Servant Leadership - Giving Feedback

Practical advice for true Servant Leaders on giving Feedback


Mike Conley

7/16/20235 min read

Feedback colorful on a whiteboard
Feedback colorful on a whiteboard

Giving feedback is sometimes hard for both the person giving it and the person receiving it. This is true regardless of if it's positive or negative. So how can a Servant Leader do this better? Let's dig in.

Before we do, know that these techniques apply in person or with remote teams. However, I have noticed that giving feedback sometimes fails to be given in a remote team setting. So, I implore all remote Servant Leaders to please make this a standard practice.

Determine a standard approach for giving feedback

In my career, the leaders that gave the best feedback had some sort of defined approach. I find it helpful to define an approach for giving feedback and writing it down. Writing it down is an agreement with myself to give feedback in this manner. I can refer to it later if needed. But it can also start as a basis of what I will share with my teams (more later).

Give feedback in a passionless and emotionless way!

Passion and emotions are great in many aspects of work life. However, giving feedback is one area where either or both can be detrimental. How do you remove passion and emotions? Easy, don't give feedback immediately after an event prompting feedback. Maybe wait a day. Or longer if needed.

For example, Jane just said something that made a client uncomfortable. The client complained to you. You want to give feedback to Jane, but you are upset. If you go into the feedback session upset, you will put Jane on the defensive and she won't hear the feedback you are giving. You would get much better results if you waited till the next day when you are more level-headed to give feedback. Additionally, Jane might be anxious, and waiting till the next day would allow her to be in a better mental space as well.

Don't use a standard schedule to give feedback!

This one everyone may not agree on. As I talked about in the Being a Servant Leaders in a Remote World, I don't believe in giving feedback in one-on-ones unless the individual explicitly asks for it. You can read more about what I think about one-on-ones in the article I linked above.

Setting up a recurring meeting to give feedback can build a culture where certain meetings are dreadful. I hate the idea of making one-on-ones dreadful.

Instead, I like to find times when an employee is not in another meeting and approach them about feedback. Put a meeting on your schedule if you need to block time.

Ask if the employee is ready to receive feedback!

This is easy, but often overlooked. When you reach out to someone you want to give feedback (negative or positive) ask them first "are you available for a few minutes to discuss some feedback?"

Be ready for "No". If the employee says no, there may be a very valid reason. You don't even need to know the reason. Let them know "Ok, please let me know when you are ready to discuss some feedback by [tomorrow, Friday, etc.]. This lets them know that you really want to give feedback, and you put a box around when.

Give feedback in private!

This is likely a given for most leaders. But I like to reinforce it. Give feedback in private. If you're remote, use a private remote video meeting. If you are in person, find a private room. Set the standard to do this with positive and negative feedback.

Give Kudo's, but don't skimp on positive feedback!

Kudo's are great public displays of positive feedback. But don't forget to give positive feedback in a private feedback setting. You don't always need to do both. But make sure you give some positive feedback in private, so all feedback sessions for an employee are not negative and they end up fearing them.

Focus on the behavior, not the person!

Feedback should not be a character attack. Feedback should be about what happened. People are open to changing work behaviors. But attacking them as an individual will set up an employee to be on the defensive. Feedback is also from your perspective. So, talk about it as such. It's about what you perceived, not what they did.

For example:

Instead of saying: "You're disorganized, and it's affecting the team's progress on the project. What are you doing to get organized?”

Try saying: "I've noticed that time-management has become challenging with this project. How are you managing your workload? Is there anything I can do to help?"

Hint: The latter feedback example is much more in the Servant leadership style.

Elements of effective feedback

There are a variety of ways to give feedback. Lots of examples are online of the elements to collect. I suggest finding some you like and sticking to using them. Documented it as part of your approach to giving feedback.

Here are three elements I like to use for feedback:

  • The behavior: What the employee did and/or how they did it.

  • The outcome: What resulted from the behavior and how did it impact the team/company/customer.

  • The next steps: How to improve outcomes or continue to do what you are doing, etc.

Be prepared and document your feedback around these elements prior to giving the feedback. The feedback does not need to be documented in this structure. It can be a sentence or a paragraph. It should just contain the elements.

Example1: (negative) Remember we wanted to give feedback to Jane for saying something that made a client uncomfortable. Here is how that could look using these elements:

"I've noticed some of our customer interactions have become strained on this project with customer X. Can we work on improving our interactions? Are you open to some coaching sessions?"

Example2: (positive) Jackie facilitated a design session for developers that was very effective, and you want to give positive feedback. Using the elements above, it could look something like:

"In yesterday's design meeting, your facilitation was very effective. It helped the team really break down that complex issue. Please continue to facilitate design meetings like this. If desired, would you be willing to coach your peers?"

Be ready to talk about follow-up actions

If you did a good job giving your feedback, there may be follow-up actions to discuss. Be open and listen to the employee. However, nicely try to avoid or steer away from excuses. The focus should be on what is next. Not details of what went wrong (or right).

In example 1 in the previous session, you should be ready to discuss Jane's ideas for improvement and perhaps schedule some coaching sessions. In example 2, you should be ready to hear thank you and have a discussion on what coaching peers would look like.

Be sure to give your employee the time needed. But make sure you are using it constructively.

Setup a feedback culture and staff expectations

Early on with your team, or when you adopt giving feedback as a standard practice, inform your team of how you will be giving feedback. Let them know what they can expect. Share your structure and method for giving feedback. This will open them to the process and make them aware that feedback is not always negative.

Recommendation: Start with a round of positive feedback. This will show you respect for everyone on your team.