Today we talk all about powerful feedback in business. It‘s not easy, is it?
Therefore, I invited Jill Schiefelbein to talk with me about dynamic communication and especially about how to give feedback.
Jill Schiefelbein is an award winning business owner, speaker and author.
She taught business communication at Arizona State university for 11 years. She analyzed terrorist documents to help provide counter-terrorism messaging strategies to the military and she was a pioneer in the online education space.
How to give powerful feedback
She knows about communication. Today Jill is called the Dynamic Communicator. She creates and executes communication strategies for all kind of organisations.
Her latest book has the title: „Dynamic Communication: 27 strategies to grow, lead and manage your business.“ And it’s really worth reading if you watn to learn about poerful feedback. I’m happy to have her on my podcast today.
We are talking about the biggest mistakes when people give feedback in the workplace. But we also cover problems like:
- How can managers successfully criticese without being rude or offending?
- How can they still make a clear statement?
- What do you need to take care of when doing a formal performance review?
- How can an employee criticise his or her boss without hurting the relationship?
Here is my interview with Jill Schiefelbein talking about powerful feedback.
The inspiring quote
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernhard Shaw
Links for further information
- Website of Jill Schiefelbein
- Jills book: “Dynamic Communication: 27 strategies to grow, lead and manage your business.”
- How to give feedback
The transcript of my interview with Jill Schiefelbein:
Jill, most people will agree that feedback is essential when successfully working together. Now, I would like to know from you, what are the biggest mistakes when people give feedback in the workspace?
You know to me Bernd, feedback it’s really kind of like the motor oil that keeps a car’s engine running and without it, you’re going to break down and things will you know, stuff will build up over time, things won’t run as smoothly. And eventually it’s just chaos.
Or it fails to work at all. So, for me feedback, the mistake that I see a lot of people in organizations making is limiting feedback to more formal channels. So, you have maybe your annual performance reviews or you have you know, maybe you have a bi-annual performance review.
But, things that are more formalized instead of focusing on the minor feedback day to day. Or even you know, semiformal feedback that maybe you could do every bi-weekly or every month that would be more like maintenance instead of going in and having the whole engine taking out, you just have to change the oil routinely.
So, if I understand you correctly Jill, feedback is something which you need to do more or less daily if possible?
Ja, I think there’s always a place for it. And especially with the younger generations entering the workplace in force, I mean millennials are already a stronghold in the workplace. If we look at what comes next with Generation Z and beyond, it’s very much the expectation is regular feedback and not necessarily just daily but, almost every task that is completed.
And I’m not talking about the routine tasks, but if you’re given an assignment and you complete the assignment and your supervisor or manager gives you no feedback other than a thanks you don’t know what to do next. And so, we need to be very conscious that whenever there is completion on something or wherever there is clear progress made that we need to have opportunities for feedback conversations.
Ja, we have here in Germany a saying of one part in Germany if you don’t say anything that’s good enough, and I think that’s totally wrong. I think you will agree on that, correct?
It is one of my favorite axioms or sayings. Comes from a book that was written in 1975 by theorists, by the names of Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson, and in this book the pragmatics of human communication, they put out the idea that, one cannot not communicate.
Which means that it is impossible to not communicate and your silence actually communicates something. So, the lack of providing feedback actually communicates a lack of caring in many situations.
Ja, I fully agree. Now, how should managers if they give negative feedbacks, so it’s criticism, how should they take care that the criticism is really – comes over in the right way? So, that it’s without being rude or offending if you criticize your employee, but you still want to make clear that, this needs to be changed or that someone needs to do that in a different way in the future. How we should managers do that correctly in your opinion?
Well, for me I have three very clear rules to follow when giving feedback. And they work for both negative and positive feedback situations. And in fact, I’m going to go on a small tangent right now to kind of set up this answer if that’s okay with you?
Studies are showing that managers who believe that they are giving even positive feedback on a regular basis, but who don’t follow these three rules that I’m about to lay out for you will actually see either a stagnation, or a decline in productivity.
And that is when feedback isn’t directed, owned, avoiding disclaimers, and specific, we take it just kind of as a status quo. So for example, if I have a manager who is constantly saying, “Good job Jill, keep up the good work Jill. Nice work, awesome. You’re great, fantastic.” The manager thinks I’m an awesome manager, I’m providing positive feedback all the time.
Whereas, I don’t know what exactly I’m doing great, I don’t know why exactly I’m awesome. And so, the human nature would be, “Okay, I’m doing great. So, I don’t need to push harder.” So, I just kind of let it rest. #
It’s very generalized. So, I don’t know really what is it really I’m doing well? Correct?
