The Four F’s of Feedback

[this is  a summer re-post series re-post]

Fast, Friendly, Frequent, Focused

Giving feedback sucks. For whatever reason many managers aren’t good at it. I won’t list all the reasons I’ve heard , but I’m sure you can think back to some of your own, perhaps from bitter experience.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

It doesn’t have to be torturous, drown-out, or dramatic. My clients who give fast, friendly, frequent, and focused feedback to their staff  have found it doesn’t take very long to see huge changes in performance, both individually and at the team level.


10 seconds is all you need to give feedback. Longer that that you’re not getting to the point. Think about what you want to say, then say it. End of story. Don’t make a big deal about it. Giving feedback should be as natural as breathing for a leader. Treat it that way.


Giving somebody feedback is an act of love. You’re trying to help them get better. Helping people do better is part of your job. It’s not the end of the world. If the person you’re giving feedback to treats it that way, it’s their choice, and that’s a different conversation.

Keep it friendly, keep it relaxed, keep it informal. Remember also that while positive feedback isn’t as powerful a kick in the pants as constructive feedback, it’s more likely to result in the behaviour you want. You just have to give it more often. Catch them doing something right.


My wife was driving back from giving a presentation in small-town Saskatchewan once. It was late, it had been a long day, and she was tired. She fell asleep in one town and woke up in another 50 kilometers later when the smell of farmers burning their fields got her attention. Good thing the highways in Saskatchewan are so straight.

Usually when we’re driving we are continuously making small corrections using the steering wheel, instead of waiting just before we hit the ditch to yank on the wheel to get us back on course. Feedback is the same thing.

Start by giving feedback once a day. You’ll quickly see what difference it makes, and you’ll want to do it more often.


By focused I mean specific and actionable. Tell them what you want them to do, what behaviour you want them to change (or keep doing), or what physical, tangible action they need to take in order to improve for next time. Feedback is useless if the target of your feedback doesn’t know what to do with it.


Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

How Often Should I Give Feedback?

[this is  a summer report series repost]

My Smart House Cat

Sometimes our cat thinks she’s a dog. I believe this because when we house-trained our dog, we hung bells from the back door knob and he learned to ring them with his nose when he needed to go out. Persephone (my daughter named the cat for the Queen of the Underworld, which says more about my daughter than the cat, but not by much) observed this for a while, and then started to ring the bells herself.

I dutifully ran to the back door and let her out before realizing what I’d done. In that instant I’d trained the cat to expect that when she rang the bells somebody would open the door for her. Action and reward.

It’s been cold here in Calgary for a while, so even when we know Persephone is just checking to make sure the weather is the same out the back door as it was out the front just five minutes ago, she’s learned to be quite persistent. Eventually somebody will come along and let her out. Listening to the jangling bells is too annoying. Behaviour and reinforcement. The dog passed away about six weeks ago. We really could take the bells down, but I just don’t have the heart.

Many Fat Happy Monkeys

Training animals and giving feedback have some things in common. No, people aren’t cats, and humans aren’t monkeys. Yet there’s something to learn here. If you want to train a monkey to ride a skateboard, you don’t slap it on the skateboard and then yell at it for not performing tricks. First you put the skateboard in the cage. The monkey doesn’t freak out at this new and strange object that’s invaded its space.* You give it a slice of peach when it stays calm when the skateboard appears.

Maybe the monkey moves towards the skateboard. Peach slice. Maybe then the monkey touches the skateboard. Peach. The monkey sits on the skateboard. Peach. The monkey allows the trainer to push the monkey. Peach. Pretty soon you have a fat, happy monkey doing kick-turns and axle stalls.

The Human Advantage

Giving feedback to people isn’t really much different. The biggest difference is that because if we use language properly we can accelerate the process. Every movement, behaviour, or action in the right direction gets noticed and praised. Immediately, specifically, and sincerely. Progress ensues. Many fat happy monkeys, er, staff.

So what happens when the monkey throws the skateboard at the trainer? Nothing. Any body language, tone of voice, or facial expression that gives away anger is a clue on how to control the trainer. Animal trainers know that reacting to bad behaviour (shouting, waving arms, angry faces) is only letting the animal know what they need to do to provoke you.

