There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

A Framework for Giving Effective Feedback

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This week’s post comes from an answer I recently provided to a question on Quora, about how to give negative feedback. The question was “How do skilled leaders give negative feedback?” Find the original question and the answer on Quora.

“Feedback is ALWAYS about helping someone improve. While sometimes that feedback re-enforces what led to a success, the feedback that helps correct for not achieving success is important and much more difficult to deliver. Feedback is a gift, and anyone can learn how to ensure that gift is received as positively as possible.

Below is a framework I’ve shared with my organizational managers over the years, about what makes for effective feedback. I don’t pretend this is everything there is to say on the subject of giving feedback, but its proven useful over the years to the many managers who I’ve mentored.

In my experience most people who ask about how to give negative feedback probably also need to understand what makes for effective positive feedback, thus the general applicability of the framework.

Effective feedback is:

  • Timely
  • About Specific Behavior
  • Proportional
  • Praise in public
  • Coach in private
  • Provides a path to improvement

See below for a bit more detail into each part of this framework, and how this framework connects to the world of video games.

Timely – the closer to the event the feedback is the better. When first helping new managers learn how to give effective feedback this is the most important lesson they must master, as many of the worst ways feedback can go poorly comes from that feedback not being given in a timely manner.

About Specific Behavior – if feedback is not about a specific behavior we as humans don’t know what to change in response to the feedback. Telling someone they have a bad attitude doesn’t give them any clue about what they can do to change your perception. Instead, telling someone ‘the sarcastic tone of your voice and that your answers are insufficiently considered tells me don’t appreciate that at this moment I need you to take this more seriously’ makes it very clear what behavior has led to the concern, and thus what they need to change. It may be obvious to some, but its worth remembering that providing feedback that doesn’t tell someone what they need to change won’t result in the desired change happening.

Proportional – feedback about ‘small wins’ need to be different than that of ‘big wins’, otherwise the organization begins to get confused about overall priorities. The science of reward schedules tells us that if we get the same response again and again, to different behavior, that response quickly loses any meaning.

Praise in Public – humans generally appreciate being celebrated publicly. Not only does it help the person getting the feedback, but it helps the rest of the group understand what kind of behavior is praise worthy. Note though, that its easy for public praise to look like managers are choosing favorites, so mature leadership knows how to spread the public praise around enough to avoid it being a problem.

Coach in Private – humans as a whole don’t enjoy getting shamed in front of other people. While the purpose of coaching should never be to shame (never, ever) its can be difficult to take criticism, and most of us would prefer to have the chance to initially react to that criticism in private.

Provides a path to improvement – along with needing to be about specific behavior, effective feedback should provide a ‘nudge’ about what to do next. The topic of how to give direction is itself a whole different topic, and how this nudge is given has a tremendous impact on how successful it will be. But, know that the ‘nudge’ usually needs to be just enough to let the recipient not feel lost. This applies whether the feedback is positive or critical, as even something that went well can likely get better, sometimes with just a little nudge in the right direction.

What do Video Games have to do with giving feedback? I’ve spent many years leading teams making video games, and sometimes the people in those teams have a hard time giving effective feedback. In teaching how to give effective feedback to employees I asked managers to think of their employees as ‘players’ in the ‘game’. By looking at the problem of feedback as a game design challenge some people (who worked in video games) found this framework a lot easier to understand.”

“Management as Game Design” is a talk I gave at various Game Developers Conferences over the past couple of years. Find the slide deck of the original presentation on Slideshare. Giving effective feedback was one of several examples the talk discussed. The core idea is that a management challenge can be seen as a game design problem, and how the game design solution can then often be used to deal with the management challenge.



Written by joshuahoward

June 5, 2014 at 1:50 pm

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