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Use the Magic Feedback Structure: Keep + Stop + Start
If you have management responsibility for people, you must give feedback. It’s managerial malpractice if you don’t. People crave feedback. Just like you, they want to get better at their jobs. When you give good feedback, people grow, you have a stronger team, and you build trust. Without feedback, no one knows where they stand, your team does not reach its potential, and top talent gets frustrated because the team is not improving.
It takes courage to give feedback, and because it can be emotionally draining, it’s easy to soft-peddle or even skip it. This article describes a framework for giving feedback and tips to make it a more positive experience.
Keep, Stop, Start
The best framework I know of for giving and receiving feedback is “Keep, Stop, Start.” This method is used extensively at Microsoft, and it’s simple and powerful.
Keep: doing this set of good things.
Stop: doing this set of unproductive things.
Start: doing this new set of things.
By opening with “keep,” you’re acknowledging the work and characteristics that are positive. Often, a teammate is not aware that you are aware of their positive work and attributes. A concrete example of good work or behavior is very powerful, so be specific. By intentionally pointing out their positives, you’re not only reinforcing their good performance but also demonstrating that you’re paying close attention and are in a strong position to give coaching.
The “stop” portion is mostly corrective. It’s a list of actions or behaviors that are detrimental and need to be curtailed. If there is going to be friction or defensiveness, it will be during the “stop” section of the conversation. Again, have concrete examples to illustrate your points. If these unproductive behaviors are overshadowing the “keep” behaviors and inhibiting advancement, now is the time to say so.
The “start” section is where you can help the person grow. List specific actions that you want them to start doing. It’s best to give examples of others who do the activity well so they can emulate them.
Immediate and in private
For the most impact, give the feedback immediately and in private. This is true no matter whom you’re talking to: a peer, a direct report, or a boss. The power of immediacy is that the situation is fresh in both of your minds, and the facts and feelings are not in question. Both of you can focus on the feedback. If you wait, the specifics can be misremembered and morph, and you could end up spending time debating the specifics, which minimizes the impact of the feedback. If you want the other person to listen, talk in private. They are less likely to feel threatened and be defensive. Plus, you’re showing them respect one-on-one, and they won’t feel like you’re trying to put them down in public in order to prove your dominance.
Ask for permission to give feedback
To put the other person into a listening mindset, it’s best to ask for permission. Even if the other person reports to you, show them professional respect and give them a few moments to prepare for the input you’re about to give. Useful opening phrases are:
- “Hey, I just picked up on something you were doing in the last meeting. Is it okay with you if I share my observations?”
- “Would you be open to a little bit of coaching?”
- “I’ve been noticing some things that are both working and not working. Are you willing to hear my thoughts?”
In most cases, the other person will give you the green light. If they don’t, then ask if it’s okay to talk soon “later today, or tomorrow?” They will rarely reject all invitations for input, and if they do, there are bigger issues in play.
Put their mind at ease
Once they give you permission, they are being courageous because they know that they are being vulnerable in opening themselves up for criticism. Respect their openness by beginning with a soft opening, and then tell them the structure you’re going to use for the feedback. For example, “Your meeting is my favorite of the week, I think you have awesome command, and I love what you’re getting done in there. I’ve noticed a few areas where you can improve, and I’m going to tell you in this order: things you should keep doing, things to stop doing, and things to start doing.” This lets them know that you’re on their side and talking to them in the spirit of continuous improvement.
Praise the effort. Critique the specifics
It’s very easy for people to confuse hard work with the right process and results. Just because someone worked very hard, doesn’t mean they did a good job. When giving feedback, be sure to praise the effort, so they know that you recognize their hard work. They will be more open to listening. Once you’ve applauded their hard work, then go into the keep/stop/start specifics.
For example, it’s useless to tell someone, “I don’t like the way you handle meetings.” Helpful feedback looks like, “In this morning’s project meeting, you didn’t come prepared with a crisp agenda, which led to an unfocused conversation. For the next meeting, can you send out an agenda beforehand? If you’d like assistance in putting it together, I’m happy to help.”
Read more about Learning from Mistakes
Process – not just results
A great team needs results that are repeatable. To get consistent results, you need a great culture and process. When you focus strictly on the results, you run the risk of burning out customers or team members to get short-term results. Therefore, double down on your feedback on the process. Can the process be improved by removing/adding steps? Better communication? More/fewer people involved? Do you have metrics to measure the process? Are you treating people in a manner that makes them want to do their best every day? In giving process feedback, you’re helping your teammates create methods that work long term.
“Thank you for being coachable”
If someone responds well to coaching by actively listening and then executing on the keep/stop/start list, give them sincere praise for being open to input. I say something like, “Thank you for being so coachable. Being such an open listener makes it much easier for me to give you continuous feedback.” This message always lands well, reduces friction, and makes future conversations less emotionally draining.
No phones or laptop during the conversation
When you are giving or receiving feedback, do not look at your phone or laptop. Period. If you have an emergency and must look at your phone, then (a) pause, (b) apologize, (c) state why, (d) do it quickly, and (e) return to the conversation. If the other person starts looking at their phone, then stop talking and go 100% silent. After a few seconds of awkward silence, they will get the picture and return to the conversation phone-free.
Giving feedback can be uncomfortable, and it is human nature to avoid discomfort. You have a responsibility to your team, your endeavor, and yourself to overcome this unease. When you become skilled at giving feedback, people will seek you out and ask for your input. Once the feedback flywheel starts spinning, they will grow more rapidly, reach their potential more quickly, and your team will be healthier and stronger.
In 2018, I published my 11 most important lessons from Microsoft email, and over 25,000 people read it and forwarded it to their friends and colleagues. Many people asked me to write in more depth about the topics in the email, so that’s what I’m doing. I’ve spent the last year writing and will share more of that content at AlexHinrichs.com. If you find this interesting, please forward the articles, subscribe to my email list, and follow me on LinkedIn.