Use the right kind of feedback to get the most from your team

People often ask “what is feedback?”  It’s a hard question to answer because not all feedback is the same, as we all know both from giving and receiving it.  All feedback involves giving people information about their jobs, but the kind of information and what it does is very different.  Different kinds of feedback include:Men discussing kinds of feedback

  • Positive versus corrective (or negative) feedback
  • Specific, detailed feedback versus general feedback
  • Task-related feedback versus effort-related or supportive feedback
  • Outcome feedback versus process feedback
  • Short-term or specific feedback versus long-term or developmental feedback
  • Directive versus exploratory

Different kinds of feedback accomplish different things, and should be used differently.  The key is to be clear on what you want to accomplish with the feedback (or to put it another way – what your employee needs help with), and to tailor your feedback to your specific goal.  Learn more about the different goals of feedback here.  If you’re trying to build trust with an employee, or you’re helping a new employee, your feedback will be very different than if you are trying to get maximum performance on a short deadline.  Feedback is definitely NOT one-size-fits-all.  And when we ask “what is feedback”, the answer is lots of things depending on what you need to accomplish as a leader.

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Positive Feedback vs. Corrective Feedback

Positive feedback tells the person what they’re doing well while corrective feedback tells them where they need to improve or what they are not doing well.

People, of course, like to receive positive feedback but they view it as less helpful or valuable than corrective feedback because it does not help them see what they could do better. Positive feedback makes people feel good and can be motivating, and helps to establish trust in you as someone who values and understands the employee’s contribution.  It also can be very useful for an employee who lacks confidence or experience.  But positive feedback alone will not help most people improve and will often leave problems hidden, resulting in more significant issues later.

Corrective feedback can of course upset people or cause them to become defensive or demotivated and so must be given well, but it is the most powerful feedback in terms of helping people improve because it provides specific areas where they should change. Too much corrective feedback is very demotivating, and can create the impression that you are out to get an employee or are unfairly negative, and can seriously undermine employees’ engagement.  General negative feedback in particular (“you did a really bad job on this”, “you expect me to give this to the CEO?”) can be very demotivating for employees because it feels very personal for them and it does not help them understand how to improve.


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Specific vs. General Feedback

Specific feedback provides detailed ,or specific information on what the employee did well or poorly.  For example “the way you crafted these articles to fit togethre to take the client through the sales process is very good”.  General feedback on the other hand is very non-specific, such as “good job” or “you did great.”  General feedback, for the most part, is not very helpful for employees.  And it creates the impression that you have not thought in depth about their work.

Task-related Feedback vs. Effort-related Feedback

Task-related feedback is specific to the particular project – how was the project done well and how was it not.  Effort-related feedback on the other hand relates to the effort or initiative the person took on the project.  Task-related feedback is effective at helping people do specific activities better.  But often even projects that are performed well will not turn out as expected.  Effort-related feedback rewards the process and effort.  For example, a new salesperson may do everything well and not make the sale.  Task-related feedback provides information on which steps were done well or not, while effort-related feedback helps the person understand if the way they did the work was correct (and over time should result in more success).  Effort-related feedback can be particularly effective for tasks where the result is often negative (like sales) and motivation and rewarding a job well done is important to keep the person focused and engaged and to encourage them to stick with the process even though it was not successful this time.


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Outcome Feedback vs. Process Feedback

Outcome feedback focuses on the outcome or result – was the answer correct, did the product work, etc.  Process feedback, on the other hand, focuses on how the project was done and the way the person went about the project.  Process feedback may include things like did the person ask the right questions or collect the right data, did they check the product properly to see if it worked, etc.  Process feedback tends to be more effective at helping build skills or ability to do the project while outcome feedback is more effective at achieving a positive outcome on the task at hand but does not tend to foster long-term growth.

Short-term Feedback vs. Long-term Feedback

Short-term feedback focuses on projects in the near term and tends to be more specific, such as how the person performed on the last project.  Long-term feedback focuses on longer term goals, such as growing to the next level or achieving major career milestones.  Short-term feedback tends to be more focused, while long-term feedback is broader, relating to how the person does the job rather than specific tasks.


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Directive Feedback vs. Exploratory Feedback

Directive feedback tells the recipient what to do, or how to do it. It’s a statement or direction like “you need to do X like this”. Exploratory feedback is a conversation, or questioning, to cause the recipient to think about and develop opinions on what to do or how to do it like “what different ways do you think you could do X?”  Exploratory feedback is helpful for encouraging employees to develop thinking and problem-solving skills and to expand the way they see problems.  But it can be extremely frustrating if the person needs help on the project in the short-term.  As a result, exploratory feedback should be used fairly sparingly, and you should talk about the kind of feedback you are giving and let the employee know why you are using  this style to avoid frustration.

Why Does It Matter?

So the answer to “what is feedback” is really a lot of answers – feedback all means giving information to people about their jobs but what that information varies a lot.  Understanding different kinds of feedback is very helpful for making sure that your feedback is appropriate for the goal you are trying to achieve.  No feedback, or training on how to give feedback, is right for every situation, and understanding how different kinds of feedback work helps you tailor your feedback for the employee situation. Your feedback also will be more helpful if the person understands the kind of feedback you are giving, and what specifically you are talking about. For example, if the other person believes that you are talking about a specific task while you are actually talking more broadly, then they will not realize that the feedback relates to other projects.

Try to be clear yourself as you prepare feedback, and be clear with the other person on what you are telling them.


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