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Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp On How to Provide Feedback

How often do we give deep thought to how we provide feedback to others? It seems like something we’d all obviously like to do well, but most of the time we stink at it.

When was the last time you really felt your feedback improved someone else’s life, whether it was your spouse’s cooking or your employee’s performance?

The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot. Even when we’re well-intentioned, the message gets lost in the transmission. It’s like the old saying “What counts is not what’s said, but what’s heard.” We respond emotionally to criticism, even if it’s just implied criticism. (Are you sure you still fit into that dress?) This makes it difficult to help others improve. In other words, we fail to understand and appreciate human nature.

Getting it done

Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp address this very effectively in their book Getting it Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge. The major idea is that while we think feedback is feedback, there are really three distinct types of feedback, and each needs to be used appropriately to effectively help others.

There are at least three different kinds of feedback that may be appropriate in a given situation:

  • APPRECIATION is expression of gratitude or approval of another’s effort. It is an expression of emotion, designed to meet an emotional need.
  • ADVICE (or COACHING) consists of suggestions about particular behavior that should be repeated or changed. It focuses on the performance, rather than judging the person.
  • EVALUATION is ranking the subject’s performance in relation to that of others or against an explicit or implicit set of standards.

The habit you want to develop is to know your purposes when you offer feedback, and to make your comments in a form appropriate to accomplishing that purpose.

This is a very valuable framework because it brings our motivations to the surface.

Are we trying to show appreciation, offer advice, or offer an evaluation? (As in a grade or a performance review.) We think we can do it all at the same time, but that tends to be counter-productive. Take for example a professor handing out grades:

A college professor spends a large part of her weekend writing exhaustive comments on a student’s paper. When it is handed back, the student flips to the last page to see the grade. If he gets an A, he is overjoyed. If he gets a C he mopes the rest of the day, muttering that the grade was unfair. In either case he spends little time trying to learn from all the suggestions the professor had made. The emotional impact of being graded tends to drown out the advice on improving performance.

The emotions involved in receiving your evaluation — good or bad — trumps the value of the coaching. The two objectives are at cross-purposes. And thus we must learn to use them more strategically.

It is best to offer different kinds of feedback at different times. At the very least, you should explicitly signal when you move from one purpose to another. Above all, it helps to separate both advice and appreciation from the anxiety that typically accompanies a performance review — evaluation. Most times, evaluation is the one that is least likely to be helpful, and most likely to distract from your other two purposes.

Here are a few specific ways we can go about separating the various methods of feedback and using them more judiciously.

1. Express Appreciation to Motivate

When should you offer appreciation? Always. It’s always a good time to spend a moment boosting someone else’s mood, and thus boosting their productivity. The cost is low: it takes only a minute to drop by someone’s office and say, “I’m grateful for your hard work.”

This, of course, mirrors the old Dale Carnegie saying “Be hearty in your approbations and lavish in your praise.” Who doesn’t want to feel appreciated, regardless of their level of work? This a deep emotional need, and one that’s very easy to meet. Charlie Munger once said that withholding deserved praise was basically immoral. Once we realize that expressing appreciation can be separated from offering useful feedback or constructive criticism, we’re free to offer it without risking a chance to push for specific improvement.

It’s also key that we offer honest praise. Most of us can see through false praise, and it tends to backfire. Telling someone who obviously failed that they “Did a great job!” is not a good idea, even if it sounds nice. Instead, try telling them that they obviously tried hard and that you appreciated their work, and then asking if they’d like your advice to help improve it. That way you’ve offered honest appreciation and help without the empty flattery.

2. Offer Advice to Improve Performance

In the appreciation phase, we were trying to direct our comments at the person directly: I value you and I value your effort. It has not gone unnoticed.

The advice phase is different — we want to talk about the task. A mentor of mine frequently called this “Separating the issues from the people” or being “Hard on the issues, easy on the people.” Either way, we’re trying to build the person up emotionally while also improving their performance. The key is to be specific.

The more general the coaching advice, the more it is taken as a personal indictment, rather than a professional analysis of the behavior…Telling someone “good job” doesn’t help him know which particular things to repeat. Specificity allows others to understand what exactly you saw them do, and why you liked it. That makes it more likely that they will make it part of their own thinking…Remember, the goal is to find better methods, not to be right. Sharing the specific data makes us partners in the job of finding better methods.

Notice the subtle shift of emphasis: “Let’s find better methods together” works better than “You suck and here’s why.”

The two specific categories of feedback we want to offer are reinforcements of what worked well and suggestions on what could be done differently. We tend to focus heavily on the latter, while too frequently ignoring our responsibility to reinforce what worked. If we spend time in both categories, being specific and backing our conclusions up with sound reasoning, we can help the person feel better about themselves while hopefully encouraging them to change specific aspects of their performance.

Skip the generic back-patting (“You did great!”) and tell them specifically what they did well: “You handled that conversation so calmly that the customer clearly knew you were on their side. I think that went a long way towards increasing their comfort with us and closing the deal.” Only then do we want to proceed to explaining which changes can be made.

Each step in the process — offering appreciation, reinforcing what went well, encouraging togetherness — softens the final blow of “here’s what you might change.” This is how we increase the chance of our message being transmitted successfully. We must always put ourselves in the shoes of the feedback-receiver.

3. Evaluate Only When Needed

This is a simple one: Evaluation is frequently not the best way to improve performance. If we separate coaching from evaluation, as discussed above, this becomes more clear. We don’t need to assign performance grades all the time if we’re constantly reinforcing good habits and discouraging bad ones in an effective way. Immediate and clear feedback is so much more effective than a delayed performance review.

Reviews will, of course, be necessary at times when we must make tangible decisions about personnel — hiring, firing, promoting, etc. In those cases, make the evaluation swift and fair. Otherwise, steer clear of using evaluation as your main tool for improvement and motivation unless you’re specifically trying to deliver a message.

Evaluation is sometimes needed to give somebody a “kick in the pants” — to make them try harder. In selecting which of a dozen law students in an advanced negotiation seminar should be invited to become teaching assistants, Roger once asked all twelve to rank anonymously everyone in their class for their ability to be a good teaching assistant. No opportunity was given for collusion or bargaining. Eleven of the students ranked one student as number twelve, and one ranked that student as number one. The results suggested that that student needed some candid evaluation of how he was doing.

4. Take the First Fall

In the end, what we really want to do as leaders, whether we’re technically in a leadership position or not, is to create an environment where feedback is shared in a helpful and useful way. The best way to do that besides giving great feedback is volunteering to take some as well. As they say in Aikido, be willing to “Take the first fall.”

The best way to create an atmosphere in which coaching is shared is not to put someone else in the hot seat, but to volunteer to take it yourself. You can encourage others, whether bosses, colleagues, or subordinates, by asking for their observations about your performance. A request for coaching will have the most impact on people at your level or below. If you want your subordinates to ask for feedback from their subordinates, the best thing you can do is to show them that you are willing to do so as well.

Still Interested? Check out Getting it Done by Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp, or Getting to Yes, the best-selling and most useful book on negotiation ever produced.