Dan Beverly

A coaching approach to feedback

As a leader, why do we give feedback? To make someone wrong? To make us look impressive, knowledgeable and experienced? To increase our status? Let’s hope not.

For effective leaders who want to help transform performance in others, it’s about contributing to people’s development: helping to build confidence, stay motivated, be more effective and create better results. And effective leaders do that by spotting excellence, offering perspective, promoting self-awareness and embedding key learning.

To be this effective leader, we need to take a different approach to feedback; one that’s focused on the other person, their thinking and their learning. An approach that supports the individual to achieve their goals and objectives. Essentially, a coaching approach.

So here are 7 steps from the coach’s playbook so you too can give effective feedback that transforms performance and gets you and those around you achieving better results.

1. Spend significant time and effort setting-up the feedback conversation

Ever noticed how words like “review” and “feedback” immediately send us and others into an “away” state? That lurch of the insides, a feeling of unease and impending doom. Why is that?

Because “review” and “feedback” have become synonymous with an attack on our abilities, competencies and status. And in response to that social threat, our limbic system kicks-in: an “amygdala hijack,” at which point, higher-level rational thinking shuts down.

To avoid triggering that limbic response, a significant percentage of any effective feedback conversation should be dedicated to setting-up that conversation – to keep all involved thinking clearly.

From the coaching playbook, we do that using 3 techniques: placement, permission and context.

2. Use placement

Like coaches, effective leaders make sure the recipient of the feedback is prepared to have the conversation by “placing” them in its context.

Placement is a way of letting both of you know why the conversation is happening, how you see the conversation unfolding, and where it’s headed. Using placement at the outset of a feedback discussion introduces structure and certainty – both characteristics the brain craves.

In particular, make clear your intention for having the conversation. And when you do, keep that “coaching leader” hat on: this is about contributing to the other person’s thinking and learning, not making them wrong.

3. Get Permission

It’s also important to get the other person’s permission before delving into feedback on them.

  • “Would you be interested in hearing that feedback?”
  • “Would now be a good time to talk about it?”

You might not be peers, but a feedback conversation is far more effective if it takes place on a near-level playing field. So again, keep that “coaching leader” hat on: this is not about a power struggle; it’s about growth.

4. Create an empowering context

It’s also useful to show the recipient of the feedback that you are completely on their side; that your interest in this feedback conversation is them and their development. Effective leaders, like coaches, do that by creating a context that empowers the recipient.

Create an empowering context by positioning yourself and the feedback as contributing to the other person’s development; by aligning yourself with the recipient; and by making connections between the feedback discussion and the other person’s ongoing goals and objectives.

  • “I’ve really seen how you’ve been applying yourself to improve your performance and I’m very committed to working with you to take it to the next level.”
  • “Recently, I’ve noticed something that’s been going on. I’d like to bring it to your attention because I think it could really help you move towards your goal.”
  • “I’m not going to talk too much about what happened. What I’d like to do is see how I can best help you fulfil your potential in this role. If that’s something you’re interested in?”

5. Ask for their positive feedback first

Now that the feedback conversation has been well-placed, coaches and effective leaders start by asking a feedback recipient what they’ve done well – and acknowledging it.

This “self-directed” approach gets people thinking for themselves, reduces the threat response and moves them to a “toward” state. This is then a great place from which to start looking at elements of development.

6. Ask for their thoughts on development

Just as we perceive feedback as a status threat, we experience “feed forward” – talking about what we could do better next time – as a status reward as we imagine our improved future selves.

Coaches and effective leaders make use of this, asking feedback recipients for their thoughts on development – rather than starting with what they think. And they do this in both positive and negative feedback scenarios.

  • “What have you taken away from this?”
  • “What would you do differently next time?”
  • “What do you think are your areas for development?”

Interestingly, when someone describes their own limitations, their status actually goes up because they’re illustrating their self-awareness. So don’t be afraid to push others for their thoughts on required development. It’s empowering and hugely constructive.

7. Add your feedback – but only if needed

Now that the feedback recipient has had an opportunity to reflect on their own thoughts for their performance, the effective leader is in a great position to share her feedback – and the recipient in a great place to receive it.

Before sharing that feedback, effective leaders re-establish permission with the recipient – to continue managing the social threat.

From there, the key characteristics of great feedback are that: it is precise; it is owned; and it accentuates the positive.

Be succinct, specific and generous

Effective leaders deliver their feedback precisely.

  • They are succinct: the best feedback is given in a single sentence.
  • They are specific: feedback is never generalised and includes details.
  • They are generous: by being authentic and real with the recipient.

Own your feedback comments

Effective leaders accept responsibility for their feedback comments.There’s that long-running joke that when we become a manager or a leader, we stop saying “I” and start saying “we” all the time. Effective leaders don’t do that when giving feedback.

To give genuine, value-adding feedback, effective leaders accept responsibility, both when noticing something that went well, and when highlighting issues that may seem negative. Owning a statement makes it more authentic and less likely to be confrontational.

Accentuate the positive

Effective leaders focus on creating new solutions rather than dissecting problems.The brain is an attention economy: whatever we give attention to, those are the circuits we deepen. So focusing on the problem just reinforces the problem. Knowing how the brain works, better to focus on creating new wiring.

Here are some examples of how effective leaders accentuate the positive.

  • Appreciation: I really appreciate you taking time to look at this.
  • Validation: I can see you’ve given this a lot of thought.
  • Recognition: It’s clear that you are a very capable technical architect.
  • Confirmation: The approach you took was perfectly suited to the requirement.
  • Affirmation: I think you deserve the credit for delivering this programme.
  • Thanks: Thanks for taking the time to focus 100% on this issue.

A model for feedback that transforms performance

If we want to transform people’s performance, we need a new model for feedback: one that focuses on the thinking, the learning and the positive. We need always to be asking: “is what I’m about to say, and the way I’m about to say it, going to add value?”

Now, that’s not to say we gloss-over the facts if a person is consistently underperforming; and there’s a time for direct and honest conversation about poor performance. But people are hard-enough on themselves – let them handle the negative on their own.

Our role, as the effective leader who wants to transform performance, is to spend less time talking about the issue that didn’t work so well in the past; and more time discussing what went well and what to change in the future – and then exploring ways to make all that possible.

Effective feedback is mostly asking rather than telling. And if it is telling, it’s about what they did right. Try it – and watch performance transform as a result.


Dan Beverly

Dan Beverly is a leadership and performance coach helping high-calibre, high-performing professional women embrace the pivotal career moments.

To work with Dan, go online to book your complimentary “Session Zero” – and start capitalising on your pivotal career moment, today.