Sharing constructive feedback using a 3-step approach

An easy to remember approach for giving constructive feedback in tough situations:

  1. State what you expected
  2. State what you observed
  3. State what you expect in the future

This approach is easy to remember and works for many situations, not just the tough ones. If you’re in a situation where you are having difficulty coming up with the right words to say, or the issue has grown large enough to become the big talk, or if you just want a simple way to broach an uncomfortable conversation, then start with this approach.

State what you expected

First, how you share your expectations is really important. You should state it - be understandable, be factual, and be direct. Importantly, your statement should be professional and without judgement of the individual. Saying "Joe, quit procrastinating and finish the import functionality" is less effective than "Joe, the customer needs this ready next week. The import functionality is a critical step that was due yesterday." While both examples are direct, the former assumes the employee is not working on his task.

Second, you should share your own expectations, not someone else's. Be wary of situations where you're trying to provide constructive feedback on behalf of another person. There may be cases where you have to do this, such as second-hand performance feedback from others on the team or an HR-led scenario where you're acting on behalf of the company. In these cases, you need to do everything you can to get the facts with enough certainty to frame it as your own expectations (or the company's).

Starting with your expectations accomplishes several things:

  • it lets you establish a foundation for the conversation in a non-confrontational, non-emotional way.
  • it forces you to have clear in your mind what you expected; if you don't have all the facts, then the rest of the conversation is going to go nowhere fast.
  • it lets the other person respond with whether or not they had the same understanding.

If the person doesn't share the same understanding of your expectations, then you have to ask yourself if they were clearly shared ahead of time. If not, then you should take responsibility and correct it. But the good news is that you can stop right there, take responsibility, and avoid what could have become a potentially damaging conversation.

If the person doesn't share the same understanding of your expectations and you're confident they were clearly shared ahead of time, then you can optionally state when the expectations were shared, and move on to the second step.

State what you observed

Just like before, your observations should be stated professionally and without judgement of the individual. You're also not judging the situation. Instead, you're stating what you saw or your understanding of the situation. Building on the previous example, it's better to say, "Joe, this is the third time you've missed a deadline," versus "Joe, you're always late."

At this point, the person may disagree. Often, they'll ask for examples if the observations are about their behavior. And they likely will be experiencing a range of emotions including embarrassment, anger, and resentment.

It's very important to not make this personal and not to take their comments or reactions personally. Keep in mind that the emotions they are feeling are normal and that you have the responsibility to keep the conversation as professional as possible. And in the case of requested examples, use this as an opportunity to move on to the third step.

State what you expect in the future

Your expectations of their future performance, actions, and behavior should be direct and clear. If this is your first time addressing the issue with the individual, then you must unambiguously address what you expect and when you expect it. This clarity gives them a greater opportunity to be successful. This clarity also provides a blueprint for the next conversation should that be required.

As a technology manager, you're working with professionals and they deserve to be treated as such. This means that you shouldn't be meting out consequences, but instead stating expectations in a way that they can be successful in their role (and you can be successful in yours). If the situation is severe enough to require consequences, then you must work with your internal HR group to manage that - don't go it alone.

As noted earlier, this third step is a good time to share examples. Be sure that the examples you are sharing link directly to the expected future performance. As much as possible steer clear of examples from the past and instead focus on future scenarios. Focusing on the past invites opportunities to spiral down into minutiae and will likely bring along emotions and perspectives that add little or no positive value to the current conversation. Finally, confirm that your employee understands and can meet your expectations. This can be as simple as asking, "Joe, do you understand what needs to happen on the next project? What tools, resources or other help do you need?"

Keeping the conversation focused on the future also lets you end the conversation in a positive way. If you're like most of us, you spend more time with your team than you do with your family. Treat them well, and don't pass up this opportunity to create a workplace that you both want to be successful in.

In a future post, we'll share constructive feedback examples using this 3-step approach.


Share with us: Have your own experiences that you'd like to share? Have a tough conversation that you handled well? Have an idea for a topic you'd like to hear more about? We want to know. Share with us below.