Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Feedback Frenzy

Volume: October 2013

By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com


Raymond just witnessed Virginia deliver a sales presentation. She did well. In fact, he is anxious to share praise with her, as well as to give her some constructive feedback. Raymond likes helping professionals grow and achieve great results. When an appropriate moment presented itself, Raymond took Virginia to the side and said: “You did a great job!” She beamed. “In fact,” he added, “with just a little tweaking, you’ve got a world-class presentation on your hands.” Her upper lip twitched slightly, but she maintained eye contact. Raymond then launched into five pieces of constructive criticism. Everything he shared was insightful and was delivered with a professional tone. By the delivery of the third item, however, Virginia had shut down. She suddenly looked dejected and did not listen to the remainder of Raymond’s diatribe. Raymond walked away from the conversation confused and feeling like Virginia was just not interested in growing her skills. Virginia walked away fuming.


Have you ever been on either side of this example? Most of us have – numerous times. So what gives? How can this scenario have a positive end? The answer is contained in three areas: understanding human nature, using proper feedback technique, and a mathematical ratio. Let’s begin with human nature.


The results of a study about improvement conducted by the Gallop organization showed that when seeking improvement, most cultures in the world focus on their weaknesses. For example, if you play tennis and your backhand is the weak part of your game, you would probably spend most of your practice time attempting to improve your backhand. In a way, this makes sense. The Gallop study also concluded however, what makes us good is not always compensating for weaknesses, but rather improving our strengths. And our strengths often flow to us effortlessly. To use the tennis example, if you have a great forehand, your practice time is best spent taking your forehand to a higher and higher level. In other words, accentuate the positive!


Perhaps you are thinking that this is all well and good for tennis, but what about the business world? If our nature is to focus on weaknesses, yet we maximize improvement by focusing on positives, we must find a method to highlight and encourage strengths without ignoring adjustments that will mitigate weaknesses. This leads us to technique.


Well-executed feedback technique holds the possibility of widening team member’s receptiveness to feedback and, in turn, breaking down walls that discourage leaders from sharing feedback. The technique that I prefer is a simple and widely-used educational construct called “Plus / Deltas.”


As one might surmise, pluses refer to positive work behaviors that are observed. A plus sounds like this: “Virginia, I really liked the tone of voice you used during that meeting. The customer seemed at ease with your presentation as a result.”


On the flipside we have deltas. The word delta comes from the Greek word for change. So when we are sharing deltas with others we are not necessarily saying something negative, rather we are suggesting that something could change or be different. A delta sounds like this: “Virginia, when you leaned forward while asking for an additional piece of business it seemed liked the customer backed away. How could that portion of the meeting have been different?”


Please take note that both the plus example and the delta example were very specific. This is an important designation – to every extent possible, be specific with your feedback.


Now for the math portion of the program. The math I am referring to is not complicated. It is nothing more than a ratio really, but for whatever reason there is magic in the ratio 3:1. What does this mean? The answer is: attempt to use three pluses for every one delta. My experience has shown that by following a simple feedback rule of delivering three pluses to each delta, the delta actually sticks. That’s right. People are more receptive to altering one piece of behavior or performance when you have taken the time to clearly notice three things that they are doing right. In addition, a three to one ratio of pluses to deltas keeps things positive. If the right team members are hired in the first place, it should be easy to stroke them more than you tweak them. The positive stroking keeps them pumped up and focused on their strengths.


Raymond is now ready to implement his enhanced feedback strategy with Virginia and the rest of his team. How often should Raymond share feedback? Well, if he wants a high performing team, he should consider sharing feedback daily. Are there exceptions to his using the plus / delta system? The answer is absolutely! Let’s list some:

  1. Raymond observes a team member who is really screwing up. These instances call for an emphasis on discussing incorrect behavior, coupled with details on how it negatively impacts the team, and what type of behavior and actions are expected in the future.


  1. One of Raymond’s team members sees things in absolutes. In other words, she wants positives or negatives – but never the twain shall meet. In these instances share feedback in a manner consistent with how the team member is wired: only pluses or only deltas.


  1. Raymond’s experience shows that different language resonates better with certain staff members. For instance, someone might like to hear “pros and cons,” or “positive and constructive.” Certainly it makes sense for him to use vocabulary that best connects with his people.


Fast forward: the next week Virginia again finds herself paired with her boss for a joint sales call. Based on her most recent experience, she is dreading the debrief after their meeting. She and Raymond cordially greet each other prior to entering the customer’s office. Virginia, as she did the week before, does very well with the customer. Raymond jots down eight items that Virginia did very well and three items that could have been stronger. After the meeting Raymond approaches Virginia, “Hey, you did a great job, may we debrief on some specifics for a few moments?” Virginia stiffens and slowly nods. Raymond then shares with her, “I have been practicing new techniques to strengthen my feedback ability. One technique is called plus / deltas, would you be open to feedback, as well as sharing some with me?” Virginia slightly brightens at the fresh tone in Raymond's voice and the openness of his approach. She gives her permission for him to continue. “Well, I would like to start with three items that I thought were very positive.” Raymond then listed three very specific pluses for Virginia. She smiled and wrote a few notes to herself. Raymond then said, “May I share one area that could have been different?” “Only one?” Virginia thought to herself. Still slightly fearful she said, “Okay.” Raymond then stated one area that could have been better, as well as two alternatives for Virginia to consider. He then said, “I have several more pluses, may I share them with you?” Virginia smiled broadly, she liked the new Raymond – so did Raymond.


What a difference a week makes – Raymond embraced a new technique that added structure to his method of giving feedback. Armed with the technique and a heightened focus on strengths, Raymond elevated his effectiveness as a leader and solidified his working relationship with Virginia, one of his top performers.             


Bottom Line: As leaders we must share feedback with our team members on a regular basis. We should give feedback in a manner that delivers the best probability of improved results. By focusing on positives, we can continually enhance outcomes, grow our people, and better satisfy our customers.



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