what good feedback looks like: situation – behavior – impact

03/01/2011

by anne lueneburger

noun \ˈfēd-bak\

Kirsten[1] is a doctor and head of a medical program for a top ranked hospital in the US. A highly competent and confident doctor in her mid thirties, Kirsten confided in me that she had found herself shying away from confrontation and conflict throughout her life and her career. However, as an emerging leader within her department, she increasingly had to assume managerial responsibility over other members of staff, which naturally required her to both encourage performance and, at the same token, take corrective action where required. So she asked me: “How can I become more effective at giving feedback?”

The term ‘feedback’ first surfaced in the 1920s and grew out of the broadcasting industry. Its origin refers to the squawking sound made when the volume of a microphone was set incorrectly. Sounds that enter a microphone were referred to as feeds, and as a result any unpleasant sounds following the feeds were called feedback.

Over subsequent decades the term has been adopted within a variety of disciplines. In the business world it has become synonymous with ‘taking the temperature’ of executive performance. In fact, there are few leaders who have not been in contact with the broadly used (and often dreaded) 360-degree feedback assessment tools.

Giving feedback does not have to be challenging

More often than not, the tendency is to shy away from feedback. We have come to associate feedback with ‘criticism’. It is rare that the term is used exclusively in a positive context. At best, a feedback session with one’s supervisor is a ‘mixed bag’ of good and bad news…

Unsurprisingly, leaders often dread giving feedback too. Giving feedback can feel awkward and, as with Kirsten, take us out of our comfort zone. As a result the reaction we experience with giving feedback is often a defensive one. The outcome tends to be less than what we had hoped for, and sometimes even interferes with a productive and creative work environment.

The good news: giving feedback does not have to be dreadful! In coaching we frequently use the SBI feedback technique (short hand for Situation-Behavior-Impact) as developed by the Center for Creative Leadership:

Graph: SBI method of feedback

Situation

The key here is to be specific. Describing the context such as the time, location and any other information will contribute to the clarity of the message. More importantly, it allows us to avoid the common ‘trap’ of using generalities and exaggerations that not only dilute the message, but risk creating unwanted emotional reactions. NB: To be able to offer specific feedback it is best not to wait too long after an incident before sharing your impressions.

Also, when leading in to a feedback session, if you do feel uncomfortable giving feedback, we encourage our clients to acknowledge this by saying something like, “as I am sharing this with you, I am aware that I feel ill at ease”. This simple yet clear statement allows you to acknowledge your own state, whilst also diminishing some of the anxiety the receiver may be experiencing. On the other hand, opening a feedback session by saying something like, “I have some negative feedback to give you.” Or, “You are not going to enjoy hearing this…”, creates unwarranted anxiety.

Behavior

This is the most important part of feedback. It is also the easiest to get wrong. The most challenging aspect for the majority of us is to describe the behavior in an objective, non-judgmental fashion. The key is to avoid bringing in a person’s individual characteristics and to focus instead specifically on a person’s actions. It’s helpful here is to use verbs, not adjectives. Rather than saying “you seemed clueless when you interacted with the patient”, say: “you struggled for words when you explained the patient’s chart to your colleague”.

Pulling in your vulnerability (outside of the giving feedback role) such as “I had the same issues in the past”, or softening your feedback with: “you were rude with your colleague, but I also realize you had a high work load at the time”, will only dilute the message and reduce feedback effectiveness.

Behavior does not only encompass the “what”, but also the “how” – the way in which the message is delivered. Variables such as body language, tone of voice, speaking manner and choice of words all contribute to the situation and should be considered part of the feedback message where appropriate.

Impact

The third part of giving effective feedback is to share what impact the other person has had on you. It’s not useful to speculate about a third party’s reaction to behavior so focus on yourself and, more importantly, share a point of view and encourage the other person to view the concerned behavior from another perspective. This creates trust in the dialog, which in turn leads to better overall communication and ultimately builds stronger relationships.

Acknowledge how the behavior affected you personally as it is hard to argue with how you react to a certain behavior, since these are your emotions. An example could be “Last week at our staff meeting when you said that you consider our new patient initiative useless, it made me feel ‘run over’”. Offering an interpretation about the other person’s behavior such as “Last week at our meeting you showed disrespect for our new patient initiative” risks a fruitless discussion as the recipient can argue with your way of judging their behavior.

So, putting SBI together, you can practice giving feedback using this ‘formula’:

”Last [date/day/time] during our [point of interaction, specific situation] , when you did/said [behavior], I felt [impact].”

And as you end your feedback, I recommend to use an open question such as “What do you think can we do to avoid a similar situation in the future?”,  “What are your thoughts on this?” or “I would love to feel more comfortable sharing what is on my mind with you moving forward, what do you suggest would facilitate this?”

Back to Kirsten…

Following our coaching session, Kirsten had to reprimand a member of staff who was not interacting constructively with the rest of the team. The data was in her hand in the form of employee feedback and, while previously her inclination would have been to present her colleague with the facts and add her interpretation such as: “On several occasions (not a specific observed situation) you were rude (judgment, not a fact) to some of the residents and seemed uninterested (interpretation, not a fact) in their reactions to your reprimands and not only do the residents but also our patients find this unacceptable (not the impact on Kirsten, but on others)”, Kirsten resolved to try the SBI method.

So her feedback went more like this: “I have received an employee evaluation form for you as part of our departmental feedback process. The results trouble me and I’ll share them with you in a moment. First I want to discuss an incident last Wednesday during patient rounds when I observed you raising your voice with one of our residents in front of the patient – you interrupted the resident and ignored the fact that a patient was listening in. It made me feel uncomfortable and I was embarrassed that the patient was witnessing the dispute. Can you tell me your perspective on this? ”

Kirsten has now taken the first step to opening a relevant dialog with her colleague, allowing them as a team to take a closer and more meaningful look at what is going wrong, and what it will take to make it right.

This simple yet powerful model for giving feedback has worked for many of our coaching clients. While using it effectively does take practice, it gets you started on a life-long journey of getting better at sharing your thoughts (critical and appreciative ones) and supporting both your own and other people’s growth and development. More importantly, on your road to success you are more likely to build allies, rather than enemies. And as we do know from research on success (and happiness): other people really do matter.


[1] Identity and context have been changed to protect the confidentiality of our client

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