Again, people are not monkeys (at least most aren’t). Funny enough it works the same way with many people. Emotions leak through, and that affects how the message we’re trying to give is received. Even on a subconscious level. If you can give specific, sincere feedback and still smile, then go ahead and give the feedback. If you can’t smile, then wait until you can. Otherwise you risk doing more harm than good.

Your Actions

In the next week, look for opportunities to give positive, specific feedback (or just a thank-you even) for people who are moving in the right direction. When somebody is trying, they’re actually looking for approval and encouragement.  Even if you suspect they got lucky or did it accidentally, recognize and reward at as many opportunities as you get. Don’t hold out on the peaches!

I wonder what it would take to get the cat on a skateboard?

Previous Blogs on Feedback:

Everybody Wants Feedback – having the courage to give feedback pays off for you, them, and the company
We Owe Ourselves Feedback
– how do you react when somebody gives you feedback?
Why Feedback Doesn’t Work

Train Yourself to Give Better Feedback
– start by practising this everyday for a week
Getting Better at Giving Feedback
– from their behaviour to your reaction and back again. Knowing what going on underneath the surface.

*I can’t remember where I read this example. If you know the source please let me know in the comments so I can give proper credit. Thanks.

Focused Feedback
Focused Feedback: Timely and Specific

Some of us have met, or even worked for, the boss that thinks they’re great at giving feedback. The particular self-delusion I’m thinking of is the “Hey, great job” variety, perhaps even accompanied by a pointing / clicking gesture.

This kind of generic, blanket praise is nice, but also totally ineffective. Effective feedback needs to be focused.

By focused I mean actionable and timely. Tell them exactly what behaviour is good (or bad) so they now exactly what to repeat (or change), as soon as possible. Feedback is useless if the target of your feedback doesn’t know what to do with it. A general “good job – keep it up” is meaningless unless it’s tied to a recent, repeatable action.

For example: “Scott, you did a great job getting all those videos recorded before the start of the conference. Having that is going to make the conference so much better.”

Of Feedback, Sambuca, and the Future

I look forward to Friday nights. Usually I’ll be at the archery range followed by a beer at the local watering hole with my lovely wife and fellow archers. I was especially looking forward to this week since I won an archery tournament last weekend up in Edmonton. Woohoo! I was ready to celebrate.

Alas, I’ve come down with a cold. I’m sitting at home watching an Auction Hunters marathon instead, and trying to kill my infection with Sambuca. It seems to help the sinuses. Maybe not, but by the time I finish writing this I won’t care.

Nothing bad (or good) lasts forever. I know I’ll whine and snivel my way through the weekend, and be back on my feet and ready to rock by Monday morning. Attending the team meeting and doing my client preparation for the week. The ability to look to the future is a good thing. Without it we sometimes tend to wallow in our present miseries, and maybe even get stuck there.

Without knowing or imagining what’s going to happen next we might feel trapped and helpless, or even overwhelmed. Many inspiring things in life are future oriented, and they pull us along into the desired next state.

The Value of Concrete, Visual Language

A concrete and visual future can be  inspiring, but warm and fuzzy future is useless. The brain is a visual (and emotional) machine. That’s why when CEO’s want a collectively motivating vision, mission, or purpose, it’s based on concrete visual language. On of my favourite examples is this quote often mis-attributed to General George S. Patton

“I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”

That’s very concrete language, no?

Recruiters also use visualization. First, if they can see the job they are recruiting for, they have a better chance of filling it with the right person.  Secondly, if they see you performing the job, based on your description of the work you’ve done in the past, then you’ve got a better chance of landing it.

What’s This To Do With Feedback?

Practise doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practise does. Feedback needs to be future oriented. It also needs to be specific and concrete. Pointing out to one of our direct reports that they screwed up / performed brilliantly is not enough.

