3 keys to giving powerful feedback, as taught by my preschooler

Unexpected lessons my son gave me about guiding teams.

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Any parent of preschool-aged children can relate to their boundary testing. 

If my son were put in a time-out for hitting his sister after breakfast, he’d usually be compelled to try hitting her again after dinner… in case the rules were different.

He needed immediate, direct, and consistent feedback — at least twice — for a boundary to stick. 

If something had become a habit, changing it was more challenging.

 Hypothetically, say that he was dumping water on his bedroom floor for entertainment. If I didn’t notice when I walked in, he’d decide this activity was OK to do. Unwinding his misbelief could take triple the time.

Unexpectedly, as I improved at giving my kids feedback, the feedback I delivered at work became more powerful.

Here are three lessons about feedback that my preschooler taught me:

1. Set clear expectations and hold them, consistently. 

With teammates, as with toddlers, it’s easier to let something slightly out of line go than to put a foot down immediately. 

When my son drops his coat on the floor, hanging it myself feels like less effort than calling him back and watching him do it. But if I don’t call him back, he’ll learn the floor is where his coat goes. 

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I realized that I was doing the equivalent of hanging up other people’s coats at work. 

For instance, we had a client project due for my final review by 3 pm. It didn’t hit my desk until after 6 pm. I missed our family dinner to get to set for the client that evening. I explained this as a one-off and didn’t make much of it. 

The next time we had a project, the same manager didn’t get it to me until 8 pm — on a Friday evening. And this time, it was in even worse shape. 

He had internalized that missing a deadline was okay and that I’d pick up his slack. I now had to unpack his misconceptions about my expectations of what a deadline means. 

2. Frequency brings comfort. 

The more often you give feedback, the more familiar and natural it is to do.

At home, this relates to so many things kids need to learn. Everything from putting away their dishes and saying ‘please’ to helping out a sibling or reading a new story. 

Throughout the day, I find myself telling my kids some version of: “Here’s what you did,” “it had this impact,” and so “going forward, let’s do/avoid this.” It builds their confidence and helps them know if they’re on track.

Building up teams is similar. At one point, I had the goal to give at least one piece of positive or corrective feedback every day, which wasn’t easy when we were all remote. 

I found that positive feedback was even more important than corrective feedback. This is because it motivates and helps build trust, so eventual corrective feedback sticks too.

3. General praise is generally useless. 

To the receiver, sweeping statements sound insincere. It’s also hard to understand what was good or bad about the action. 

I can’t just tell my son, “your room looks bad; fix it.” He sees the pieces of paper all over the floor as intentionally placed food for his stuffed animals. He won’t understand what looks bad in the room or how to fix it.

Photo by Igor Starkov on Pexels.com

I’ve seen this repeatedly at work as well. 

A few months ago, a junior analyst came to me with a 10-page report draft. She had been handed the feedback: “It needs to be shorter,” but the director didn’t say how much shorter, or where, or how he wanted her to tighten the piece. To help her out, I read the draft and gave specific comments throughout. 

Specific feedback takes time and thought, but it’s vital if you want to see a particular action.

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