Describe the Action, Not the Person

We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.
— Stephen M.R. Covey

What does “good feedback” mean to you?

As leaders, we give feedback constantly. We do it formally, such as in scheduled review meetings. But we also do so informally, such as when we notice something that we like (which should be the norm) or something that we don’t appreciate (a necessary but hopefully less frequent form.) It could be expressed directly in words, or communicated indirectly, as with facial gestures, tone of voice or even changes in behavior patterns.  

During leadership trainings I will often ask participants to describe what good (and poor) feedback looks and feels like. At one recent talk to mid-level managers, I received the following descriptors about strong feedback.

  • Honest

  • Transparent

  • Predictable

  • Prepared

  • Comfortable

  • Not offensive

  • Constructive

  • Action and outcome focused

Added together, these people were saying that feedback is most helpful and motivating when it is provided in a manner that respects the recipient and is intended to guide and correct, rather than put down or label.

But how often do we see and experience the opposite? I know that I have, and it’s not fun. Not fun at all.

Perhaps the hardest form of feedback to deliver well is situational negative feedback. By that I mean responses to specific instances and actions demand attention and possible correction moving forward. In these cases, we often operate in the moment and fail to carefully consider both the purpose of the feedback as well as how it will be received. In our quest to correct, we often make matters worse.

The following is a feedback method that helps us focus on the action and how best to correct it while reserving personal judgement. It’s called “EARN”, which stands for event, action, result and next steps.

  • Event: What was the situation?

  • Action: What was the observed behavior?

  • Result: What was the impact or consequence?

  • Next Steps: What behaviors need to be continued/changed?

Here is an example of EARN applied.

  • Event (when and where the behavior occurred) – “During yesterday’s weekly team meeting…”

  • Action (on which you’re providing feedback) – “You answered your phone and stepped away...”

  • Result (the behavior created) – “When we have time set aside for meetings, it’s important that you’re present and focused, and by stepping away to take a call you are neither…” 

  • Next Steps (suggestion for the future) – “How would you feel about leaving your phone at your desk during meetings or only answering it in an emergency?”

What’s great about this method is that it keeps the focus squarely on the behavior and moves us away from judging the person. We start to think in terms of how to solve a problem rather than the person being the problem. This allows us to be more thoughtful and creative in finding a solution.

And besides, no one likes to be judged. As soon as we feel personally challenged, we shift from acceptance mode to a defensive one. So when the right approach to feedback is taken, both parties can better collaborate towards a more harmonious solution.