This post is about three things:
- The 1 most important thing about feedback
- The 2 types of feedback we can give
- The 3 steps in the BIF feedback model I made up the other day
And, as a special bonus feature, 2 particular situations where we can use a variation of the model.
I wrote this post because when delivering management training, the topic of feedback often comes up. To give a quick answer with some valuable advice, I cobbled together some feedback models and developed BIF. I hope you find it useful.
What is feedback?
Feedback is information about past performance.
It is not necessarily actionable, it may be negative or positive, could be subjective or objective, accurate or a load of old nonsense … but it’s all feedback.
Feedback in the workplace, especially in jobs with intangible outputs, is usually fairly subjective, a bit vague, often about other people’s perceptions, and not always very well evidenced … but it’s still feedback.
Even if it feels a bit ragged around the edges, most feedback is wrapped around a kernel of truth that we should take responsibility for – after all, the truth about our performance is really only a sum of other people’s perceptions of it (and our perception of our own performance is not necessarily more valid).
Feedback could be, and should be, a powerful tool that helps people grow and develop. A colleague of mine describes it as “a gift”, and he is right. Well-intentioned feedback delivered with care is a rare and precious gift we should all aspire to give, and if lucky enough to receive, we should accept with grateful thanks.
He also calls feedback “the breakfast of champions” which works less well as a metaphor, but I like it for two reasons:
- I love Kurt Vonnegut
- It makes the point that top performers (champions) feast on feedback and use it to grow and improve
There are various feedback models which all add value. The one I’m going to focus on in this post is one I made up, but it’s based on other models like AID and the one used by Manager Tools.
This model doesn’t talk about content or timeliness, it’s procedural, so I wanted to make quick reference to BOOST because that covers off some of those missing pieces:
- B: Balanced: This means reflect the full performance and don’t just focus on the bad stuff (or the good stuff!)! Although, “balanced” suggests you must provide a balance of good and bad, which is silly because really you should try to accurately reflect the performance, but there you go
- O: Ownership: If you pass on the feedback, you take ownership of it. Use “I” statement and don’t squirm about and hide behind someone else
- O: Observed: Feedback should be based on actual observed behaviour and not suspicion, rumour or hearsay
- S: Specific: Clear and precise feedback of behaviour backed up by examples.
- T: Timely: A really important point, don’t wait till the end of the year, but don’t hover over people either, waiting to pounce with feedback
The Sandwich Method
Allow me to destroy this hoary old canard.
The Sandwich Method is a pusillanimous approach, avoiding the issue, hiding it among niceties and confusing the clarity of the message. Negative feedback might knock people back a little, it might be difficult to deliver because it’s difficult to hear, but if it needs saying – and you’ve made the decision that it does – then don’t beat about the bush, just get on with it and say it!
The BIF Model
So at last, after all that verbacious preamble, we arrive at the hard centre of this post: the BIF model!
Here we go, the 3 steps in the BIF feedback model:
- B: Behaviour – begin the feedback by explaining the specific behaviour that has been observed. You don’t focus on personality or your idea of someone else’s attitude, you focus on the behaviour.
Bad example: You show a bad attitude when others speak in the meeting …
Good example: When you sigh and roll your eyes when others speak in the meeting …
- I: Impact – explain the specific impact that the behaviour has. If there’s no impact, then don’t bother giving feedback on it. If there is an impact, explain it clearly.
Bad example: … which I don’t like …
Good example: … other people don’t feel their contribution is valued …
- F: Future – and this is the 1 most important thing about feedback: it’s about the future!
Bad example: … so have a better attitude, Buster!
Good example: … what can you do differently in meetings to make sure this doesn’t happen? (and together discuss and decide the future actions)
The 2 types of feedback we tend to give are developmental (or negative) and reinforcing (positive). The model is equally important in both cases.
Consider the difference in usefulness between a proper BIF statement and some regular sloppy feedback (see if you can guess which is which):
A: You did well in there, well done!
B: When you nodded and smiled and showed interest when others were talking, it encouraged them to contribute. Keep doing that, it works really well!
