Managers find providing feedback to their employees to be one of the most challenging parts of their jobs and one which they feel the least prepared to execute well. Let’s face it, giving feedback can be incredibly difficult. Employees say they want feedback and regularly ask for it. However, they can be resistant and defensive if it is not delivered tactfully.
There’s a feedback dilemma making managers hesitant to share criticism that has the potential to hurt employees, even if it’s constructive. Although there is no panacea to the dilemma, research from the organizational sciences has identified several steps managers can take to increase the likelihood that their feedback will be accepted and lead to improved performance.
1. Be honest. The cardinal rule of effective feedback is that it needs to be accurate. Giving inaccurate feedback may be more comfortable for you and your employee at that moment. However, erroneous feedback generally leads to future feedback conversations that will be even more difficult. It also misses the opportunity to improve the performance of your employees. The only way to improve performance is to let employees know how things are really going.
2. Be balanced. Effective feedback involves letting employees know when performance is going well and when it is not. We want to encourage the continuation of the “right” behaviors and outcomes as much as promote a change in the “wrong” behaviors and outcomes. Receiving positive feedback from their manager can make employees more receptive to negative feedback. Many managers know this recommendation and implement it as negative feedback sandwiched between positive feedback. This packaging of positive and negative feedback diminishes their respective value. Effective feedback is focused and involves different instances overtime in which positive and negative performance information is delivered.
3. Be helpful. The goal of feedback is to improve performance. Feedback should not be punitive. To be helpful, managers need to explain “why” certain behaviors or outcomes are considered good or a problem. If the feedback is focused on a problem, it should include specific suggestions on what can be done to improve. It is not enough to say things are going right or going wrong. Effective feedback helps employees see why things are working or not working and provides them a roadmap for making the changes needed to improve performance.
4. Be considerate. Receiving feedback can be scary and threatening for the recipient. Managers need to recognize that the way feedback is delivered impacts whether it is accepted and used or hurts the employee and is rejected. Word choice and tone play a role in this, but effective feedback separates the person from the problem. The feedback should communicate that there are behaviors that need to change because they are inefficient, not simply that the employee is ineffective. Being a good steward of your employees’ feelings when providing feedback will go a long way in encouraging them to use the feedback you provide to improve their performance.
5. Be specific. Feedback is most effective when it is detailed. The credibility of feedback is greatly diminished when it is supported by generalities and lacks detail. Providing specific performance information helps establish a shared set of facts and helps identify what needs to be done differently in the future. It is hard to know what to do with feedback such as “the presentation sucked.” It is a lot easier to know what to do with feedback, such as “the presentation contained factual errors that undermined the credibility of the team’s work”.
6. Be timely. Giving feedback as close in time as possible to behavior or outcomes maximizes its effectiveness. This does not mean that feedback should always be given on the spot (often, that is not helpful or appropriate). However, the event prompting the need for the feedback and the feedback delivery should not be months apart. It is much easier to process events and behaviors while they are fresh in an employee’s mind. Also, delayed feedback may lead employees to erroneously believe that their performance in a given situation was acceptable. If it was not, it is better to correct the performance sooner rather than later, so that it does not repeat. According to Quantum Workplace, 71% of employees prefer immediate feedback, even if it’s negative.
7. Be regular. Feedback should not be an annual ritual. Feedback should be a part of the daily rhythms of organizational life. In fact, many organizations are scrapping their formal yearly performance management processes for ones that focus on regular informal feedback. Feedback does not need to be provided every day. However, if weeks have passed and you have not provided any positive or negative feedback to your employees, you need to reconsider how you are using feedback to drive your team's performance. Work toward the habit of giving each of your employees some feedback at least once a week.
Following these seven recommendations will not guarantee the effectiveness of your feedback, but it will put you in a position to have more productive conversations with your employees about maximizing their performance. Remember that employees want feedback. They want an honest observation of their behavior, regardless of if you would like them to change something or reinforce the positive. You will find it’s a much more effective way to help employees improve and continue what they are doing well.