If you’re like me, then that question can feel like a double edged sword. How do you answer? As an employee, it’s nice to know how you’re doing …are you meeting expectations? But also, can be a very scary and vulnerable moment which makes you cringe a little bit in anticipation.

As a manager, field sales trainer, or “buddy” to someone else in your organization, you probably are both excited and dreading articulating that question and the feedback you have to give. For similar reasons, it can be either a great and illuminating conversation or you’re about to enter a high-conflict conversation which could have any number of repercussions.

Because we are invested and purposeful leaders, we ask…What can we learn to help make these better?

What has been illuminating to me, recently, is how we may be mis-using the word “feedback”. Let’s get more specific on what it is that we are trying to accomplish in the conversation and then maybe more positive conversations will tip the scales and we will all say a resounding “yes, please!” when asked about feedback.

Feedback seems to have become a catch-all term for a lot of very different types of conversations. I think its valuable to separate them and align the intention or structure of your conversation with your message or goal.

Mentoring: This is really a wisdom sharing relationship, where the conversation is fruitful and works when both mentor and mentee have great respect for the other person and the value they offer in advise giving, based on personal experience and expertise and the advice (ideally) goes both ways.

Coaching: If you went out and hired a professional or executive coach, this person would not work alongside you every day and would not necessarily know your business or industry. Therefore, they do not hold the same technical expertise that a mentor might – so the approach and relationship has to be different. The Coach will be asking a series of thought provoking, investigative questions of the coachee. These questions will help the coachee unlock for themselves clarity and insight around the challenges at hand, potential solutions, and the most successful path forward. The questions’ goal is ultimately to unlock the coachee’s intrinsic self-awareness, self-motivation, and self-solving.

Training/Teaching: A directive approach, where someone learns new information, skills, or a process they didn’t otherwise know or could not have intuitively learned for themselves. Which is likely a great number of on boarding and new hire conversations, so it is not really feedback, its training.

I think feedback has become a lump term for some combination of these three things, but when its vague and confusing like that, we don’t couch the conversation correctly or jump between types of conversations and adds confusion.

So let’s get clear about feedback:

Feedback is providing your opinion, correction, or observation about a specific action or behavior your employee took. They will be more receptive to getting your opinion if you’ve agreed on the things they are observing and they’ve given you permission to observe, record, and correct or praise as you see appropriate. They also will be more likely to change based on your comments if they trust and respect you, a la a mentor. Ultimately, though, they do not have to take your correction or advise. As all school teachers know, feedback and teaching do not actually mean the person makes a change or learns the material.

That is why coaching has become so popular and valuable in a work setting, because it is based around self-discovery and intrinsic motivation, which means the likelihood of behavior change and impact increases.

So, what are you trying to do – inform or reform (behavior) – through the conversation?

If you’re hoping to inform someone of something (a process, best practice, etc)- maybe pick a mentoring conversation, teaching or training, or feedback.

If you’re hoping to reform someone’s behavior or actions – coaching may be your best bet, followed by mentoring or feedback based on your relationship or level of expertise in relation to theirs.

Knowing the different tools you have in the “feedback” toolbox and picking wisely based on the conversation ahead will make the whole experience more positive and less dreaded for both the speaker and receiver.

Good Luck!

Author Sarah Kaplan

More posts by Sarah Kaplan