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Give Stale Feedback

July 26, 2022

You have feedback for someone on the team. There’s something you noticed in a meeting or in their communication that you think would help them. You want to share it for two reasons: First, because you care about them as a human (even if you find that behavior annoying at the moment). Second, if they don’t change that behavior, the impact that it’s having is going to continue. Here’s the problem: you noticed the behavior last week, or last month, or maybe even last year and haven't talked with them about it yet.

Now what?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons why we tend to miss the moment on real-time feedback. And if you’re on a remote team, you have an even more challenging obstacle to face because you don’t have those in-between moments where you can raise a small but essential topic. But, remote work or not, you’re busy. Their calendar and yours are jammed with meetings. People have a lot on their plates. You have the passing thought, sometimes a few of them, trying to figure out when you will talk with this person about that thing. But no good moment seems to arise.

(Of course, there are other factors in the mix as well. Not the least of which is that you may have concluded (though you can’t be sure) that the other person won’t be interested or will get defensive. Alternatively, you may believe that the person will listen, but it won’t change anything anyway due to other factors beyond their control. Acknowledging and working through that type of bias is a topic for another day.)

Back to our situation. You realize you’re going to have to create a moment. Now it’s not only about a potentially uncomfortable conversation but about breaking into the jam-packed day to create a new meeting or even just a new side conversation. And as an understandable result, most of us, most of the time, let the moment pass.

Your feedback is still valid. But it’s stale. It’s more likely that the person will have difficulty receiving it. Here’s why:

(1) They may not remember the situation you’re talking about.
(2) They may be unable to remember what they felt at that moment.
(3) They may be suspicious of why you are telling them now and not then.

Now, it’s entirely possible that this person will be grateful and understanding, and thank you for taking the time to reach through the noise to give them this piece of coaching. That will happen to you sometimes. And you can raise the odds of it happening by doing something that will seem obvious as soon as you hear it.

When your feedback is about something a while ago, start by acknowledging that. All it takes is a simple preamble, like this:

“Hey, I have some feedback for you, but it’s stale. Meaning, it’s from a while ago, and I just didn’t find a moment to talk with you about it. So, if you’re open, I’d like to do that the next time we meet, but I just wanted to say something, so it doesn’t feel out of the blue.”

The goal of giving feedback in real-time sounds good but often is not realistic. The pace of business and how most teams are structured means you will have to give your feedback in a catch-up moment. Sometimes that’s in a 1:1 (if you’re lucky to have them with this person); sometimes, you’ll have to reach through the busyness to create a moment.

What matters is not when but that you find a way, however long it takes, to share your feedback and coaching with your teammates. When it’s a bit stale, just let them know.

Real. Time. Feedback. One of these words is not as important as the others.

If you'd like to read more about managing these important conversations check out the Accountability Dial Course. It provides 5 steps to guide conversations. And it's free!

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