The ABC’s of Effective Feedback
The ABC model offers a three-step process for providing and receiving feedback effectively.
Providing and listening to feedback effectively are critical skills for managers who are concerned with improving organizational performance. Yet we often hear, “Oh no, it’s that time again—performance reviews!” Indeed, a plethora of research and anecdotes illustrate why those who provide and receive feedback tend to look to such conversations with apprehension or even fear. Unfortunately, much of this fear comes from a lack of adequate training and thus managers often wind up provoking unintended or undesired responses (e.g., defensiveness, anger). Similarly, we often fear receiving feedback for similar reasons—a sense of being judged or criticized. Thus, it should be no surprise that one study identified comical ways in which people sought to avoid receiving feedback (e.g., run away down the hall, duck into restroom).
This is a dilemma. People are information-seeking creatures who want to know how they are doing even if the feedback may be negative. Yet organizations and managers rarely do an adequate job of providing useful information, leaving many employees to actively seek it out on their own, a drive that is universal across cultures. This unwillingness to provide feedback poses difficulties for managers trying to obtain a desired behavior and performance, and can also make the manager appear insensitive—the leading cause of executive derailment and a central point in discussions of “emotional intelligence.”
This article presents a model for engaging in a feedback-related conversation effectively across a variety of settings. It is based upon the authors’ extensive readings and research. The model outlines a three-step process whereby the mnemonic ABC represents each of the critical stages. In our model, the steps are:
- A for “Action.” This step focuses on proper data collection so that the feedback conversation focuses on the specific issue, and therefore, is less likely to be seen as a vague attack on the person.
- B for “Because.” This step focuses on why the issue brought up in Step A needs to be addressed. Here the conversation focuses on demonstrating the impact of the action on the effectiveness of the person, team, and/or organization.
- C for “Could We.” This step focuses on developing actual solutions for addressing the issue. Here the manager identifies resources, needs, and action plans to move forward, rather than getting stuck in the blame game.
The authors have presented this model in the classroom, the boardroom, and various training and consulting activities in between. It continues to receive positive feedback for its ability to deliver information in a way that is well received and quickly resolved.
STEP 1: “Action”
Key Words: Specific, Observable, Measurable, Behavior, Results
Key Phrases: “I want to talk to you about ________”
“When you do ________”
To raise an issue without provoking defensiveness, it is important to frame your message in a manner that will be seen as useful, intended to help, and not making a personal value judgment. One way to check yourself is to ask whether you are making a comment as a way for the parties to better understand the situation, and to help enhance the effectiveness of the issue being evaluated. If the answer is no, the feedback is going to be ineffective and generate negative reactions. Often we see managers providing feedback because they feel an ego need to signal their superiority (e.g., I am criticizing you because I am the boss) or to reinforce the recipient’s inability to respond (e.g., I can say anything, and you cannot do anything about it). While the provider may feel good, it does not help the organization improve. In fact, considerable evidence shows instead that this kind of feedback severely diminishes organizational commitment and workplace climate, resulting in employees who do not engage in any tasks beyond those required of the job description, including voluntary and self-funded education and skill development and providing assistance to others.
In the past, slogans like “Don’t take it personally” and “Feelings do not belong in the workplace” reigned supreme. Typically these only serve to ‘justify’ inadequate feedback skills of the person stating them. Recent research shows emotions are inseparable from organizational life. To the extent we attempt to tap into people’s feelings of attachment to enhance organizational welfare, we must also consider how these same feelings may suffer if not properly managed. In fact, conflicts are based on the feeling of lack of respect on the part of one or more parties involved. To resolve conflict, managers must recognize and attempt to defuse these emotions.
Data plays a vital role in this step of the feedback process. An effective A-statement is designed to initiate a conversation based on actual information (data), and verify that all parties have the same information. The use of data depersonalizes the opening exchange, thus reducing possible dissonant reactions. Data are what provide the foundation for making an accurate and confident statement. Without actual data the tendency is to make generalized statements that tend to target the person and not what they are doing. The objective here is to provide a picture of behaviors that are “actionable” (e.g., an event or activity) in a manner that the receiver can “see” what is being discussed, and thus feels they can do something about it. For example, rather than say one is lazy, it is better to describe the action that has led to that statement. If it’s non-punctual behavior, the manager might say, “I want to talk about your being 10 minutes late to work three out of five days last week.” The former contains a personal judgment. The latter provides specific observations, which can then be mutually verified or corrected (e.g., allowed tardiness, doctor’s appointments).