We have to be specific enough that they know what they’re being criticized / praised. It is necessary but not sufficient to point out the error. They must also rehearse how they are to change their behaviour in the future. Even if this rehearsal is only mental. Otherwise, what you’ll get is the same behaviour next time.

We also have to cast their thinking into the future.  They need to take the responsibility for fixing the problem, changing their behaviour, or doing things differently. This is the purpose of feedback. They need to be able to see themselves doing it differently next time.

Without this last step in the feedback process what will usually happen is that they’ll just do the same thing again. Not out of habit, not out of laziness, not out of stubbornness or thoughtlessness. They just won’t think about it because they haven’t “seen” it done differently.

The Last Question

Assuming we’re giving corrective feedback, the last question in any feedback process needs to be  a variation of:

“What are you going to do differently next time?”*

Questions engage the mind of the person being asked. It allows them to take responsibility for the outcome. Asking the future-oriented question gives them the problem to solve. Instead of waiting for you to hand them the solution.

Which is the point of giving feedback. They change their behaviour. They take responsibility. If you have to do everything for them then what’s the point of having employees? Give them something to do about it, or even mentally rehearse for the future, so they don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over.

So, what are you going to do next?

Other resources:

Manager Tools Podcast

Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose – The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership

*If you’re dealing with positive feedback, the question “What are you going to do differently”. A “Keep it up.”, or “Keep doing that.” works better instead.

Getting Better at Giving Feedback

My wife and I spend the last couple of weekends with friends, and for the most part it’s been great. Having them over to our place for coffee last weekend, or eating Chinese take-out and drinking beer after an evening at the archery range this weekend. New friends and old mixing and matching.

Yet twice in the last ten days I’ve had  friends tell me they can’t be in the same room as so-and-so. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, but so-and-so were also long-time friends. Naturally I asked why. The answer surprised me. Not only the answer, even though the we’re talking about completely different people, but also because both times the answer was the same: so-and-so is a sexual predator.

Imagine my surprise.

First Impressions

First impressions are funny things. In Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw he describe a situation where teachers’ abilities judged over a year is remarkably similar to the same evaluation of the teacher based on four seconds of video tape.

It seems that first impressions are remarkably accurate, or permanent and consistent, depending on your point of view and awareness of cognitive filters. That is, once we’ve decided what kind of person we’re dealing with based on our first impression of them, we immediately shift to either ignoring all evidence to the contrary or emphasizing any and all evidence to confirm our initial bias.

Which means you have about four seconds to make a “good” first impression. That’s faster than a Mazaratti goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour.

What does this have to do with giving feedback to? Everything and nothing. In a perfect world our biases of who a person is (or should be) won’t play into our management of their performance. But people are people, and our biases and filters affect how we perceive everything and everybody. It also affect how our direct reports perceive our feedback.

Can You Tell If Somebody Is Lying?

Here’s an interesting though experiment: What percentage of police officers, detective, judges, and psychologists do you think can tell when somebody is lying or guilty? They should be pretty good at it because of their training.

Got a number? Good. Now how many of those same officers believe they can tell when somebody is lying or guilty? Is your second number higher or lower than the first one?

Here’s the research-based number: in a 1984 study of 14,000 police officers, only 33 of them had an above random chance of detecting deception. That’s 0.2%.

Focus On Behaviour Not Attitude

This means that of all bad attitude, spitefulness, ignorance, stupidity, laziness, or predatory behaviour we might meet in our daily lives probably isn’t. I’m not saying that they doesn’t exist. I’m saying the we can’t crawl into somebody’s head and know what they’re thinking. We certainly can’t and shouldn’t give feedback meant to improve performance based on our assumptions of somebody’s motivation or mental state.

Projecting our own biases on a direct report whose behaviour we’re trying to influence is not effective at best, and counter-productive at worst . What can we do about it?

Focus on Behaviour Instead.

There are three things happening before we decide why somebody is doing what they’re doing, or are the person we think they are. They do something, we feel something, we make conclusions about their motivations. They say or do something that triggers an emotion in us. The emotion becomes our understanding of why they behave that way. Body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye-contact, words used are what make us feel threatened, unsafe, disrespected, or ignored. Those feeling drive our assumptions about their intentions.

