The most effective feedback takes into account how the brain reacts, says Susanne Jacobs

One of the questions I am regularly asked – often with a sense of desperation – is how to give feedback. It is an age-old challenge, laid at the feet of managers, who carry out the task with varying degrees of success. How do you feel when someone says: ‘Can I give you some feedback?’ How many times have you had a performance conversation where 95 per cent of it has been focused on what’s gone well, but it’s the 5 per cent of ‘development opportunity’ that remains with you?

There are many models out there that describe how to give feedback, but what most fail to take into account is how the brain reacts and how we really learn. Mistakes are part of life. If we didn’t make mistakes we would never learn or adapt. That’s not to say that we don’t need to mitigate the risk of potential mistakes – of course we do – but we also need to understand how to provide developmental input that really works.

Feedback that triggers our neurological reward circuitry, which increases our capacity for learning and engagement, is possible. It is my research in this field that has led me to build, and now teach, a brain-friendly model for feedback, which I’d like to share with you. It is a simple checklist using an acronym that we all know, which aims to ensure conversations lead to development not demotivation – and it’s as simple as AEIOU.

A – And

If I said to you: ‘That presentation was great…’ – what word are you expecting to hear next? ‘But’ or ‘however’? Now what happens to the words that preceded the ‘but’? Our brains hone in on the threat, which in this case is the criticism that is anticipated to follow, negating the positives. So instead of ‘but’ or ‘however’, use ‘and’. This will feel awkward at first but it works. ‘That presentation was great, and to make it even stronger you could…’

E – Effort

We are rewarded neurologically far more for the effort we put in than the end result. Behavioural economist Dan Ariely refers to it as the ‘Ikea effect’. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the success – of course we should – but we should notice the effort and hard work that got the individual and/or team to that end result.

I – Intention

People come to work to do a good job. So first think what their intention was before an error occurred. Was it to cause harm, to damage or to destroy? There is an impact that needs to be addressed, but first understand the intention.

O – Opportunity

In every genuine error, there is an opportunity to learn. The aviation industry has embedded this into how it operates with systems set up to encourage pilots to log their errors so improvements and learning can happen continuously.

U – You

How are you feeling? What are you thinking? What is your mood? What messages are you transmitting that will either help or hinder the conversation? Is this the right time to talk?  

Positive development and growth of those in your team happens when our brains can engage and that happens only when we feel safe to do so. Applying AEIOU is a tool to help do this.

Development is not an annual event held only in the appraisal meeting – it needs to happen every day and in the moment if it is to make the best connections for learning.

Susanne Jacobs is programme director at Positive Group

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  • I think Susanne's suggestions are really useful. Finding ways to ensure feedback is received constructively has never been easy, and this approach pragmatically takes into account many of the barriers that normally get in the way.