Great bosses avoid ‘one-size-fits-all’ feedback

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Feedback is one of the most important tools in a manager’s toolkit, and too often, it is underutilized.

It’s not just that bosses withhold it — although sadly, some do — it’s that those who dispense it need to upgrade it.

To understand what I mean, here’s my definition of this critical tool: Feedback is information with intent to influence.

Let’s break down those components.

Information: To be effective, feedback needs to have substance. Specifics. Examples. Ideas.

Consider the difference between: “Great job on that story” and “What I really liked about your story was the clear diversity of sources.”

Intent: Your feedback isn’t accidental or casual. You’re proactive about feedback because it’s part of your commitment as a leader.

Influence: You craft your feedback for each person so it has maximum impact on the individual and their work. You know exactly what you’re trying to grow through your thoughtful communication.

I recently asked a class of managers what things they thought feedback could influence. Here’s the list we compiled in a matter of minutes:

  • Morale
  • Quality
  • Competence
  • Behavior
  • Awareness
  • Relationships
  • Responsiveness
  • Motivation
  • Self-image
  • Professionalism

Every time I make a list like that with leaders, I follow up by asking them a question; If there were a product for sale that could produce results like that, would you buy it and use it? The answer is an obvious yes. 

And then I point out that feedback costs you nothing. It’s a renewable natural resource that I sincerely believe goes untapped. Feel free to disagree with me, but only if your career has been awash in helpful feedback. I’ve yet to meet that person. But I’ve met countless people who would appreciate more and better feedback, both positive and negative.

What they really appreciate is feedback that is custom-tailored for them. From a boss who knows them well enough to understand their strengths and weaknesses, plus their hopes and fears. From a boss who levels with them about how they’re doing so they don’t have to guess. From a boss who knows, on any given day, whether the conversation should be designed to influence morale or quality or motivation — and sculpts it accordingly. From a boss who not only does all that, but ties it to the organization’s overall strategic goals, so the employee’s success is integral to the organization’s aspirations.

Here’s an assignment for you. List a few people who report to you. Then think about what it is you would like them to do more of or less of, stop or start — or keep doing just the way they do it. In other words, the things you’d like to influence. Think about their own goals (which you should know), along with their unique personalities, work and communication styles. 

Then, very intentionally, create a feedback prescription for each. Fill it with specificity and sincerity. Deliver it — update it — and keep delivering. Then enjoy the impact.

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