The problem is some of us leap directly to the motivation, without being aware of what the behaviour was , or even our feelings that triggered it. Our unconscious biases, based on our feeling, emotions, experience, and culture, are constantly filtering for us the things we are aware of.

To become good at giving effective feedback, we need to become aware of the behaviour that triggered the effect it has on us and the people around us. When we can name the behaviour, we can start to give effective feedback to change that behaviour.

Your Actions

Spend a week noticing your judgments of other people. Notice when somebody’s behaviour affects you positively or negatively. What was the emotion your felt, and the conclusion you drew from it?

Now, dig into this emotion – what did that person say or do that drove you to that particular conclusion?  What was their body language, facial expression, eye-contact, words they used, tone of voice, or work product? What did you hear or see that made you feel what you felt, and therefore draw the conclusion you drew?

Further Reading:

Malcolm Gladwell What the Dog Saw
Joe Navaro What Every Body Is Saying (Joe Navarro is a former FBI counter-intelligence agent and behavioural assessment expert)

Train Yourself to Give Better Feedback

Why I Hate My Brother

When my brother was six he started playing soccer. He was athletic (I wasn’t), and because he scored a goal or two every game, he go more motivated to work hard. The harder he worked, the better he got. The better he got, the harder he worked.

Unfortunately, after every game he had to tell us in excruciating detail the play-by-play of every goal he scored. If he’d had a good game and scored four or five goals, supper would be a long, boring, torturous recitation of every kick, dribble, pass given, pass got, and shot on goal. I hated those family meals, and so him, and made him pay as only older brothers can.

Change is Hard

Hey, I was eight. The thing is, we’re not much different now that we both have almost grown-up families of our own. He brags about his daughters (and rightly so), and I still can only bear the sound of his crowing in smaller doses. I’ve learned to steer conversations a little better, or to take the dog for a walk. Neither of us have changed much since we were kids, and neither of us are likely to change without a near-death experience. Which I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Not even my annoying little brother.

Change is hard, change is unpleasant, and change often won’t happen unless there is an overwhelming and pressing need to change. The culture, emotions, feeling, and beliefs that lie beneath the surface of our outward behaviour are powerful and hard to shift. Ask anybody who’s tried to quit smoking. The physical addiction to nicotine only last three days. The emotional connection to smoking last a life-time. My friend Karl recently told me that he still dreams about having a cigarette occasionally, and he’s coming up on 15 years smoke-free.

Driving Change in Others

So if change is unlikely and difficult, how do we affect change in the people who work for us? How do we drop the behaviour that holds back our team, department, or company. How do we bring out the best in our staff and develop them? What models do we have for successfully delivering feedback? Many bosses avoid giving feedback, or if they do it is so poorly delivered that it doesn’t improve performance, it degrades it.
We can’t make people change their behaviour. Especially if the feedback we’re giving is poorly timed, unspecific or un-actionable, or ignored. So the first thing we might do is train ourselves to give good feedback. Like a six-year-olds’ soccer game, we’re going to make it easy by sticking with the basics and having fun.

Yes, negative or corrective feedback is still necessary. Especially in cases of safety, abuse, or theft. If you see one of these situations you should and must step in to correct the problem. Yet “The deepest human need is the need to be appreciated”*, and we can leverage that while we learn to recognize when and how to give feedback.

Your Action:

Say thank-you to somebody every day this week.

  • Be specific

    Be specific enough that people know what particular action they’re being thanked for and can repeat it.

    Did Marcia work late to make sure the invoices got out on time despite the network problems? When Marcia does that we get paid on time, we have better cash flow and it reduces our borrowing costs. Thank-you.

    Did John the back-hoe operator spot a mistake? That would have cost us a lot of overtime, rework, wasted material, and probably affected the schedule and our on-time bonus. Thank-you!

    Did Francis finally land that key account after six months of effort? Thank-you and keep it up. What can we do to service this key client well, and use them to attract others like them?

    Catch them doing something right and recognize it. If you can’t find people doing something right in your company then you’re not looking hard enough, or you’re not in the right company.