Exactly. And when you don’t know what you’re doing well, you are just going to assume until you’re told otherwise that, “Okay, well I guess I’m just doing everything well so, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.” And I don’t actively look for will opportunities to improve because, okay great.
It’s just like even in school when you’d get a good mark on a paper, but you wouldn’t get any feedback. So, you’d make it a perfect score, but there’s no feedback about how you could develop or how you could push it even further.
You don’t know what you’re supposed to do. So, one of the three rules and I’ll be happy to give the other two as well is make sure that any feedback you give positive or negative is focused and specific, not generalized but very specific. And that it’s specific focused on a behavior and not a characteristic. This is important because characteristics we often don’t have in our immediate control to change. But, behaviors we can change.
So for example, if a characteristic of your personality is that you are a bit shy changing that or giving feedback on that is not going to be as impactful as giving feedback on a specific situation in which the shyness had an impact. And so, really being as specific as you can to the exact behavior and the variable surrounding that behavior is one of the three main rules that I have for giving good feedback.
Ja, that makes absolutely sense ja. Because the behavior you can change real characteristic of yourself. If you have a very high voice for example, and well you can’t change it. So ja, it makes absolutely sense ja, very good and specific. Ja.
It does. And the other two rules. The first one of which, and this is one of the things that I find people are doing wrong. So, more often than not and it’s such a simple change in a single word. But, a lot of times when people start off feedback conversations especially when they are corrective feedback conversations, they start with the word that verbally points a finger at someone and immediately puts them on the defensive.
And that word is you. You need to do this. You aren’t doing this right. You should do this. All of those things, but it takes us back to when we were young children. And I don’t know if it’s the same way in Germany, but in the United States if your parents yell at you using both your first and middle names, you know you’re in trouble, right, like you know.
Ja, no, that’s similar. Ja, I agree.
It’s not just, “Jill, get down here.” It’s, “Jill Schiefelbein.” And then you know you are in so much trouble. But, we have those things. And so, parents will use a name. But, other people who aren’t as close to you, it’s kind of this same thing as pointing that finger and saying, “You need to do this.” And whenever we hear that, the little kids inside of us, you know just kind of curl up. And we immediately go on the defensive.
So, what you need to do – I just even said that. What you need to do, if you’d like to improve your feedback in this situation, the thing to do is substitute the word I for the word you, and then put a descriptor in there. So, I realize. I know. I believe. I feel. I’ve observed. I’ve noticed. I’ve noticed that you – and then lay out something specific.
It just sets a tone of a conversation in such a different way. And that ability for someone to be more receptive of what you have to say, especially when you need corrective action is very important.
It’s more a subjective way how you open the other person if I understand that correctly. If you say, “You need to do this.” They’re getting defensive. If you say, “Well, I recognize that you’ve done this and this and I felt that this was doing in this and this way.” Then it’s a totally different feedback. It’s more like a present to give to someone to see how I see him. Is that the way you would go in with this more?
That’s absolutely one way to interpret it. The other way to interpret it is that you’re opening up a conversation. When you start with the word you, you’re giving a command.
But, if you start with I it opens a conversation and in many cases you can actually get down to the root cause of why that behavior happened in the first place. But, if you start off by pointing a finger, you’re not likely to get there.
Ja, it makes absolute sense. Now I’m very interested for the third one.
Ja, so the next one is – so the other three. So, we have the you know, own your feedback. That’s what I call the first rule like using I instead of you.
And being specific and behavioral in the feedback we’ve talked about. The other one is avoid disclaimers and apologizing. And this may not be as common in other parts of the world, but in the United States, in North America, in general, I find people apologizing for nothing. “Oh, I’m sorry.” “Sorry to bother you.” “Sorry to do this.” When there’s actually no reason to be sorry.
Because for example, if I would say, “Sorry to interrupt you, but I need –” No, knock on the door. “Excuse me, I need.” There’s no, “Sorry to bother you.” Because if you were really sorry you would have found another way to get the information.
So, it’s really when you say things like, “I’m sorry” or “I just wanted to see if” or “I’m not sure if you feel the same way but” those things are all forms of apologies and disclaimers that actually take the power of the corrective effect away from your feedback opportunity.
Ja, it weakens the feedback. Ja, I understand.
It does. And when we also say those things, people don’t take us seriously everything that comes after that disclaimer or after that apology. Because if I say, “Bernd, I’m sorry we have to meet today, but we need to discuss” it sets up a completely different tone than you know, “Bernd, thanks for being here, we need to discuss.”
