Real-time Feedback

(c) 2003-2010 Esther Derby

This column originally appeared on

Twice a week, I go to the gym and weight train with Brooke Darst, a Certified Personal Trainer. As I perform my exercises, Brooke provides a constant stream of feedback: Minor corrections, “Chin in! Lower your right shoulder. Stand up straight!” Encouragement, “Perfect!” and recognition for improvement, “You held that 10 seconds longer than last week – awesome!”

It’s obvious that if Brooke waited until the end of the month and then told me “In the first week of the month, you raised your right shoulder during some exercises,” it wouldn’t be very helpful. I might not remember the specific exercise or session, and I wouldn’t have a chance to correct the problem until the next session. I’d start looking for a new trainer.

Unfortunately, many managers act as if they think it’s best to wait until the yearly performance evaluation to provide feedback.

Delayed feedback has significant costs. If there’s been a pattern of incorrect or incomplete work, it’s too late to go back and correct the work. The opportunity to improve performance and productivity is gone forever. The feedback given long after the event may feel capricious or arbitrary. The highest price is damaged working relationships.

Jackson waited until a yearly performance review to tell Sheila that the defect density in her code was twice as high as the other programmers. Now he was going to move her onto a less challenging project.

Sheila was stunned. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” she asked. “The defect densities aren’t sorted to show individual differences — I had no idea. When I asked about a promotion in our one-on-one meeting, you never said anything about not being happy with my work! I could have done something differently if I’d known!”

Sheila started wondering what else Jackson wasn’t telling her. And she wondered if this was the start of Jackson pushing her off the team. She accepted the new assignment, but she didn’t really trust Jackson after that.

Feedback is necessary to achieve result and to maintain relationships.

Here are three basic guidelines for providing information to improve the work while maintaining working relationships:

Assume people don’t know. Like Sheila, people are often not aware that their performance isn’t quite up to par. When there isn’t a defined point of comparison or data from the work itself, people may not realize their work isn’t all it needs to be. Some times it’s as simple as asking a question. “Are you aware that the defect density in your code is twice as high as anyone else in the group?” A question can provide information and set the stage for problem solving.

Provide clear, specific examples. Don’t make the feedback receiver guess what to change. Suppose a manager said, “You didn’t deliver on last month’s design. I’m disappointed in you.” What does “didn’t deliver” mean? Was the design late? Was it incorrect? In the wrong form?

Vague statements and generalizations such don’t provide information for the feedback receiver to know what to do differently. If you want to see an improvement, provide specific examples of what was wrong and what the results should be. A statement like “I found grammar and spelling errors on every page in your design. I’ve marked them here. The design itself is correct, but the number of errors in the text distract from the content,” is more likely to achieve the desired improvement.

Give feedback before you reach the boiling point. Don’t wait until you are ready to transfer, demote, or terminate. Most people want to do a good job. But they may not know what the standard is or how to do it. Give information early so people have a chance to correct the situation before you reach the end of your rope.

Managers don’t need to provide minute-by-minute feedback like my personal trainer does. They do need to provide clear, specific, and timely feedback to help people be as successful as they can be. After all, if the people who report to you aren’t successful, how can you be successful?