There are two types of feedback that managers and executives give at work. Promotion-oriented feedback is reinforcement of what someone is doing that’s working well. Change-oriented feedback is designed to correct, adjust, and improve performance.
Promotion-oriented feedback is the act of “catching someone doing something right” and articulating that back to them. This is important. The ability to recognize small improvements is a sign that you are a good coach. You should do this regularly and consistently across all your coaching sessions.
The other type of feedback, change-oriented feedback, is something that people, especially those new to coaching at work, find harder to deliver. Everyone has been the recipient of change-oriented feedback that was ineffective or just demoralizing. That kind of change-oriented feedback gets us anxious. It can anger people. Low-quality feedback weakens the relationship over time.
But there’s a way to give change-oriented feedback to make it useful. And the good thing is, scientists have studied the act of giving feedback by athletic coaches. In my experience, the markers of high quality feedback in athletics apply to coaching in business, as well. Based on a study of athletic coaches, the markers of high quality feedback include:
- Empathetic manner
- Choices of solutions
- Clear and attainable objectives
- Avoidance of person-related statements
- Constructive feedback paired with tips
- A considerate tone of voice
So, how can you bring these qualities into your conversations and your 1-on-1 meetings? Let’s go through all six of those, one by one.
Empathetic manner. Recognize what is hard for the person, even if it is easy for you or for others. Acknowledge the effort already applied, and the progress already made—even if you or others progressed faster at one point. If you are in the same room or on a video conference, remember that your body language and posture can communicate openness, empathy and understanding—or the opposite, such as judgment, scrutiny, or skepticism. Folding your arms in front of your chest, for example, can convey that you are shut off to the person.
Choices of solutions. Present options. Protect the sense of control and freedom that your people need individually. Allow people to determine for themselves a good course of action by offering choices—not directives. Do not assume you know what is best. Allow them some breathing room to determine a course of action that feels correct and effective for their situation, skill level, etc.
Clear and attainable objectives. Know your people and their current level of skill. With that understanding, identify the next level up. Encourage them to reach higher but stay realistic. Do not assume that because you have stated an objective once, it has registered completely and clearly.
Avoidance of person-related statements. Use the right language. Focus your statements on observable, changeable behaviors and skills. Do not label the person. Do not assume laziness. Assume they have pure motives. Assume they want to do a good job at work.
Constructive feedback paired with tips. Focus their attention on things your people can control. Useful tips will make things concrete, giving examples of how others have improved or you have improved in that area. Excellent coaches remove ambiguity by providing clear and specific things for the person to try in order to improve.
A considerate tone of voice. Your tone of voice conveys a rich amount of information—much more than text alone. That is why powerful coaching is often best delivered through face-to-face meetings or private phone or video conversations. Check yourself and your emotional state before you talk. Manage your emotions, especially anger. Assume people want to do their jobs well. Assume that people want to achieve progress in meaningful work.
Now you’ve learned the six markers of effective change-oriented feedback. But there is something else that matters besides the quality of feedback—it’s the timing of feedback. The closer you can get your feedback to the actual performance event, the better.
Last, it's extremely hard to practice all of these at once. To get started with this, pick two of these areas, such as "empathetic manner" with "clear and attainable objectives" and improve on those until you feel competent. Then move to another practice. With focus and persistence, you can become competent in all six. Then your coaching conversations will feel remarkably efficient and energizing—both for you and the person you are coaching.
Gale Stafford is a management consultant for tech companies. This is an excerpt from Gale's new book, The Talent Formula: How to Engage People, Improve Teamwork, and Elevate Performance Using the New Science of Management.
 Carpentier, Joëlle, and Geneviève A. Mageau. "When Change-oriented Feedback Enhances Motivation, Well-being and Performance: A Look at Autonomy-supportive Feedback in Sport." Psychology of Sport and Exercise: 423-35.