In the previous blog I described the feedback triangle: three essential elements to create a sound feedback culture: giving criticism, receiving criticism and expressing appreciation. How do we use these three skills? What is the common thread between them? At a time when hundreds of pages are being written about connective communication and we find ourselves inundated with conversation schemes, I would like to limit this blog to 2 very simple – at first sight paradoxical – yet essential rules.

Rule 1: Grounding your feedback makes things clear! Be precise, factual, concrete: examples, figures, consequences…

A rule that most people are familiar with when it comes to expressing criticism: start with facts and not with interpretations. That way, the other person will know what you are talking about and discussions are avoided. So don’t say: ‘Your approach is not customer-oriented enough’, but rather ‘In December, we’ve received four written complaints from customers regarding your dossiers, in contrast to the average 0,5. per employee.’
This also applies to expressing appreciation and receiving criticism.

Stop giving general appreciation:Well done Charles! Great report Betty!’, ‘All of you: great job today.’, ‘Congratulations, Charles.’ It is all too noncommittal and general. It sounds like a daily tune that you, as a manager, feel you have to sing.

Just say what you like about the work, the report, the feedback from the customer… ‘What I thought was so good about your report were the very concrete agreements, including names and deadlines. The results were immediately noticeable at the next meeting: almost everyone had carried out the agreed actions.’
In this way you make it clear that you have thought about it and that you think it is important enough to state it specifically. And by specifically naming the behaviour, you reinforce the right behaviour.

Apply the same rule when an employee criticizes you: ask them to state clearly what goes wrong for them and what they want from you.
‘I feel that you’re not giving me enough space.’ As a manager you cannot do much with this kind of criticism. Admitting to this does lead anywhere because the criticism is empty. So ask questions: ‘With what assignment did you have that feeling? When did you feel that I didn’t give you enough space? Is this about assignments I gave you about our meetings? Can you give an example of one of those interventions of mine during a meeting? For which assignment or task you are currently working on, would you like more elbowroom?’ This obliges and helps the other to possibly acknowledge the subjectivity of their feelings and translate them into something concrete you can actually work with.
By being clear, you avoid being too soft and woolly. Being specific and well-founded is precisely what the feedback triangle requires.

Rule 2: Passionate feedback inspires! Link your criticism or appreciation to general/higher goals: the values, norms and mission of your organization

When something goes right or wrong, link it to values, norms and mission.

  • When giving criticism: ‘In view of our USP as an organization with a unique customer service, this is unacceptable. I consider this a serious problem.’
  • When expressing appreciation: ‘… almost everyone had carried out the agreed actions. Given the importance that we attach to teamwork and result-orientedness in our organization, I think this is great.’
  • When receiving criticism as a manager: ‘… given the importance that I attach to the development of my employees, your criticism affects me very much and I will certainly take it on board.’

By making this connection you operate at an entirely different level: the level of the organisation and the joint goals and mission. Passion, inspiration, enthusiasm, the ‘higher’ goal.
While the first rule has to do with grounding, having one’s feet on the ground, the latter has to do with ‘inspiration’ and ‘passion’, coupled with the ‘higher’ goal.

If we divide the three elements of feedback (giving criticism, expressing appreciation and receiving criticism) evenly according to our feedback triangle and succeed in eliminating and integrating the opposition between ‘grounding’ and ‘passion’, the ‘concrete’ and the ‘general’, we as managers can lay the foundation for a sustainable, open and efficient feedback culture.

Checklist for the manager: preview of the coming week

  1. What criticism and appreciation do you still need to express? To whom? How do you ground these (facts) and infuse them with passion (values, norms, mission)?
  2. Which criticism from employees could you address? How could you ground it? Which questions could you ask?