Here are 5 practices for giving feedback remotely that help encourage behavior change even at a distance.
“Lost in translation” only begins to describe the perils of giving feedback remotely. How do you tell someone that their tone needs to improve, without your own tone offending them and hindering the likelihood that they’ll want to improve? How do you give corrective feedback to a brand new employee, when the only interaction you’ve had so far is via Zoom one-on-one meetings?
Giving feedback remotely is tough. It’s hard enough telling a coworker something they don’t want to hear without it being through a screen.
Yet, the reality is, with most of us working remotely these days, giving feedback remotely is a critical skill that our teams depend on us for. How else will our team members know what could be better in their performance and the state of progress they’re making if we as leaders do not tell them?
To do this, I’m sharing 5 best practices for giving feedback remotely in a way that is constructive, honest, and encourages a real change in behavior…
#1: Uncover your team’s communication preferences and style.
Everyone has communication preferences. Some detest the slightest shadow of conflict. Others love a vigorous debate. Some prefer written feedback because it allows them to digest the feedback in a more rigorous way. Others prefer the feedback is delivered face-to-face via video because they want to register the body language of the other person.
The key insight is to never assume that merely because you prefer to give feedback in a certain way, that your direct report necessarily prefers to receive the feedback that way as well.
To account for this, here are four questions you can ask to understand your team’s preferences around feedback and communication:
- What’s your preferred way to receive feedback, in terms of speed?
- What’s your preferred way to receive feedback, in terms of format?
- What’s your orientation toward conflict?
- How would you describe your communication style?
These questions were pulled from our Work Preferences Survey in Know Your Team.
#2: Make what’s obvious to you obvious to your team.
With only our words to convey tone or intent in a remote environment, it’s imperative that we try to be as clear as we can in our feedback. You must make what is obvious to you obvious to your team member.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with a manager who’ll say to me, “I thought I made it clear that they needed to improve their performance… But when their performance review time came around, they were surprised to hear they were performing poorly.” Don’t let this manager be you. Your direct report suffers more pain when they are blindsided later down the line than when they are given corrective feedback in the moment at the time of the original underperformance.
Being explicit in your feedback is harder than it sounds. When you’re in the conversation, staring into your coworker’s eyes on the screen, you might find yourself smudging your words and lightening the gravity of the feedback you’re trying to give. But remember: The blurred edges of your feedback will only confuse and mislead your direct report.
To ensure your feedback is clear and explicit, here are some phrases you can try using in your next one-on-one meeting:
- For instance, when I observed ___ , I noticed it affected ___.
- This occurred ___ times on___ dates.
- These are the words and phrases you used in this situation that came across as ___.
- Our expectations for this role are ___. This is not meeting expectations.
- This is falling short in these ways: ___.
This may feel nit-picking to you – but I assure you, the level of specificity and clarity in your feedback is the only way to make what is obvious to you obvious to your direct report.
Not sure when is the right time for giving feedback remotely? Read this piece here.
#3: Emphasize how this benefits your team member.
Your heartbeat picks up. Your stomach drops. There’s a ringing in your ear, as the other person’s voice fades. You’ve likely felt one (or all) of these side effects of receiving negative feedback. No one likes receiving negative feedback. As a felt experience, it feels icky. As much as we might tell ourselves that, “Oh I know this feedback is good and for my self-improvement”, rarely, in the moment, does it register as such.
As a result, when you are giving feedback remotely, keep in mind the felt experience for your direct report on the other side. They are sitting in their home, peering at the video cam on their laptop, listening to their boss tell them they’ve come up short. Amidst their heart racing, stomach churning, and ears ringing, you’ll need to remind them that this feedback is in their team’s best interest – and in their best interest.
Remind them that this feedback can serve them if internalized well. Here are a few phrases you can try when you chat with one-on-one:
- “I’m sharing this feedback because I want you to have a productive relationship with the rest of your team.”
- “I want you to be successful in this role, and so wanted to share honest observations of opportunities I think you could improve.”
- “Your growth matters to me, and I wanted to share this because I know how deeply you care about your improvement.”
- “I’m giving you this feedback because I care about your career progression.”
#4: Co-create a path forward.
When we offer corrective feedback, as a manager, it’s easy to resort to a version of saying, “Stop doing A. Start doing B.” We want to simply declare the new behavior to adopt, and then be on with it.
While this may feel convenient for us as leaders, it’s demotivating for our direct reports. As the research of psychologist Edward Deci corroborates, when you try to exert control onto others, the person’s performance goes down, the outcome suffers, the person doesn’t learn as much, and the person doesn’t enjoy the task, itself, as much.
In short: We can’t impose a solution on our direct reports if we want our feedback to have any chance of truly encouraging a positive behavior change. Instead, we have to co-create a path forward, and incorporate suggestions and input from our direct report on what they themselves would ideally like to do differently.
To do this, consider asking these one-on-one meeting questions to your direct report when giving feedback remotely:
- Can we think together of ways we can approach this situation differently in the future?
- What are alternate paths for this we can brainstorm together?
- Here are some suggestions for how we can move forward… What do you think of these?
The answers to these questions can help frame what the new behavior change should entail.
Of course, not all corrective feedback will neatly fit into this framework. Some corrective feedback (for example, blatantly unacceptable behavior) will need to be clearly met with, “Here’s what to do instead…”
However, for feedback where you want the person to be engaged in the solution itself, asking for their input on how to move forward can be tremendously helpful.
#5: Follow up with written confirmation.
In a remote environment, things get “lost in translation” because of the sheer volume of communication. Chats, video meetings, emails, phone calls… To avoid your feedback getting lost in the din, consider documenting it in writing after you deliver it via video or phone. I don’t mean in an off-hand 2-line chat in Slack, but rather in a paragraph (or two). Write a long-form message that summarizes the conversation and path forward agreed upon.
This helps not only solidify into memory the feedback that was discussed but also serves as another point of clarification: Is what is written down understood by both parties, or by only you?
Here’s an example of what the write-up could look like when giving feedback remotely:
Thank you again for giving me space earlier today to share honest observations for what I think could be better in your performance about X project. I appreciate you taking it all in gracefully and wanting to work together to accomplish X.
To ensure we’re on the same page, here were my takeaways from the conversation:
- Y behavior didn’t meet expectations for X project. For example: __.
- Going forward, you’ll make an effort to do Z behavior for X project.
- I’ll make an effort to support you during our weekly 1:1 meetings for Z behavior.
To reiterate clearly: I share this because I care about your personal and professional development. I know the progress made on these fronts will only add to the incredible existing skills, gifts, and talents you have to offer.
If you feel that anything I shared here in writing isn’t what we discussed or if I missed part of our conversation, please do let me know. I’m happy to revise these points and ensure we’re both aligned here.
I’m grateful for your partnership in this.
To be clear, this is only an example, written in a style that may or may not be suited to you. In whatever write-up you do put together, ensure it resounds with your own voice.
We can’t settle for “lost in translation” in a remote environment. It’s on us, as leaders, to find ways to giving honest feedback remotely in a way that helps encourage real change in behavior from our team. That meaningful change in behavior – an improvement in performance, a reduction of a bad habit – is what we’re seeking with our feedback, after all.
Start with these five practices here for giving feedback remotely. Even implementing one of them can help your feedback land constructively, even if it’s at a distance.