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A 3-Step Method for Giving Clear Feedback

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There’s no better way to dull the impact of feedback than to muddle your delivery. The typical “sandwich technique,” in which you offer a piece of critical feedback in between two pieces of positive feedback, buries your intention. It makes it difficult for the individual you’re managing to know what to do, and often leaves them with more questions than answers.

The Center for Creative Leadership offers a solution in the form of the Situation – Behavior – Impact (SBI) Feedback Tool.  It allows you to give clear feedback while forcing individual’s to reflect on problem behavior.

(Related: 6 Tips for Giving Effective Critical Feedback)

Step 1:  Anchor the Situation

Whether it was last Thursday at the weekly staff meeting or yesterday morning during Bob’s presentation, you need to be clear about when the problem occurred.

Where and when did the issue happen?

Be clear. Be specific. Anchor the event in a specific moment in time—otherwise the feedback comes off too general. Remember: Specificity is your friend.

Step 2: Highlight the Specific Behavior

Comment on observable behavior, not your interpretations of that behavior. Focus on what you’ve actually seen or heard, in person, in order to limit an individual from getting defensive or feeling attacked.

Management skills website Mindtools offers these two examples of how you can phrase it:

"During yesterday morning's team meeting, when you gave your presentation, you were uncertain about two of the slides, and your sales calculations were incorrect."

"At the client meeting on Monday afternoon, you ensured that the meeting started on time and that everyone had handouts in advance. All of your research was correct, and each of the client's questions was answered."

Step 3. Make Clear the Impact

Use “I” statements to drive home how that behavior made you feel.

Examples via Mindtools:

"During yesterday morning's team meeting, when you gave your presentation, you were uncertain about two of the slides and your sales calculations were incorrect. I felt embarrassed because the entire board was there. I'm worried that this has affected the reputation of our team."

"At the client meeting on Monday afternoon, you ensured that the meeting started on time and that everyone had handouts in advance. All of your research was correct, and each of the client's questions was answered. I'm proud that you did such an excellent job and put the organization in a good light. I feel confident that we'll get the account, thanks to your hard work."

Word of caution: The Mindtools breakdown says you should indicate how the action “affected you or others.” I’d recommend leaving the “or others” part out of it.

When delivering feedback, acknowledge that you can only speak for you. Don’t put words in other people’s mouths. Unless somebody asked you to speak for them, don’t. You can't actually say how others feel.

Bonus - Step 4. Request a Change

Finally, I’d offer that the SBI Feedback Tool is missing a step: requesting a change.

If there’s a behavior you’d like to see changed, you have to ask for it to be changed. For examples, after the first three steps, request…

  • …that you have the slides prepared a day in advance next time.
  • …that you offer to help others on the team at least once per week.
  • …that you tell us ahead of time that you’re going to be late.

As I wrote in October, when you make a request, it gives someone three options—deny, accept or counteroffer. By making a request you allow the individual to play a part in designing a solution to the problem behavior.

Lastly, don’t forget that feedback should be given for good things too! The SBI Feedback Tool isn’t just for correcting problem behavior, it’s to emphasize the impact of positive actions as well.

What tools do you use to give feedback?

Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author directly at @Mark_Micheli.

Image via Little_Desire/

Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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