The slogan for this stage of the model is “the power is in the data.” People collect three types of information in making evaluations of themselves or others. The first—Consistency—is the extent to which a person has the same experience on a task or behavior each time it is performed. High consistency is when the person’s performance is historically the same, whether it is good, poor, or adequate. Low consistency is when the outcome varies considerably over time (e.g., one’s sales fluctuate by month). High consistency would indicate outcomes are due to the individual’s actions; low consistency would suggest an external cause. The second type of information is Consensus—the extent to which others doing the same task have the same outcome. High consensus exists when the same outcome occurs for many people for the same event (e.g., the vast majority of employees experience difficulty with a new IT system). Low consensus exists when the person’s experience is unique by comparison to others. High consensus suggests an external cause and low consensus suggests the individual is the causal factor. The last element is Distinctiveness—the extent to which one’s results are the same or different across a range of activities. To use the earlier tardiness example, is the individual late only in arriving to work (high distinctiveness), or is s/he also late with progress reports, returning calls, and expense reports (low distinctiveness)? High distinctiveness would indicate a need to evaluate the specific activity, low distinctiveness would suggest an ability issue.
We recommend using this “CCD model” for constructing a feedback notebook. The section dividers (think of a multi-subject binder) represent each person (consensus data), each page represents the various activities (distinctiveness data), and provides the track record for a particular task (consistency data). We know what you’re thinking: “Who has the time?” Well, “doing your homework” a few minutes a day each week will eliminate a significant degree of aggravation and time trying to recall things later. In fact, many errors (e.g., saliency, recency) will be mitigated by the data collected for the notebook.
If you do not have a proper A-statement, then you do not have anything useful to say. CCD allows you to say, “Here is the data I have …” and provides an opportunity for the recipient to examine the issue in a depersonalized, objective manner, and to remain action-oriented in their response. Managers may also advise their employees to keep their own notebook, to allow for correcting any faulty, incomplete, or conflicting data. Once everyone agrees on the data, you can move to the next step.
STEP 2: “Because”
Key Words: Ownership, Implications
Key Phrases: “I think it has the following impact ________ “
“It makes me feel ________”
The next step is to establish a valid reason for why the issue is being discussed. There are two major objectives of the B-statement. First is for the provider to take ownership and accountability for the feedback. Second is to establish a valid and credible purpose for giving the feedback to the employee. If neither criterion can be met, then you do not have legitimate reason to make the A-statement. A common (and egregious) mistake is to avoid taking ownership of the message by using abstract statements like “Everyone thinks …”, “People often …”, or “Management has asked me to …” These deflections come from a desire to avoid confrontation and potential conflict. Furthermore, such framing blocks the opportunity to engage in discussion about the specific impact of the action. This violates the objective of feedback, which is to be useful in evaluating the receiver’s actions and planning corrective action.
It is important here to distinguish between evaluating (“Here is how your work did/did not meet expectations …”) versus judging (“Here is how you are/are not a competent person …”). While many publications advise not to judge, a manager’s job is to evaluate behavior and performance. “I” statements help to reduce potential defensiveness by presenting the interpretation as coming from your perspective. For example, “I think your punctuality is affecting the team because …” or “As a senior member of the team, I feel your punctuality is setting a bad example …” Note the more open and softer tone. In making “you” statements we create the impression of making a conclusion or judgment about the other(s) that is not open to change. By owning the implications, the manager also presents him or herself as open to hearing their assessment may be incorrect or incomplete. Maybe the work group has accounted for tardiness in their norms, or maybe the person has earned some “idiosyncratic credits” as a role model of superior contribution. Conversely, this “I” approach provides the receiver with an opportunity to present their perspective. In the article, “The Processes of Causal Attribution,” author H.H. Kelley discusses the widely recognized tendency for people to claim credit for success and avoid blame for failure. To the same extent that objectively assessing the data helps enhance accuracy, Step 2 seeks to enhance credibility. Having a voice in the process enhances feelings of fairness and acceptance.
For example, a professor once postponed a due date for an assignment, and a student came up to him after class and said, “Everyone is upset you gave the extension.” When asked “Why?” he said, “The syllabus is a legal contract and the author could get in trouble if someone filed a complaint.” When the professor eventually asked the student if HE was upset, the student said yes because he had plans to go skiing the weekend after the original due date and he knew he would now procrastinate and have it hanging over his head during the trip. Once the professor brought it back to the “here and now” and clarified the perceived effect the student thought the action would have on him, they were able to address the issue. In order to provide context and validity, we must show why the feedback is relevant. To only describe the extension as upsetting creates a block on both sides. Once the professor and student understood the consequence, they could identify reasons for the reaction and possible ways to move forward. The same often happens regarding organizational issues like work-flow coordination, meeting deadlines, and achieving goals. It is not enough to say that a requirement was not met. Providing the “WHY” (implication) will help to identify the latent needs that are at play, and then true learning takes place.
The B stage helps put all parties’ cards on the table, and creates an opportunity for everyone to examine the interpretation of the situation. It may be that the parties do not reach agreement on the implications, but they will know where each other is coming from and that understanding is valuable in and of itself. In some cases, a compromise may emerge, or an agreement to disagree may be established with respect. Regardless, this step is mandatory in order to open the door to the third and final step, as outlined below.
