Giving Feedback Virtually

A person at a desk with a laptop, notebook, and cup of coffee

Giving your team feedback requires consistency and practice at the best of times. We take courses, read articles and participate in webinars in order to get better at giving (and receiving) feedback. But how do you apply what you’ve learned when you’re managing a team during COVID and your only tools are Teams, Zoom or Skype? Not to mention a team that is busy navigating a pandemic, dealing with WFH challenges and stressed to the max? There are no handbooks for this situation and the phrase “I have some feedback…” is enough to make any of us spiral in the moment.

I recently found myself in this predicament and googled “How to give feedback remotely during a pandemic without pushing someone over the edge?”.  Not surprisingly, I didn’t get too far. So instead I reached out to some colleagues and subject matter experts and gathered some useful tips and advice on how to best approach this type of discussion virtually:

1. Avoid Surprises

If you’ve identified a pattern of behavior you need to address, tell the person in advance and outline what you’d like to discuss. Providing a summary of the feedback in an email ahead of time will help you both. This approach allows the recipient time to process their emotional reaction, organize their thoughts and formulate their feedback. It also gives you both a chance to approach the discussion with a professional & productive mindset. Catching someone off-guard will backfire – especially because they may have missed visual/verbal cues along the way without the in-person interaction.

Aram Arslanian – President & CEO, Cadence Leadership

2. Be clear on your goal

In order to effectively structure your conversation, decide ahead of time if you are trying to instruct, coach or something in between. Instruction is telling someone how to do something vs. Coaching shows someone how to think about doing something. For a discussion that lands somewhere in the middle, tell your recipient what you’re trying to accomplish so you’re on the same page despite not being face to face.

Aram Arslanian – President & CEO, Cadence Leadership

3. Be mindful of privacy

Ongoing feedback is particularly important when team members are working remotely but be mindful that employees may have varying levels of privacy. You would not give difficult feedback in front of others at the office. The same consideration should be observed while at home. While video calls are ideal for everyday exchanges, they can often be overhead by those who might be seated nearby or walking in and out of the room. Respect your team’s privacy by sharing constructive or challenging feedback with them one-on-one, via phone call

Janet Eastwood – President, Two Red Chairs Executive Coaching

4. Ask not Tell

Allow your team the opportunity to self-evaluate before stepping into the feedback discussion. This allows you to know what is on their mind and may make the conversation easier. Consider using the feedback loop: Step one, ask the employee how they think they did on the task. This gives them a chance to self-assess and possibly identify areas that need to be improved on their own. Either way it opens the conversation for a more productive discussion. Step two is to build onto their version of how they did with your own specific feedback before asking for their thoughts. Step three would be to build a plan together on how to make the agreed upon changes or improve the task together and step four is creating the action plan. Within this loop the employee is part of the solution and the approach is one of seeking to understand and building onto what is already true from the employees’ perspective. Hopefully, they will feel more engaged and empowered following the discussion.

Nancy Dewar – Owner, Inspire Coaching and Facilitation

5. Ask better questions

Prepare for your conversation – research ahead of time which questions you want to discuss, phrasing them so they cannot be answered with a simple yes / no. This will provide you with a more thought-provoking and deep response. I found this list to be particularly helpful and was certainly surprised to hear the response to “Which part of quarantine have you come to appreciate the most?”

6. Silence is golden

Resist the urge to fill pauses and silences which can often feel exaggerated and awkward on video. Allow time to think and process – the good stuff sometimes comes after an awkward silence (and staring competition).

7. It’s not personal

The truth sometimes hurts but remember it’s not personal. Prepare yourself that your discussion could flip 180˚ and you may end up on the receiving end of feedback. Maybe you’re making things worse with a specific style of communication, maybe your tone is being misconstrued, etc. By sharing how a specific behaviour makes you feel, i.e. “When you do X, it makes me feel Y”, you’ll both start to understand how actions can contribute to hurt feelings or misunderstood behaviours, and then you can start to work together on a solution.

In my case, by properly preparing and thinking through my feedback objectives, I was able to have a productive, honest, and empathetic conversation. By using some of the tips above, we were both able to understand how we were impacting the other and we exposed some root issues which I’m happy to report – we’re now actively mindful of and working to improve upon.

Madison Holton

Group Director, Client Experience


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