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How To Give Corrective Feedback Remotely

  April 6, 2021, 5-min. read
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Just like 'stay safe' at the end of a conversation is no longer a cliche, words, especially the positive ones, have never been this impactful. In times of a crisis, the confirmation that our work still carries a purpose is essential for long-term motivation. Taking the time to recognize employees is fundamental to keeping people engaged & motivated. 

Yet, one of the disciplines managers tend to neglect in terms of remote team leadership is feedback. Most understand the team needs their support as well as information for good performance. They seek to keep in touch with their people, clearly delegate and distribute tasks, and help their people maintain a sense of belonging. However, what they often forget is feedback.

There can be several reasons for this, out of which at least two are quite common. On the one hand, managers may feel they lack information about their people's performance; they aren't there when their people are working on their tasks. And second, feedback, predominantly negative, is usually not one of the things they enjoy doing - in person, let alone over a ZOOM call. They are afraid, particularly in difficult times, of demotivating their people.

2021 HUMAN CAPITAL TRENDS

Feedback, more important than ever before

In standard workplace operations, people receive feedback inadvertently. They can deduce the manager's opinion from their gestures, tone of voice, facial expression, and thanks to that, they receive continuous feedback on their performance, actions and behaviors. 

They obtain information from small fragments for continual correction, and there's no danger that they'll fundamentally break from the manager's expectations. Nothing like this happens when working from home.

At the same time, even though managers don't like to give negative feedback, people expect it and rate it as more important for their performance than positive feedback. They see in it a way to improve. Studies on this topic confirm that 57% of people prefer corrective (think constructive) feedback to praise.

Be specific

General statements, whether laudatory ("It was great") or negative ("This failed") are not helpful. At all. They don't give any information on what to do the same next time or what to avoid. Likewise, there are no indirect cues or indications. Feedback should not be a quiz or riddle. The more clearly and accurately we formulate it, the greater the chance that the other side will understand it the way we think they would.

Studies on this topic confirm that 57% of people prefer corrective (think constructive) feedback to praise.

Describe, do not evaluate

Feedback should include a description of the situation (what happened) and the outcome (what it led to). 'We should never describe the person and their qualities' says Barbora Dankova, People science director at LutherOne. 

'The more personally we frame our feedback, the more personally it is perceived. Personal formulations lead to emotional reactions, non-acceptance, and moreover, while we can choose another method next time, it's difficult to change oneself.' Dankova adds. 

Understanding is the key to finding a working solution, and it also leads to trust.

Listen, do not assume

One of the most fundamental feedback elements is to comprehend why the other side chose that particular method, what led them to do what they did, and what they had expected. 

Therefore, we shouldn't assume motives or suggest to others what they are, but instead, ask them. Understanding is the key to finding a working solution, and it also leads to trust. Thanks to this, the manager becomes a partner instead of an opponent or competitor.

Try not to solve things for other, help them find their solution

A relatively common mistake made by managers in giving feedback is that they propose or push their solutions to their people. Statistically, they're more likely to have more experience, information, are sharp and clever, and have grown into a managerial position because of their ability to solve and deliver things. 

Therefore, logically, they also apply these qualities in a managerial role. They may feel that they are expected to do so. This leads them to advise their people even when it isn't required or useful. 

Those who are more enlightened understand that they should coach their people rather than instruct them. Coaching doesn't mean just simply asking questions, as some people suggest ('and don't you think that'), ('and wouldn't it be better'). Ideally, managers should help their people find their own solution. 

Feedback isn't a shoving match and if a person (with the help of a manager) defines their own path, they'll be much more motivated about it. In addition, it has a better chance of working than the one the manager would choose, with their knowledge, skills and prerequisites. Another benefit is that this way, people learn to think about things with foresight and as a result are significantly more independent and need less and less correction from the manager.

If there aren't results at the end, it's like it never happened

Corrective feedback should always have clear outcomes, a plan for what to do next (who, what, when, how we verify). Unless clear steps are enunciated in the end, the feedback was pointless as it won't - most likely - lead to any change. At the same time, it hardly allows for any follow-up. And that magical step is definitely not to "think" or "try to improve". Just imagine how such measures would be evaluated over time. 

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The end result and, indeed, the solution may be short-term (immediate action), but it should also solve the problem conceptually. So it doesn't just solve the current situation but also prevents its recurrence in the future. Such a conceptual solution may be the agreement of a procedure, prevention, or development.