Very, very different, but yet it’s just so commonplace to use those words without even thinking about it. So, we have to be very conscious of what we’re saying in these situations.
Ja, there’s one thing what I was a missing in your three major mistakes. And I would like to hear your take on it and that’s if you really give feedback to someone, I feel that it’s more and more successful to do that if it’s under four eyes. So, if no one else is in the room, then I can give other kinds of feedback than if others are in the room, would you agree with that?
In most situations, yes. It always depends on the team culture and how the expectations have been set up within an organization. But in general, yes. I like to say we criticize in private, we praise in public.
So, when people are being praised in public and again in a very specific and behavior focused way, it can serve as a motivator for the team. But, even in that situation having those praise conversations one on one are also very, very important because you can go into a little more depth with the person on exactly what you appreciate, where you could be a little more general at the team level.
Ja, I agree. What I also would like to know if you’re a communication expert, what is it about this kind of giving feedback in a sandwich way? So, you know this, “Oh, you’re such a great person, you’re such a great employee, but ja, you need to slightly make it better.” But then, “You’re great.” What’s your take on this kind of sandwich feedback?
So, there’s two different perspectives on it. And for me the literal interpretation that most people understand just like what you said and how a lot of people train on is actually more damaging than helpful.
Because what follows the, but, is not often listened to. So, “Yay, this is such a great podcast. I love being on the show, but you know what I’m happy to do this.” We don’t remember the disclaimers. It kind of even ties back into my rules, right?
It’s a disclaimer that’s going at the beginning before you get to the course of action. Now, where I believe the sentiment of the theory comes from and I don’t think this is clearly explained anywhere, the sentiment is that over time we should focus on giving more positive than negative feedback, over time. Now, that’s not what the sandwich model says.
But, I believe that to kind of be at the heart of it, is that if all we’re ever receiving from a manager is negative feedback, it’s going to impact us negatively. But, that’s why the saying that you said earlier like if I don’t hear anything, I assume everything’s fine is actually detrimental. Because then when you do hear something, the only time you hear things is when it’s negative and that builds up on a person’s psyche.
So, to me the sandwich model in individual feedback instances, no, it’s actually more harmful and more damaging than good. But, the idea of giving just as much if not more positive feedback that again is owned avoids disclaimers and is specific and behavioral over time. That is the spirit of it.
Ja, I fully agree with that. That’s also my take on that. We already spoke about the performance reviews, which in some companies I think that’s the same here in Germany. That you just say, “Okay, we have to do that every year with our employee and he gets the feedback.” And these kinds of performance reviews in my feel are very often not very useful.
And you already said it that it’s we should give feedback much more often. I found it very interesting, this kind of one on ones where you really plan with your employee once a week or every two weeks, a really 20 minutes where you only talk precisely on not just feedback, but to build a personal relationship. What do you think about this kind of planned one on ones?
I think we need to have them built in. And I think they need to be things that are taken seriously in organizations and not a meeting that can be just passed off like, “Oh, you know it’s not essential to our day to day operations.” But, in reality it is essential because if you’re not again, keeping the engine running smoothly, the day to day operations are going to break down.
And so, what I would like to see implemented in organizations across the world is a more semi-formal monthly conversation where those data points are documented and collected, which then make the annual reviews for the raises for the board of directors for the things that we need to do.
Especially in public companies, government institutions, etcetera, all of those things where we have these antiquated, but still existing systems of having to put these annual performance reviews forward. You know, but we’re building them 12 months in the making.
Not just, “Wow, this last quarter was bad and it’s going to adversely impact how I’m viewing the performance review.” Just for the happen stance that that happens to show up in a bad quarter. And that’s not fair to anyone involved. But, when you have more documented data that you can analyze over time and see where people are at, it helps.
The other purpose of these weekly, oh sorry excuse me, monthly meetings it’s not just from a feedback standpoint, but it’s also how are the employees tracking towards their own personal and professional development goals? So, it’s not just the, “Oh here’s what you’re doing well and here’s what needs to be improved.” It’s “Alright, what have you done this month to actively push towards the goal that you stated when you first started working here that you want to be involved in x, y, z procedure?”
And managers who get employees who stay around longer are invested in both their professional and their personal development and finding ways to be able to implement that and integrate that within those monthly conversations I feel is very important.
Ja, I agree with that. I also see a third point here with the one on ones which full beside if they are not done, which I observed here in Germany very often you get a deeper relationship with your employee if you really do that at least once a month. Because it’s time you spend as a manager or executive which you really invest in your employee.