  • Be timely

    Don’t wait to say thank-you. The longer you wait, the less useful any feedback will be.

  • Be sincere

    Look for genuine positive actions that deserve recognition. People will know if you’re faking it, and that only reduces your credibility. If you’re not one that recognizes others out loud very often, they will be skeptical at first anyway. Be ready for that, but be persistent. Eventually you and they will both be trained to expect and recognize positive behaviours.

Other Videos

The surprising science of motivation – Dan Pink’s TED talk
How to find the bright spots – Dan Heath on why focusing on the positive pays off especially in times of change
How to get things done – at the top of Tom Peters list is thank-you notes.

*William James, with thanks to Tom Peters

Why Feedback Doesn’t Work

When my daughter Nichole was in middle school she liked to play on her Nintendo DS when she should have been in bed. Surprisingly my yelling  – “Go to sleep! You have school tomorrow!” – didn’t make her go to sleep. She did get better at hiding it. Just like me at that age, except I was hiding a Heinlein  novel. The word “feedback” provokes a reaction in many people. We think of situations like “Step into my office and have a seat.”, or “We need to talk.” I would bet that just reading those words some felt their stomach drop or the hair on the back of their necks stand up.

Poorly Delivered Feedback Worsens Performance

Why does “feedback” provoke such a strong reaction? Because it’s usually done badly. What’s been inflicted on you, you don’t want to inflict on others. You like doing things the right way and you know that wasn’t it. Or you’ve given feedback and it hasn’t changed anything. Or you want your staff to like you and everybody to work together, and giving them an honest appraisal of their performance just makes you look like an a**hole. You may have experienced any or all these situations. . . . and you’d be right. Poorly delivered feedback w delivered in the wrong way and in the wrong context will just make things worse. Your staff will only learn to hide things better. Even insincere, unspecific but positive feedback will do more harm than good. Old-school managers will tell you to give two pats for every poke. The old “tell them something good, tell them what they need to fix, finish with something good.” In my uniformed days we called this a “sh*t sandwich”. Something unpleasant between two pieces of fluff. The good news will be long forgotten, and even resented, long after the sting of the negative lingers. But we also know that high performers need, crave, and demand feedback on their performance. Like high-performing athletes they need a coach. A third-party observer that can see things they can’t see to give them awareness they need. Somebody who has the skills to close the loop that allows them to excel.

How Do We Provide Good Feedback?

First, stop giving bad feedback. Bad feedback will usually have one or more of these characteristics:

  1. It’s insincere or unspecific – If you’re telling somebody that they’re doing a good job, but you can’t tell them why or give a specific example, then you’re just blowing smoke and they’ll know it. Stifle yourself.
  2. It’s a personal attack – if you are thinking the words “bad attitude”, or even worse say them, then you’re giving bad feedback. Even worse, being shouted at, growled at, or given feedback by somebody who’s clearly angry and upset won’t do anything except make things worse.
  3. There’s no plan for the future – if you give feedback that is sincere, specific, and based on reality, but you leave them without a clear idea of what they’re going to do about it, then you’re doing it wrong.
  4. It’s untimely – just like paper-training a puppy, the longer the gap between action and feedback, the less useful it is. Good feedback is as immediate as possible.
  5. It’s public – negative or corrective feedback is for consumption in private. Negative feedback given in public has only one effect: humiliation.

If the feedback you’re about to give meets any of these criteria, it’s bad feedback. Don’t do it. Stop doing it. Don’t do it again. You won’t go from tyrant to prince overnight, but you can at least stop being the tyrant.

Your Action

If you’re a manager who regularly gives feedback to her staff, then good for you. For one week, keep track of how often you give feedback, and whether it’s positive or negative. What’s your ratio after five days? Do you give more negative than positive feedback? Other Reading:

Bernie works with small, medium (and sometimes) large companies, start-ups, and volunteer organizations to help them set a vision that is executable, effective, and to surround themselves with people who will help them succeed. I believe the workplace is a place to thrive, not just survive. Call me if you want help transforming your business.