Yes, the answer is B!
So there we have it:
- The 1 most important thing about feedback: it’s about the future!
- The 2 types of feedback: developmental and reinforcing
- The 3 steps in the BIF feedback mode: Behaviour – Impact – Future
The two other situations where you can apply this model are when feedback is ignored and the agreed actions are not taken, and when people argue with the feedback and don’t accept it in the first place.
Feedback is ignored, actions not taken …
In this case you have given your feedback on their eye-rolling and sighing in the meeting and they’ve nodded and agreed not to do it again, but when the next meeting comes around, there’s no change in behaviour … what do you do?
- Then either:
- Repeat the feedback
- Switch to BIFFOF!
- Repeat accordingly
There are two possibilities:
- They want to: they are trying to apply the feedback, but failing – or they have forgotten about it – go to A
- They don’t want to: they are not trying and don’t intend to – go to B
A Repeat the feedback
If someone is trying to change an ingrained behaviour, possibly one they do subconsciously, they may not succeed immediately. They may relapse, they may forget, they may struggle with it – so if you diagnose that this is the case, then you repeat the original feedback.
Top Tip: You can agree between you to use a secret tell. This means that you privately signal the job holder when it’s happening to help them realize they’re doing it. This can be really powerful because it’s fun and collaborative, having the manager and job holder working together to improve the behaviour.
If it continues, you may need to consider your diagnosis and switch to path B – see below.
B Switch to BIFFOF
If you diagnose that they aren’t really trying to change and aren’t applying the actions you agreed in the original feedback, then you use BIFFOF!
This is the same as BIF, but it’s Feedback on Feedback (the FOF bit at the end).
This means that instead of focussing on the original behaviour, the feedback focusses on the lack of response to the original feedback.
When you don’t put into practice the actions we agreed the other day, I feel that you’re not taking the feedback seriously. What can we do to make sure this doesn’t continue?
Notice that it still follows the BIF structure, but now the focus is entirely on the lack of action following the feedback, not the original behaviour. The feedback is on the feedback. This reflects your concern as a manager: why are they not following through after you both agreed that they would?
Top Tip: People are not used to this approach and may try to argue about the original behaviour (“I don’t think me sighing in meetings makes a difference …”), as a manager it’s important to keep the focus on the lack of response to the feedback, not the original behaviour.
The outcome you hope for is a re-commitment to implement the original actions, but you may have to consider alternative ways forward, especially if this is not the first time delivering the same messages.
There are a number of questions to ask and associated actions you can take – in most cases these should probably be tackled in the order below (and documented throughout!):
- Is it the right thing to do? Is the agreed action the right thing to do or is there another way to achieve the same desired outcome?
- Is it about time and practice (experience)? Provide more time and support while they master the new skill or behaviour
- Is it about knowledge or skills? Create a development plan to help them meet the learning need
- Is it just not working out? Reassign tasks. If they are simply unable to do it then it may be necessary to re-jig tasks across the team
- Is it time to move on? Move to formal performance management procedures
If things still don’t improve, you will need to re-diagnose and then act accordingly.
People argue with the feedback …
Here is a very powerful cheeky tool you can use when people argue with your original feedback (I got this from Manager Tools who call it the Shot Across The Bow).
Here’s what you do …
You let it go.
You say: “OK, let’s not argue about it, maybe I’m wrong. If I see it again, I’ll let you know”
When I present this to people they throw their arms up in horror and refuse to accept this as good management.
“No!” they say in bamboozled concern, “they cannot be allowed to get away with it!” and “I am the manager, I must be right and must win the argument!”
“Who cares,” says I, “it’s the past. Feedback is about the future remember, as long as they change their behaviour in the future, who cares what happened in the past.”
But … this is a one-time pass.
In most cases, the job holder will be smart enough to modify the behaviour following this … but if not, then you can’t repeat this option. You must do BIF then BIFFOF and go from there.
I’ve found this to be really well-received and, especially from the two Bonus Features, it offers new insight to managers that they can get real value from.