And if what I recognize is all the people have under very much of stress. And time is a very problem for most of the people to spend. And if they don’t do it in the calendar for this kind of one on ones, it could be that after half a year they say, “Oh ja, I haven’t spoken to John for a long time.”
So, I think it’s also a point that they get a closer relationship and a deeper understanding which is important for the trust level between the employee and the supervisor. Would you agree with that?
I completely agree with that. And one of the things and the pushback I get when talking with managers about this is, “Well, 20 minutes a month that’s a lot of time.” Well okay, so 20 minutes a month is an hour a quarter, which means four hours a year. If you have to replace that person, you’re going to be spending significantly more than four hours training and getting a new person up to speed.
And we know that the number one reason people leave jobs is management, not money. So, not investing in this you know, four hours a year per employee. If you do a 20 minute monthly meeting is going to cost you way more time and money in the long run. But, typically we don’t think about that. We think, “Wow, I’m losing this time now.” Not “Well, by doing this I’m gaining a lot of time in the future.”
Ja, it’s always the problem that if you’re doing this kind of leadership, it’s the long-term benefits you get. Short-term, if you don’t do it, you have short-term, you’ll have more time. But, in the long-term you lose a lot of time. You lose credibility. You lose trust. Ja, I absolutely agree.
Jill, I have one issue here with speaking a lot about how to give feedback to the employee. Now let’s go to the other side. Should an employee criticize his or her boss? And if yes, how can an employee give feedback to the boss without hurting the relationship or getting into trouble?
It’s a very, very good question. And I will shift the term criticism and just say giving feedback. We’ll just keep it kind of a neutral term because conflict for example, the word conflict most people feel as a negative term. But, conflict in fact is inevitable when you have more than one person working on something because we’re not the same.
Now, how conflict is handled takes it from being a neutral term to being either positive or negative. And I think the same is true for feedback. So, making sure – and this is something that I’ve studied a lot and there’s actually a chapter in my book on this and I call it directional communication, is you need to know what direction your communication is going.
And this is from an organizational hierarchical perspective or a perceived hierarchy. So, if someone for example perceives that they have power over you and you’re having trouble getting through to them, it’s probably because you’re communicating at them like a peer or maybe like some an employee instead of someone like a boss. So, there’s three levels, there’s upward, downward and lateral or peer level communication.
And if you have feedback or issues that you need to bring up to your manager, you’re communicating in this upward direction. So, it’s really important to go into these meetings with certain frames of mind. You want to go in with an amount of politeness and respect to the authority.
So, you know for example, “Thank you for meeting with me today Bernd. I know you know, at your level, at your job, whatever you have a packed schedule. And I’m really grateful you had time to see me, to talk about –” And then get right to the point, specific issue that you want to talk about.
And then also when giving that feedback, balancing it out. Again, using the three roles we talked about earlier, but also taking into consideration more of the company needs, the mission, the vision, the values, the purpose of the company. And so, whatever you’re going to suggest if there’s a confusion of how maybe it doesn’t fit, make sure you’re tying in bigger organizational picture issues to that conversation. And that’s a strategy in terms of communicating upward.
And unfortunately some companies don’t have that culture where that’s easily allowed. But, the other thing you can do if you don’t have that culture set up or if you’re not sure, you know, “Thank you for meeting with me. I would like to speak about this. Do I have your permission to give you my unfiltered observations?” Asking for permission to do that.
And then it’s on the manager to say, “No, I actually don’t want to hear that. Here’s what I want to hear about.” And guide the conversation, which is within their full rights to do. And that can actually be very impactful. They can say, “No.” Which very clearly communicate something or they can say “Yes.”
It’s one of three options that you’re going to get. Two of those three are going to advance the conversation forward. The third one, there’s probably a much deeper rooted issue at play.
Ja, and what’s at least here in Germany, I suppose it will be similar in the US you can say to your boss a lot of things, but do it under four eyes. Because he also plays a role so, if you do that when others are in the room, it is much more difficult even if you’re using the terms, asking for permission. Because a lot of people feel that they have to defend themselves and they don’t want to do that in a group very often. Is that similar in your opinion?
Yes. It’s so very true. And it’s again it’s anything that could potentially be perceived as negative, keep that private. Keep it between the two people or whoever is involved only. And you know it’s coming to people to solve a problem is also fine as well. I think about a supervisor I had when I was in the academic space. And this supervisor misspoke at a meeting.
At the time I was leading a massive online education effort and the dean of the college that I was working within was my direct boss. We both went to a meeting together. And he actually misspoke in the meeting, something that was factually incorrect about what we’re doing. And there’s one of those options. Do you right there in the meeting correct? In this case it was a him, correct him right in the meeting? Or do you sit and wait later?
