Keep feedback immediate, focused on behavior

May 18, 2015 by Paul Ferdais

The Marine Leadership Group will host a free leadership seminar at ICT on June 9, from 7-8:30 p.m.

Critical feedback is crucial for your crew to know how well they’re doing and where they can improve.

Leaders often face the common challenge of how to best give feedback. Should you ignore issues and address them at a three-, six- or 12-month review? Or should you micromanage in order to make sure no one makes mistakes?

I recommend that any feedback you may have for your crew needs to be given as soon as possible after something negative happens, not held for a big review of some kind. The reason is twofold: You let your crew know what they’re doing improperly so they can change their behavior, and it lets him or her know you notice the work they’re doing. Noticing means you’re paying attention to the effort your crew puts into the job.

Sometimes giving feedback is easy. If a deckhand scrubs the teak in a way you don’t like, he or she can be told immediately to do it differently. It’s usually pretty easy to have this kind of conversation.

On the other hand, if a chief engineer starts to come to work hung-over, that may not get the immediate feedback conversation it deserves. The hangovers may be ignored or swept under the rug. The challenge with ignoring inappropriate behavior is that your crew will think it’s OK to continue to behave that way.

Remember, feedback needs to be given in as supportive a way as possible. Feedback isn’t about attacking crew. As a leader, you do not correct the person; you correct the behavior. There is a difference.

Supportive feedback comes from a place of caring about the success of your crew. You want the best for your team members so they can give you 100 percent. If you don’t care, he or she will be able to tell.

Lastly, avoid the feedback sandwich. The feedback sandwich is when you give praise, immediately followed by negative feedback, followed again immediately by more praise.

The problem with this “sandwich” is that if this is your normal way of giving critical feedback, people ignore the praise and wait for the bad news. Once they hear the bad news, they fixate on that and ignore the last piece of positive feedback.

If the purpose of the feedback is to reinforce good behavior, keep it positive. If the purpose is to address a performance problem, keep it corrective.

Here’s a framework of eight steps that enable you to say anything to anyone. This whole process should take no more than 5 minutes.

  1. Start a conversation. Explain what you’re going to talk about and why.
  2. Empathize with the other person.
  3. Describe the behavior you have seen.
  4. Share the impact the behavior has on others or the job.
  5. Have a short conversation and ask the recipient for their perception of the situation.
  6. Make a suggestion or request for what you’d like the person to do in the future.
  7. Build an agreement on next steps (if any).
  8. Say “Thank you.”

The following example is a bit humorous, but it’s an example of how something simple can be discussed without hurting anyone’s feelings.

STEP ONE: Introduce the conversation. Make it about what you have seen.

“Lisa, I want to talk about something I’ve noticed.”

STEP TWO: Empathize.

“I probably should have said something earlier. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

STEP THREE: Describe the observed behavior.

“I’ve noticed that when you come into the boat from working outside, your feet absolutely stink. Now it may be your shoes, but the odor is nasty.”

STEPS FOUR: Share the impact or result of the behavior on other people.

“There are people who have been physically ill after being in the crew mess with you for a couple of moments.”

STEP FIVE: Have some dialogue. Allow the recipient to say whatever she needs to say.

“What do you think? Have you noticed this yourself?”

STEP SIX: Make a suggestion or request for what to do next time.

“Here’s my request: Perhaps we can get a tin of shoe spray to help eliminate the smell. Would you be willing to use it from now on? Alternatively, let’s check and find out if there are a new pair of boat shoes you can use while on deck.”

STEP SEVEN: Agree on next steps.

“OK, so we’ll try these new strategies to help eliminate the odor from your feet. Does that work for you?”

STEP EIGHT: Thank them for speaking with you.


Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group ( delivering leadership training workshops and coaching. He holds a master’s degree in leadership and spent years working his way up from deckhand, to first officer on yachts. Comments are welcome at

Ferdais, Paul 2014