December 13, 2018

6 Questions to Ask Before Giving Feedback


Giving feedback is a regular part of any job. Some people are placaters, giving generic praise whether it’s warranted or not. They aim to please, but nobody likes a yes-man. Others have a habit of going on the warpath, listing anything and everything wrong in excruciating detail. Critics like that don’t make for harmonious working relationships or productive projects.

It’s understandable why many choose to punt. Giving honest, helpful feedback is a lot of work. It requires time, attention, and diplomacy.

How should you give input? When is it appropriate to do so? Here are six questions to ask yourself before the next time you give feedback:

1. What Are They Asking?

Read between the lines to suss out what the person asking for feedback is actually seeking. An apparent request for feedback might actually be someone asking for permission, help, or approval.

If your associate sends a message that says, “Let me know if you have any reactions to this before I send to corporate,” they’re primarily keeping you in the loop, not really asking for an in-depth response. If the sender is simply offering a status update, listing everything you find problematic about a project will not be productive.

2. Am I the Best Person to Give This Feedback?

If someone is asking for your reaction to something that is outside of your purview or department, feel free to direct them to the best source. Your reply doesn’t need to be lengthy: “I think Elizabeth might have a better handle on this. Let me know if you need additional feedback after you’ve heard from her.” Some people may intentionally be seeking an exterior perspective, but others just might not understand the proper chain of command or team dynamics.

3. What Is My Most Important Observation?

When looking at another person’s work, we always see a lot of things we would have done differently. You gain credibility — and increase your chances of being heard — by distilling your message down to one or two key points. Whether criticism or praise, your message will carry more weight when you are thoughtful and selective. Edit your feedback to the essential points.

4. What Is My Motivation?

It is always important to step back and consider why you are reacting the way you are. Are you genuinely motivated by a desire to improve the project, or are you seeking to show everyone you’re the smartest person in the department? Do your best to set personality differences aside and work for the good of the team. Your motive will show through to the person receiving the feedback. If you have the other person’s best interests at heart, they will be more receptive to your message.

5. What Might Be the Result of My Silence?

Giving negative feedback can be very uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to help people avoid embarrassing outcomes down the line. Particularly if you are a supervisor, you might be handicapping an employee’s growth by not being frank with them.

Conversely, keeping your snide comments to yourself can help a department function more smoothly. Before opening your mouth, consider the outcome from the outset.

6. Am I Willing to Deal With the Consequences?

If you speak up, there may be ramifications. Be prepared to explain your perspective, and be willing to help with any necessary course corrections. Giving feedback is not something you can do and then walk away from. By giving feedback, you are agreeing to be part of a conversation.

If, after asking yourself these questions, you’ve decided it is your place to give feedback, you should follow a few best practices when offering your insight:

  1. Be clear and concise: Don’t overexplain. Less is more with feedback.
  2. Stick to the essentials: Don’t get sidetracked by the minor details. Stay focused on the most important part of your message.
  3. Consider your tone: Ask yourself how you would like to be approached about this matter. The Golden Rule is a valuable guide for many things, including giving feedback.
  4. Be specific and avoid value judgements: Instead of “This is a terrible idea,” say, “Does this initiative fit with the scope of the project?” Point to particular instances and details, and be concrete in your suggestions.
  5. Take a beat: If it’s a particularly important review, write your feedback, set it aside, and look it over with fresh eyes the next day. You don’t want your comments to muddy the waters.

By approaching feedback thoughtfully, you are showing great respect to your colleagues. You will build a reputation for candor and honesty that others will deeply value. Honest feedback fosters relationships of trust and collaboration.

Cheryl Hyatt is partner at Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search.

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With more than 20 years of executive-search consulting experience, Cheryl Hyatt has been responsible for successfully recruiting senior administrative professionals for educational and nonprofit organizations. Before partnering with Dr. Fennell, Cheryl was president and owner of The Charitable Resources Group, where she provided both executive search services and fundraising consulting to the clients she served. Cheryl brings more than 30 years of management and organizational leadership experience to her role with clients. Her breadth of experience, knowledge, and contacts makes her sought-after professionally in her field. Cheryl has written articles and presented to various nonprofit groups. She sits on various local nonprofit boards, offering a variety of expertise to each organization. Hyatt-Fennell brings more than 60 years of combined, highly successful executive search expertise to its clients, a reputation for achieving results on the national and international level, and the ability to place top executives with higher educational institutions nationwide. The executive search firms of Gallagher~Fennell Higher Education Services and The Charitable Resources Group merged in 2010 to formalize their partnership and create Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search.