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The Feedback Formula

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

I’ve found that giving feedback is extremely stressful for new biotech leaders and managers. What do I say? How do I say it? When do I say it? How can I ensure that, when I do give feedback, it translates into meaningful action?

The good news is that there’s actually a simple formula that works exceedingly well for both positive and critical feedback:

Let’s talk about critical feedback

Telling someone they are underperforming is really hard. If you don’t give this feedback, however, you’re accepting mediocrity on your startup and it can ultimately impact everyone's performance. By not saying something, you’re implicitly acknowledging that sub-stellar work is good enough; it undermines others who are doing extraordinary work. You don't want to end up firing someone for performance issues when they aren't aware there’s a problem and haven’t been given a chance to fix it.

So, regardless of how big or small the issue may be, the Feedback Formula can ensure that you are being clear and specific - without big emotions distracting from the communication.

Here’s an example:

Let’s imagine that Jeff’s slide deck for the weekly Operating Meeting wasn't polished enough; he came off as being underprepared and sloppy. You're not happy with his work product. Here’s how you might have the conversation following the Feedback Formula:

1. Observation: These are non-disputable facts - things that happened.

Jeff, in today’s operating meeting I noticed multiple typos. Your content was quite

brief and you didn’t visualize any of the information.

2. Impact: How does the observation impact team or company goals?

Jeff, when your slide deck is brief and limited to bullet points, it makes it hard for our cross-disciplinary team to understand what you’re saying. We have three different scientific disciplines in that meeting who speak different scientific "languages;" we all have to try multiple modes of communicating ideas to ensure the information is understood and actionable. If, at the end of the meeting, there is confusion about your our new approach, it will prevent our team from hitting our [specific] goal for this quarter.

3. Action: What action do you want to take place? What needs to happen?

Jeff, this needs to change. In the future, your slide decks need to have greater

detail and they should reflect that you put more time and effort into how you communicate, remembering that we needs to make any technical ideas accessible to all three disciplines at the meeting.

Following up:

Once you’ve given the feedback the first time, it’s important to follow up once the person has another attempt to do the same task again. If it’s an improvement, you want to catch them doing the right thing and reinforce what you liked with positive feedback (see below). If it’s not better, then it’s time to repeat the feedback - and add in some coaching.

Coaching: How are you going to ensure that things are better next time? What do you need to change about your approach? How can I support you?

When things don’t improve after critical feedback, it may be that the feedback was not heard. Sometimes, though, it might be unclear how to improve the outcome. It’s hard to know, sometimes, why the performance issue is happening. Is it a lack of skills? A prioritization or time management problem? I would want to have this person walk me through their current process and see if they can identify ways to remediate on their own. If a solutions feels unlikely to work or isn't feasible, then I begin to coach them toward a solution that is more likely to be successful. I start asking questions to help me get to the root of the problem so that, together, we can work to identify potential strategies to try next time.

Positive feedback:

Positive feedback needs to be meaningful and authentic. Giving someone feedback that they’re wearing a nice shirt is lovely, but it doesn't help work performance. Telling someone they did a good job, when they clearly didn’t, reduces your credibility. The key to success, then, is catching someone doing something great in a timely manner, and being specific about what is working. That way you’re telling someone “Yes! More of this!” It is reinforcing the good work so it can be repeated again in the future.

Here’s the same Feedback Formula, with positive feedback instead:

1. Observation: These are non-disputable facts - things that happened.

Sunita, yesterday you gave credit to your intern for that new product

idea. It was only a small comment, but I noticed it.

2. Impact: How does the observation impact team or company goals?

Sunita, when you note your intern’s work like that you are demonstrating our core values in action. You are also making this a great place for interns to work. Comments like yours help us attract and retain top talent.

3. Action: What action do you want to take place? What needs to happen?

Great work recognizing your intern. I am looking forward to hearing more

comments like in the future.

Context matters:

When you’re giving critical feedback, it’s important to do so privately. It can be embarrassing to get feedback in front of others. On the flip side, it’s actually really productive to give positive feedback in front of others. By naming what is great, it boosts that person while having a multiplier effect because it signals to everyone else - at the same time - what success looks like.

At the end of the day, there’s overwhelming evidence that doubling down on someone’s strengths and accentuating the positive will get you much farther faster than trying to pull someone’s weaknesses up a notch or two. In fact, there's research by Professor Barbara Fredrickson that suggests that positive feedback should be given at a 3:1 ration to critical feedback. But, any way you slice it, feedback is most effective when it's timely and specific - and focuses on impact and action for the future.


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