A Feedback Myth: Focus on the Problem, Not the Person

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love a good framework. I think these frameworks, along with processes and systems can help accelerate learning and aid implementation of new ideas.

Today, I want to share a framework that allows you to break down the types of feedback that you’re likely to deliver as a manager. The reason that it’s important to understand different types of feedback is because the way in which you deliver feedback can (and should) change as a result.

Typical advice: focus on the problem, not the person

Another key reason why this particular framework is important is because of a well intentioned, but misguided piece of advice often given to managers when it comes to delivering feedback:

“Focus on the problem, not the person”

I believed in this advice for quite some time and whilst it isn’t wrong as such, it’s not how things work in reality and I noticed that focusing just on the problem wasn’t good enough and not practical.

The truth is that all feedback is personal.

The variable is the extent to which the feedback is personal. Some feedback will be very personal, whereas other types of feedback will be just a little personal.

The framework that we’re exploring today will allow you to understand where feedback can sit on this spectrum and therefore, how you can best deliver feedback. 

It’s also worthwhile having a starting position of all feedback being personal will ensure that you take the delivery of that feedback seriously and put proper thought into it. 

Let’s get to it.

A framework to understand feedback types

We have three main categories of feedback and they range from focusing on the work that someone does, right through to their behaviours:

Types of Feedback Framework
Types of Feedback Framework

From left to right, we can see that the feedback categories range from focusing on the work, through to the person. Let’s take a look at each category and how we can adapt our feedback delivery style as a result. 

1. Feedback on deliverables.

Here, we’re talking about feedback that you’ll deliver that relates directly to the work that someone delivers that is quite tangible. This could include things such as:

  • A strategy presentation.
  • A piece of copywriting.
  • An audit of a website.
  • A piece of programming code.
  • A design for an app homepage.

Essentially, these are very concrete outputs of someone’s work. 

As a manager of a team of people, you’re likely to deliver a lot of feedback on outputs like this to ensure that your team is delivering effective, high quality work.

This type of feedback is the least personal on our spectrum because your feedback focuses on the output that someone has produced. This output will have some relatively objective standards that you can measure the work against, meaning that you can make the feedback as least personal as possible.

For example, when reviewing a piece of programming code, there are likely to be improvements that you suggest that relate to known industry standards and a bar of quality that is pretty objective – such as speed and security of that code. This means that you can focus mostly on the problem, not the person – but not completely. The output that you’re giving feedback on is still something that a person produced and they are likely to tie it to themselves on a personal level.

In terms of delivering feedback, given that this type of feedback is least personal, you don’t need to spend quite as much time ensuring that you deliver it in a way that takes into account a person’s emotional response or personal traits.

The SBIA framework that we talked about previously is a great example of a feedback framework that works well for this type of feedback.

2. Feedback on progression

For this category of feedback, we’re focusing on feedback that you’re likely to give that is related to someone’s career progression and personal development. This could include:

  • Whether they’ve achieved a promotion or not.
  • Development feedback on their talents and skills.
  • How they’re performing when taking on new responsibilities.

You’re unlikely to deliver feedback on these areas each and every day, as you may do with deliverables, but when you do deliver it, it will be more personal and arguably feel more important to the individual. It’s likely that you’ll deliver this type of feedback during monthly, quarterly or annual reviews.

On the spectrum of feedback types, we’re moving slightly more towards the personal end here because, well, it’s someone’s progression and career development, so it will naturally feel more personal to someone.

Let’s quickly revisit the advice we mentioned earlier:

“Focus on the problem, not the person”

If you tell someone that they’re not getting the promotion that they wanted, how can that not feel personal?!

At the same time, and the reason that this category of feedback sits in the middle of the spectrum, is because you can deliver feedback against some relatively objective criteria of what it takes to get promoted at your company. 

For example, if someone is going to be promoted to a Senior Designer, there are probably going to be a range of somewhat objective criteria that someone needs to demonstrate before they will get there. Or if someone is trying to develop themselves by passing an exam or getting a certification of some kind, there is an objective standard that they will need to meet.

So this category sits in the middle of the spectrum, meaning that you should take some time to consider how to deliver feedback that falls into it. Telling someone that they’ve not gotten the promotion that they’ve been hoping for will be a hard conversation for them and requires a proportionate amount of preparation to explain this decision. 

3. Feedback on behaviours

The third and final category of feedback that you’re likely to deliver as a manager is centred around someone’s behaviours. At this end of the spectrum, the feedback is more personal than most other types of feedback and is likely to include things such as:

  • How they conduct themselves on calls and in meetings.
  • Their attitude and approach to working with colleagues.
  • How they tend to respond to problems, challenges and setbacks.

The reason that this category sits at the most personal end of the spectrum is that it’s very, very hard to separate these things from a person and their traits. 

If someone responds to challenging situations by spiralling and getting into a cycle of negativity, telling them about this and trying to improve it will go deep into their mind and their personality. The reasons that they respond like this to difficult situations is likely to come from their wider background and maybe even their childhood and adolescent years – not exactly the areas that are easy for any of us to fix!

Not to mention that being told that we need to improve something that relates to our personality or behaviours that may be ingrained in who we are, is always going to be difficult to hear. 

At the same time, it’s important that managers deliver this type of feedback because how we behave in our roles is key to success, particularly as we become more senior. If we avoid it, then we’ll end up holding someone back from progressing as far as they could. 

The thing is, delivering this type of feedback can be difficult and is likely to make you feel pretty uncomfortable. There is no way to make it completely comfortable, but bearing in mind the spectrum of feedback we’re talking about here, you can prepare yourself more and ensure that you put the appropriate amount of time and headspace into the preparation. This can help ensure that no matter what, you deliver the difficult feedback in the most effective way possible. 

To wrap up, I’d leave you with a few key actions:

  • Take a look at the framework and categories of feedback above, then start to think about how the feedback that you deliver to your team may fit into each category.
  • Start to think about how the feedback delivery may change based on the category and plan how you may action this over the coming weeks.

Even this basic level of awareness will make you a more effective and emotionally intelligent manager.

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