STEP 3: “Could we”
Key Words: Future-focus, Collaborative, Problem-solving
Key Phrases: “Could we look at doing __________ as a way to _________?”
“What might make the situation better?”
“What might help us to _________?”
This is the action-plan stage. Once both parties agree on the data and agree on the implications, moving forward is possible. First, the C-statement is a reminder to look at where things are going. It’s easy to stay focused on what has happened. By the same token, it is easy to “get stuck” in the finger-pointing blame game as a way to avoid responsibility for fixing the problem. This step is designed to generate a forward-looking perspective that guides the parties toward developing specific actions and goals related to achieving the organization’s objectives. In fact, we are seeing a slow adoption of “Action Plans” and “Personal Development Plans” as the concluding section of formal performance appraisal forms.
Additionally, the C-statement reminds us that resolution is a mutual and collaborative responsibility. Often people like to point out an issue and say “Look, there’s a problem!” and that’s the end of their involvement. It is easier to then “plop” it in another person’s lap. (Remember the children’s game “Hot Potato”?) In many organizational settings, an individual’s ability to reconcile their behavior or resolve issues may require resources, training, or other types of support they cannot control. The C-statement reminds us that change does not occur in a vacuum; others must also adjust in order to reinforce new schemas, or ingrained cognitive patterns. There are too many examples of an individual sent to a training course to learn new techniques, only to return to a team that expects (and often influences) the person to behave in the old ways.
Finally, this step helps create a problem-solving mode. A proper C-statement requires more than buzzwords and homilies like “improve communication” or “improve your people skills.” Both parties must agree to a specific set of outcomes to achieve, appropriate methods of measurement, and a schedule for following up. To the extent that a proper action plan has been created, the groundwork for the next A-statement has been created.
As a final reminder, ABC can be used to provide positive feedback. We often focus on negative events. Desired and anticipated events generally meet our expectations, thus we feel little need to evaluate them. Negative outcomes are often contrary to our expectations and thus demand our attention. However, if we expect to learn how to sustain and even improve upon success, it merits collecting data that reinforces the things done well (e.g., benchmarking). For example:
A – “Joe, I like the way you spent time helping Joan on that XYZ flowchart.”
B – “It really demonstrated the type of mutual support and trust that makes us a great team.”
C – “How about we create a commendation to include in your next appraisal? Also, how might we use this to foster similar cooperation throughout the team?”
In closing, feedback is a critical resource for effective organizational behavior. It is one of the strongest ways to generate information that helps people learn how to improve, and ultimately, to provide the reward most valued by individuals—recognition and appreciation. However, feedback is only effective when it is (1) accurate and (2) seen as credible. The ABC model addresses these two requirements. The A-statement draws on objective data, reducing the typical defensiveness and increasing one’s receptiveness by providing a specific and accurate evaluation. For example, a manager might say, “Charlie both of your recent reports on the aerospace project were two days late.” At this point, all involved parties have the opportunity to generate data and assess its accuracy. Next, a B-statement, such as “The late reports caused a delay in the R & D department’s progress,” identifies the relevance of the feedback issue, thus establishing credibility, reducing resistance, and leading to higher likelihood of buy-in. Both feed into the C-statement discussion, which aims to establish an accurate and credible problem solution likely to be accepted and implemented by the parties. It also reminds everyone that the purpose of feedback is to improve effectiveness and that task requires collaboration among the participants in the feedback conversation.
The ABC model is a product of a plethora of research and writings on coaching, feedback, and performance appraisal. It has received considerable praise from those who have put it into practice. In fact, one former client reported that their ABC poster was still hanging in the conference room a year after their consultation project concluded! A-B-C is a simple device for remembering the critical steps for providing accurate and credible feedback that the recipient will be able to accept as fact and act upon accordingly.
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For further reading:
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About the Author(s)
Steven M. Sommer, PhD, is currently a professor of management in the Graziadio School of Business and Management, having previously spent many years at the University of Nebraska. His research focuses on how and where individuals collect and process information used to evaluate their behavior and performance. He has widely consulted on team-building and conflict-resolution matters, including serving as a State Farm Regional Consultant, on the Nebraska Governor's Task Force on Diversity, and on the U.S. AID transformation program in Albania. He serves on the editorial board of Organizational Dynamics and is a past president of the Western Academy of Management.
Edward H. Rockey, PhD, earned his PhD at New York University and has presented programs for Proctor & Gamble, Prudential Insurance, Amgen, and other companies. He teaches "Behavior in Organizations" and "Creativity and Innovation for Leadership." He has served in various administrative roles in academia, including Division Chair, Academic Dean, and Department Chair.