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You’ve probably been reading a lot about feedback in the workplace over the last few years and the trend towards real-time feedback. The idea is that delivering feedback right away, when you see something great or something that needs to improve, will help the person make adjustments more quickly and achieve more success than if you saved that feedback up for a scheduled performance review. Makes sense, right? But how do you deliver feedback in real-time? Many of the interactions you have with the people on your team are in meetings, so does that mean you should be delivering feedback in meetings? … Well, it depends.

Praise in public, criticize in private

In trying to help people achieve Radical Candor — the ability to give great feedback and achieve results that everyone can be proud of — we have put together a set of tips that we call the HIP approach to feedback. One of the p’s in that acronym stands for Public praise, Private criticism.

Giving feedback in meetings and other team settings is a GREAT practice!… as long as it’s praise. Our logic is rooted in how we think about the purpose of both praise and criticism:

  • The purpose of praise is to show people what success looks like, to show people what’s valued, and to give them a chance to repeat successful behaviors and work.
  • The purpose of criticism is to help people know what to do better, know what they can improve to have more success for themselves, their team, and the company.

In an ideal world, ALL feedback could be delivered in public because it would then enable everyone within earshot to learn from the feedback, but we don’t live in an ideal world.

Praise can – and most often should be delivered in public. The reason for this is because when you communicate specific and sincere praise to someone you give all of those around that person a chance to realize that crucial objective of praise – to learn what’s valued, what success looks like, and to have the chance to mimic successful behaviors and work.

Sometimes when we work with companies, folks will express a couple of concerns with public praise. The first concern is, “What if a person is not comfortable with public praise?” The first thing I would try is to talk to the person to see if they can become comfortable enough with public praise to enable this important objective. Sometimes people just need to understand that there’s a selfless angle to public praise – an angle that helps a team be better – and then they can get behind a little public praise.

But, a very small number of people are truly, deeply uncomfortable with public praise. We say to jump past the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” straight to the platinum rule: “do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.” This requires you to know your people really well!

Criticism is different than praise in many ways. When someone receives criticism, on behaviors or work products, that person is far more likely to manifest a defensive, threat response than they are to say “Oh, thanks so much for the feedback, what a gift!” This tends to be the case no matter how carefully crafted the feedback is.

This is not because you’re working with a dysfunctional person, it’s because you are working with a human being. This defensive reaction to criticism happens naturally even in a private setting, but the threat response gets ratcheted way up if criticism is offered in public. So in order to achieve the purpose of criticism, to have someone learn how to do better, it’s best to give criticism in private. The person’s defensive reaction will be lower, and you’ll be more likely to have a teachable moment. Don’t give this kind of feedback in meetings.

Any rule worth stating has a few exceptions, right? Here are a few unique situations where public criticism is ok.

Exception 1 – Deep-seated culture of “criticism = improvement”

My son, Starks, is a competitive gymnast. These kids fail relentlessly – 100s of times – before they succeed. Their mental resilience is really quite impressive. In practice, they try a movement, which might be sprinting down the vault run, pounding into a springboard, doing some kind of flip over the vault table, and then landing. As soon as they finish the movement, they turn, stand at attention, and look at their coach, and coach will say something like “you held your hollow too long.” The gymnast nods acknowledging the feedback – no defensiveness, no pushback – and jogs back to the beginning of the vault run and tries to incorporate the feedback for the next repetition.

This is clearly public criticism. The vault was not performed perfectly, and the coach identified the biggest shortcoming in the attempt, and he did this in front of everyone.

A few reasons that this works:

  • There’s a shared understanding.
    The culture of the team is such that it’s understood that the criticism is crucial and there to help the gymnasts improve. This has been established through months and years of repetition.
  • It’s consistent.
    One person doesn’t get singled out over and over. This happens 5 nights a week for 3.5 hours per night and the criticism is somewhat constant for all gymnasts.
  • It’s offset with a lot of praise.
    If you perform the movement well you are told so immediately so that you have the best chance of internalizing the success you just had and repeating it.

