Feedback Equation

Originally posted Jul 15, 2018

As I mention in my book Demystifying Public Speaking, humans are mostly bad at giving feedback. We’re also really bad at preparing ourselves to receive feedback.

Many of us are paralyzed by the fear of having these awkward conversations. We actively avoid asking for feedback because it’s just so painful sometimes, and often we receive nonspecific, general feedback from others. I wrote a whole chapter in that book about feedback, because I so deeply want folks to learn how to deliver (and request!) better feedback at work.

What we crave is feedback that will help us grow. It totally relates back to our core needs at work; we want to know specifically what it is that we should keep doing, and what we should stop doing. So here’s a framework to help you successfully structure specific and actionable feedback, which you can request when people give you feedback, too.

Observation + Impact + Request or Question = Actionable, specific feedback that has a chance of landing

Observation

The feedback equation starts with a statement of your observation of someone’s behavior. This is just the facts—the Who/What/When/Where. Observations can be recorded with a video camera. This isn’t how you feel about someone’s behavior. (This may sound familiar if you’ve used the SBI feedback tool!)

Let’s use an example: Mark writes really terse emails. The emails are super short—not even full sentences! It seems like he’s mad all the time, and I always have to reply to ask for more information about what he means, because there’s never enough context to answer or act on.

How can I structure my feedback to make sure it lands? To start, I shouldn’t say, “when you write emails it seems like you’re mad” or “you write emails that are too short.” Those aren’t observations! Those are my judgments.

Example Observation: Mark, I’ve noticed your emails usually include three to five words in the body.

Impact

Next though, you can describe the impact of the behavior. This is where you can share how you feel! When I first coach people on describing the impact of someone’s behavior, I often find myself saying, “but what’s the impact of that?” And then they’ll respond, and I’ll say, “but what’s the impact of that?” It takes a bit to get to the core thing—the most measurable impact of this behavior.

Example Impact: I have a hard time understanding what you mean in those emails. I often need to reply to your email with more questions to get clarification or more context, which adds time to the process.

Question or Request

Finish it up with either a question for them, or a request to behave differently.

Lots of people jump to request mode: here’s my observation, here’s why it matters to me, so my advice is to do it this way. But if you’re giving feedback and always defaulting to request mode, it’s going to be annoying after a while.

Asking a question often prompts the other person to find creative, new ways to address the impact of this behavior, without you having to make a request. So spice it up, and try asking a genuinely curious question instead of making a request or giving advice!

Example Question: Can you help me understand why you write succinct emails?

Example Request: Could you include a bit more context in your emails so I can make sure I thoroughly understand what you mean up front?

Voila! The feedback equation.

If you structure all of your feedback this way—not just big important feedback, but even tiny little pieces of feedback that you might casually have throughout your day—you’ll find it’s really easy to give successful feedback. This is feedback that people will actually hear, and actually walk away from understanding what they need to do differently, and why. And no amygdala hijacks in sight!

Because I can’t resist a good worksheet, here’s my Feedback Equation Worksheet. Duplicate it to practice crafting your own feedback, or hire me to give my Delivering Feedback workshop at your organization!

Lara Hogan

I'm an engineering leadership coach and consultant. Previously VP of Engineering at Kickstarter, Engineering Director at Etsy.

I champion engineering management as a practice, getting comfortable giving presentations, and celebrating career achievements with donuts.