “great job” feedback with the specifics that people can build on and make stronger. “Good writing” is an empty platitude that fades fast. Instead try specifics such as, “I like how you bring the issue to life with analogies and smart word choices,” or “great use of the active voice to deliver a strong, understandable message.” Now your employee can double down on what’s working, and self-edit for even stronger work.

Your responsibility to your colleagues is to be helpful and specific in a timely manner, so that everyone moves forward. Without it, you’re just talking…and who has time for that? No one, that would be no one.

** Bitchy is a term women should avoid using – you can read more about that here.

One Comment

  • Great post! It reminds me of the idea of “radical candor” which I hear about on First Round Review. Sugarcoated feedback isn’t helpful, quite the opposite!

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