I’m an Alicia Keys junkie. She is  an amazing performer and in my experience, she is the queen of feedback. We all can learn from her finesse. She’s a judge on NBC’s The Voice, where she gives feedback in vulnerable moments, without destroying the performers, even if they are really bad.

A few things about the “danger” of feedback.

  1. Our brain perceives feedback as a threat. Just using the words, “May I give you feedback?” signals a threat to the brain. When we hear that we are about to get feedback, we prepare to defend ourselves. Even if the feedback is something that we know to be true, we don’t want others to voice it out loud.
  2. Most people give feedback poorly. They often save up the feedback and then it comes out in an angry moment. The feedbacker then feels justified in relaying this negative information in a horrific manner.
  3. Most people don’t use or improve from the feedback they get. Research by Kluger and DiNisi shows that only 30% of people improve with feedback. The other 70% either ignore the feedback or get worse trying it.

Here is what Alicia Keys does consistently and fluidly:

  1. It’s not an act. She is consistent and fluid because it is her nature to enlarge others, never to diminish them – even with bad, personal news. This is a mindset that can be learned and practiced. It looks for the best in every person and every situation.  Many people struggle with this. They feel inauthentic looking for the “silver lining”. Anything will feel inauthentic that we don’t practice. Practice helping people improve and it will become a part of you. .
  2. Frame the feedback in the future. Alicia tells contestants that when (not if) they improve a technique or a certain skill they will see a huge difference and improvement in what they do. She doesn’t promise that they will top Billboard, and she doesn’t say they will be great singers. She essentially tells them, if you continue to go down this career path, here’s your next assignment for improvement. They always walk away feeling acknowledged and ready for the next step.

Too many times, managers feel like they need to disabuse an employee of any notion of moving into the next position because they are so miserable at their current one. This is not very motivating and can result in the unintended consequence of the employee getting even worse. For those of you thinking that there are times when someone just isn’t cut out to be for the job – you would be correct, but it’s rarer than you might think. Most people just need direction and encouragement.

  1. Clarify the role. Alicia will often take the 45 seconds she is given to provide feedback to find out what the performer wants to do in the world of singing. When they are unclear, that becomes the basis of her feedback. She encourages them to get clear about the genre they wish to pursue and then tells them to work hard at this. The same approach can be used to help an employee figure out where their passion is in the context of their job. Most of us are willing to improve things about which we are passionate.
  2. Be specific. Alicia finds a riff or passage to comment on that the performer could approach differently to make it better. She doesn’t give generalized feedback about the entire song. What would you do with feedback like this: “You need to get better at the mechanics”? That’s so broad that the performer might be confused about what that looks like and either try to improve something that doesn’t need it, or as Kluger and DiNisi found, they just give up. Good feedback is specific. It gives the receiver a concrete example of what they did and what they can do to make it better. Stop with the, “You’ve got to do better” kind of feedback. It doesn’t work well.
  3. Assume the best in people. Alicia sees the very best in every performer, no matter what. What good would it do to see the worst and then comment on that? That’s where people shut down. Someone once said, “Where do we go in life? We go where we get an A.” If your goal as a leader is to punish people and make them feel bad to teach them a lesson, well, good luck in keeping people. When you see the best and expect the best, people often honor you with giving their best.

Feedback is important in life. You will give it to many people throughout your life, whether friend, family or colleague. Study the people who give feedback well and then take time to think through your approach to giving feedback before proceeding, especially with tough feedback. We all want to be better at what we do and who we are, but being shamed into it rarely, if ever, works.