So far these are general principles of feedback. However, it doesn't hurt to remind yourself of them from time to time. That being said, remote feedback has its specifics. So what do you need to pay extra attention to when your teams are scattered around the country or even - the globe?

Immediate feedback, immediate improvement

As we mentioned in the introduction, remote workers don't have a chance to get feedback incidentally. So it's even more important to give it immediately and revise the details before they become a major problem. 

Of course, the principle of not waiting and giving it immediately doesn't apply to the moment we are captive to emotions. In this case, it's always important to "chill out" first. On the other hand, when we actually give it on time, it's usually smaller things that don't arouse our emotions at the time. In contrast, the longer we postpone feedback, the greater danger the problem will grow to proportions where it is difficult to disregard emotions.

Suitable medium

While we can easily share praise by e-mail, we should always carefully consider the appropriate form for corrective feedback. Writing a statement can be very tempting, and has its place in many cases. We can think it over in peace, rephrase it until we are satisfied, we don't have to worry about an immediate reaction, and we don't have to prepare so much. 

Writing can be very useful for less pushy people and for feedback between colleagues or towards a superior. As for feedback from the manager to his people, ideally, it should always take place in person. This is precisely because the discussion itself (reasons, motives, alignment, proposed solutions) is much more critical in managerial feedback than the formulation of what was not good. 

The written statement doesn't allow for any discussion and, moreover, often leads to a different interpretation than intended. The same text can be interpreted differently. When speaking, you can work with your tone, emphasis in the voice, intonation. Text is what it is, text. In recent times, various emoticons have been promoted for illustration, but these can also be perceived differently or soften the message. 

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Maximize perceptions

The more perceptions we offer, the better. For a good understanding and to be able to work with confidence, it helps when we not only hear but also see. Certainly, many managers would argue that it's easier for them to give feedback over the phone or without video. 

The goal of feedback isn't to offer the manager the most comfortable and safe conditions. The goal is to offer people the most complete - yet concise - information possible. Therefore, it's better for you to choose video and ideally from a distance that your gestures can be seen. You'll notice that the difference between whether you are sitting next to each other or on the other side of the world will be indistinct in a few minutes.

Map out the situation

Of course, if you're really on the other side of the world, you have to choose the right timing for both parties. However, if you're in the same time zone, even in the same city, it's always important to map in the introduction what situation the other is in. How they're doing, what they're currently working on, what they're struggling with. 

When working in the same office, we know or can observe many of these things. However, when working remotely, we have no idea what situation the other is in. At present, it's also possible that the whole extended family is located in the same place (partner at home office, children learning remotely). We should therefore not just find out about the conditions of the other side, but also be able to take them into account and respect them.

Outline the situation in theintroduction

As we should give feedback immediately, continuously, and not postpone it for a more formal meeting, it's important to always clearly define the goal in the introduction and what the topic is ("Now I would like to address / and…, the aim is…"). It will help to better target and concentrate on the given problem and simultaneously minimizes the personal level ('I solve it with them', not 'I get negative feedback').

Identify needs

We should always use remote feedback also to gather input in our direction. What's troubling our people, what they need, what they're struggling with. Again, by not being with them, we have no other indirect source of information. We can additionally get context for their current performance and motivation.

Room for response

When using tools for remote communication, we're not in a hurry. We allow for pauses. We anticipate that audio and video transmissions may be slightly delayed. Therefore, we keep an eye on breaks so that the partner has enough room to get involved and express themselves. We don't immediately move on.

...we keep an eye on breaks so that the partner has enough room to get involved...

Positive conclusion

A positive conclusion should actually be part of the general guidelines for feedback. In practice, it is often misused in the so-called sandwich method. But often, that type of sandwich is not very digestible or appetizing. 

A positive conclusion doesn't just mean a rhetorical technique, a formality of sugar-coating or relativizing with the conclusion ('actually it isn't so serious,' 'it'll be fine…'). The goal is for people to leave with a positive impression, a desire to work and take the steps you've agreed on, and the belief that they'll lead to good results. Thus, a positive conclusion may relate to the outlook, vision, confirmation of the goal, or identifying what the subordinate can build on.

Verification of understanding & next steps

To better verify the understanding and to anchor the result, we can do a post-video written follow up - a summary of agreements. Ideally, we can even ask the subordinate to do so. This increases their commitment; we are more confident that we understand each other, and through this, we impart trust. 

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