Exception 2 – The manager can be criticized in public

Yep. Managers don’t get the same consideration as people on their teams. A good manager will invite criticism by soliciting feedback from the team, and will allow for him/herself to be criticized in public, will invite feedback in meetings, even. The manager must model good behavior in managing his/her response to tough feedback.

A manager is responsible for everything that their team does or fails to do. If things are not going perfectly on the team, which is much more common than ‘everything is perfect,’ that sort of thing is often seen by team members as the manager’s shortcoming. A good manager wants to hear about these things to be able to take steps to improve them. Team members ascribe “blame” for team dysfunction to the manager, but are extremely reluctant to criticize the boss (for obvious reasons). A boss has to push for this and push hard. The upside? Discussing these things in an open forum helps give a full view of the problem and gets team members involved in generating solutions. Just beware that this feedback can sting.

Giving feedback in meetings

So meetings are a good place to give praise and for managers to solicit criticism, but they’re not a great place for giving criticism to team members. How then, can you give real-time criticism? Meetings are still a great venue for noticing feedback-worthy behaviors and work, so try grabbing someone right after a meeting when you see something they could improve (there’s a great story about this in Episode 12 of our podcast, Radical Candor). We would argue that giving feedback immediately after the meeting is still pretty real-time.

Here’s how to think about structuring that feedback.

Situation, Behavior, Impact & Situation, Work, Impact

The Center for Creative Leadership offers us a handy little tool for structuring feedback: SBI. This stands for:

  • Situation – what was the situation in which the behavior – good or bad – manifested?
  • Behavior – what was the specific good or bad behavior?
  • Impact – what was the impact of the behavior?

Candor has an adaptation to add to this: SWI. This stands for:

  • Situation – what was the situation in which the work/work product – good or bad – manifested?
  • Work – what was the specific good or bad work product (the analysis, the presentation, the pitch, the speech, the code)?
  • Impact – what was the impact of the work? Why does it matter?

Picking up on the context of a meeting, specifically, if someone manifests a GREAT behavior or a great work product in a meeting, there’s no reason to wait.

“Tom, the presentation you gave on your analysis was super strong.  I like the way you used stories to bring the key points to life, and the underlying analysis was extremely thorough – my primary evidence for that is the way you had a detailed answer for every single question. The impact of having done such good work is that we are right on time for kicking off the project.  Thanks and well done.”

If someone manifests poor behavior or work product, the key is to get them that feedback ASAP, but not in front of others in the room. At the end of the meeting, ask, “Hey Tom, do you have a minute?” While you walk away from the meeting, or once you have gotten to a more private location, share your feedback.

“Tom, thanks for the analysis. I think, though, that you need to refine it along a couple dimensions.  First, I think you need to tease out an exec summary so everyone understands the ‘so what’ on the analysis right up front, and I think it’s also really important to have anticipated the questions that came up. I’m not sure there was a good answer to most of the questions in there. I think this practically means that we can’t really move forward until we get all the stakeholders comfortable that there are answers to their questions, and we’re now delayed. How did you see things?”

It’s really important to get the feedback to people immediately, if possible. Think about Starks the gymnast and imagine if the gymnast didn’t do something correctly on, say, a Monday. Now imagine that the coach waits until Starks’s annual review to tell him “you held your hollow too long.” Obviously useless, and we even can agree that it’s ridiculous. Imagine instead that the coach waits until Friday night, ”remember that one repetition around 6:34 PM on Monday on the vault, well you held your hollow too long.” Also useless (and considerably less ridiculous).

Waiting to give feedback makes absolutely no sense. Giving feedback as close as possible to the feedback-able event lets people fix it faster or lets them repeat their success more quickly. Both help lead a person to more success, and what’s more important in a leader’s job description than enabling the success of their people?

If you use meetings as an opportunity to look for feedback-worthy events, you’ll be well set up to give real-time feedback. Just remember, give praise in public, but give criticism in private.

Russ Laraway

Russ is a co-founder at Candor, Inc. His career has been uniquely 100% in management, at places such as the Marine Corps, Google, and Twitter. As a 22 year manager, his focus has always been on the underlying people dynamics, and now at Candor he gets to focus on that full time. Russ received his MBA from Wharton.

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