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Delivering feedback in an acceptable manner

When I first started working as a corporate employee some 30 years ago, there was no such practice as feedback as we know it today. We worked according to what our direct supervisor told us to do. He also did as his boss expected. We may have had an opportunity to discuss our performance appraisal during an annual review, which was mainly for establishing grounds for a salary increase.

Feedback can be categorised into two types, negative and positive. Positive feedback is encouragement that someone delivers by telling a person that what he or she did was good, with a reasonable explanation to support that conclusion. It's the kind of helpful positive reinforcement that we as human beings prefer to hear. Life goes on, let's move ahead along the same path.

Negative feedback is not something anyone wants to hear even when it is a fact. However, if we play it right, negative feedback can be one of the best management tools.

Negative feedback tends to arise from an event that has just happened, when the result was not what we had been aiming at. The provider is usually the direct boss but can be a colleague, direct report or someone else.

Either negative or positive feedback should be employed carefully, as the main purpose is not to try to win anyone over but to find out a better way to do things. In this regard, the feedback provider should consider the following elements before making a move:

Put yourself in the other person's shoes: When providing feedback, we should have compassion. No one is perfect, and anyone can make a mistake. Of course, a person who makes the same mistake repeatedly needs to be told, but put yourself in that person's shoes. This way, you will choose wording that is not too strong and encourage the person to do better and change in the future.

Base feedback on the actual incident and not the person: Your feedback must be based on factual observation. Otherwise, the feedback will be full of emotional and biased comments that nobody wants to hear because it leads us nowhere.

Provide feedback on a timely basis: Timing is important. In most cases, feedback should be provided right after an incident has occurred. If you leave it too long, the recipient may have forgotten the incident or refuse to accept the truth. She may also wonder if the incident was so bad, then why raise it only now? However, there are some unique cases where it is recommended to wait and let feelings settle down before starting the feedback process.

Choose the right surroundings: Feedback often involves sensitive issues. It is strongly advised to hold a feedback session in a private space such as a small meeting room. Providing feedback in a public area will be distracting for the recipient and may reduce the ability to listen and willingness to change accordingly.

Try the "sandwich" approach: Everyone loves to hear nice words. Therefore, offer some positive feedback first but make sure it is genuine. When the time comes to deliver the negative feedback, encourage the other person to speak up as well. Listen to his or her side of the story with your full attention and a respectful manner. This will make it clear that you are not attacking him or her personally but only trying to make things better. When you have both communicated your views and you are satisfied the other person understands and accepts the message, move to the final part of the "sandwich" by concluding with some positive feedback.

Include others as necessary: Feedback should be provided privately between two people, given the personal and confidential nature of the issue itself. A quiet and friendly atmosphere is important. However, there are exceptions for which we may provide feedback in a group.

Group feedback can be done if we believe making a person's issue known publicly, at least in a small group, will allow the others to understand a person better and build a more effective working relationship.

Recently, I conducted a feedback session as a part of a behavioural change programme at a unit of a multinational company. The head of operations smartly provided feedback to senior executive team members about some behaviour that everyone was already aware of involving a particular person.

The substance of his remarks was no surprise to anyone including the feedback recipient, and the other meeting participants felt comfortable about opening up. The result was better communication among team members. Such a session can be quite tricky to manage, but if played right, you will be surprised that such feedback can become one of your favourite management tools.

Sorayuth Vathanavisuth is the principal and executive coach at the Center for Southeast Asia Leadership and lectures at Mahidol University's College of Management. His areas of interest are corporate strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. He can be reached at