And so, what I did was not counter him in the meeting. I just said, “And another perspective to this is. So, if you have questions you can talk to both of us about this.” Outside of the meeting approached him and said, “Jack, I want you to know why I said the different perspectives is because with the new system the university just integrated, what you said is no longer factually correct. And I’m sure you just didn’t know that.”
You know and he goes, “Oh, thank you so much for telling me. I’m really glad you spoke up.” But, if I would have said, “Actually Jack, that’s not correct” in front of the whole faculty babies that would not have been the best move.
Ja, so you took care that he didn’t lose his face.
Exactly. And sometimes it’s just a simple phrase or making a more factually correct statement if it’s public. So, you know he said one statement then I could say, “And within the new system that we just adopted, here is how this functions” instead. You know, it’s just still stating facts. And you can state facts. And you can state differences opinion without putting someone down.
Ja. I like especially the wording you used, and instead of, but. Just these small words already make a big difference. That’s great. I love that.
I am obsessed with the small simple semantic changes that you can make in language that really make a big difference over time. So, much so that they’re so – the word we would use is incipient. You don’t even know they’re hiding there, but they have this power. And it’s not you know, relevant and like obvious to everybody. But, when you do it over time with consistency, you’ll see a notable difference in your culture.
Ja. Now, using this kind of wording I would like to hear your take on my last question. And that’s what were you doing if you were in a project meeting and well, the going gets tough, you’re more in the lateral area with colleagues and one of your colleagues verbally attacks you. How should you behave? What’s an appropriate response in such situations?
The best thing you can do from my perspective, especially when someone’s mad at you in a public setting, is number one, recognize their frustration. In some way, shape, or form the worst thing you can do is ignore and move on. Because then a person who’s already mad is going to now feel mad and ignored. And that’s just not a good place for anyone to be.
So, let’s pretend you know that my manager well, we’ll just go back to Jackson. Since I used that term so, Jack is very upset with me in a meeting and kind of you know, publicly defaces me. What I can do is go back to those three rules of feedback that I gave you and say, “I understand from what you just said, that you’re frustrated with –” and name something specific. Is that accurate?
So, really own it. Say, “I understand” or “I heard” or you know, “From what you just said, I believe that you feel” you know, owning those statements as much as you can. And then put it back as a question. It’s a de-escalation technique.
You know, let’s say you and I were arguing Bernd and I said, “I believe I understand what you’re saying Bernd, is that you’re very frustrated that I wanted to do this and that didn’t fit within the model that you had laid out for the team. Am I understanding that correctly?”
Ja, that’s cool. So, you recognize my anger and you try to by giving me this kind of a feedback board you understand, you try to deescalate the situation.
You do. And what happens oftentimes in a group is if one person is having a hard time cooling down if I’ve handled it professionally in that way and I ask a question, “Am I understanding that correctly?” You either have a yes or a no response. And if it’s a no, then we can get down to the bottom of it. If it’s a yes, likely then people recognize it’s been a little deescalated.
And then I can if you don’t respond back, I could say. “Okay, I’m glad I understand correctly. In your opinion, what should the next step be then” Or in your opinion, what one thing should be changed first?” Again, getting very specific with the questions so that it’s not a, I’m not on the defensive. I call it I’m on the discovery.
And if you take that position from curiosity and being willing to discover what is making someone really upset, it positions you in a place of power and control and it lets you now steer the conversation. So, it’s a strategic move on two parts.
Ja, so the first one is recognize it. And then give the ball back and try to discover more in depth what is it really we’re talking about? Why are you so mad on me, or something like that, correct?
Exactly. And at some point other people can get involved in the conversation too, but the mistake I feel people make right off the bat is let’s say you say something very not nice to me in a meeting and I slammed down my hands and say, “Well, do the rest of you feel that way too?”
And there’s nothing productive that’s going to come immediately from that. So, you first have to make sure everyone is on the same page with what the disagreement is actually on. And then you can move forward in that conversation.
Ja, makes sense. Oh, I think we got a lot of great insights regarding feedback. I liked especially what we talked about in the beginning the three major mistakes. If you’re not specific, if you’re not focused, if you do give feedback, better say I instead of you.
And it’s very important to avoid the disclaimers. No sorry’s, no apologies if there’s nothing to apologize. I liked that very much. And Jill, I like to thank you very much for being on the podcast and giving us great tips for better communication for dynamic communication. Thank you.
Thank you so much for having me.