“I’d like to give you some feedback.” Those words, even when uttered by a seemingly-benign manager, are enough to strike fear into the hearts of normally level-headed employees. They’ve become laden down with negative connotations, mainly because feedback is now synonymous with criticism. However, anyone who has received well thought-out, carefully delivered constructive feedback knows how it can boost confidence. It’s time to re-evaluate feedback’s tarnished image.
How did we end up here?
Feedback’s image problem has its roots in traditional approaches to performance management. While some organisations have embraced modern approaches, such as regular performance check-ins and online employee surveys, a traditional approach entailed feedback being given as an immobile blob once or maybe twice a year. It was often indistinct, timeframes were vague, and there was an over-reliance on “gut-instinct” rather than any solid KPIs or other assessment criteria. These performance discussions were typically one-way and only expanded upon if a performance issue was identified – and even then, “tough” conversations were often avoided.
This one-sidedness was somewhat alleviated by the introduction of 360-degree feedback, which was designed to empower employees to give feedback to managers and senior staff. However, there can be issues around providing honest and constructive feedback; it’s more likely staff will share average ratings and unhelpful comments for fear of retribution.
Netflix is one company that has taken what’s been branded as “radical transparency” to the next level. In what the Wall Street Journal described as “encouraging harsh feedback” and subjecting workers to “intense and awkward” real-time 360s, Netflix believes the way to improve employee performance is through rigorous, frequent, candid, pervasive, and often critical feedback.
The road forward
Not all organisations will be so bold – and perhaps they don’t need to be.
What’s clear is that all employees desire feedback from their managers, whether they admit it or not. However, research shows this doesn’t always occur. One survey by Gallup reports that only 19% of millennials receive routine feedback. An even smaller percentage (17%) say the feedback they receive is meaningful. As always when it comes to meaningful conversations, it’s got to be two-way. In this case, just 15% of millennials strongly agree they routinely ask for feedback, and one in three strongly agree they’ve told their manager the one thing they need most to get their work done and why. Of course, the workforce is bigger than just millennials, but this cohort is an important gauge: they are already the largest segment of the workforce and will form up to 75% of the workforce by 2025.
It’s clear that feedback is important but it’s how that feedback is delivered that can make the key difference.
Taking the good with the bad
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Positive feedback is easy – who doesn’t like giving and receiving positive work feedback?
Negative feedback is more complicated and harder to deliver.
First, ditch the “feedback sandwich” approach. You know what this is: you deliver a compliment, you deliver a critique, you deliver a compliment, one after the other. It’s a harsh filling bolstered by two slices of bread. However, it gives employees the wrong impression: you’ve just gave them two positive pieces of feedback for every one negative piece. By the time performance appraisals roll around and you reveal to the employee that they’ve been underperforming, you’ll be met with shock and disbelief – not to mention simmering dissatisfaction. In addition, humans will often focus just on the last thing they hear in a sequence, so in this instance, your employee will remember the positive comment rather than the “guts” of the conversation in the middle.
Delivering constructive criticism
It’s apparent that managers generally need to become more adept at delivering feedback. Central to this idea of reclaiming feedback is “constructive criticism”. Managers often lack the courage – and the skill – to have a difficult conversation. That’s why constructive criticism is rarely given. Yet providing constructive criticism helps employees see where they need to improve and why making those improvements is important. Ideally, managers are offering both a critique and a solution. When providing this type of feedback, managers must explain both exactly what it is that’s being criticised and the implications that come with it. Paint the bigger picture and then develop a plan to help the employee perform.
Here are 5 tips to ensure feedback is delivered in the more effective way:
- Focus on the observed behaviour, not the person. The purpose of constructive criticism is to eliminate behaviours that detract from high performance. If the individual perceives he or she is being attacked personally, they will quickly turn defensive, and the opportunity for a meaningful discussion will be lost.
- Be timely. Delivering feedback long after the moment has passed is akin to not delivering feedback at all. Feedback of all types should be given as soon as possible after the event.
- Be specific. Effective feedback is specific. Suggesting that someone is “always” late for work is too broad. Being specific might entail: “John, you were late for your shift today, and it happened again last Tuesday. When you’re late it requires us to hold someone over from the earlier shift. This requires us to pay overtime; it inconveniences your colleague, and it may reduce quality if they do not understand your specific job. Do you understand?”
- Control your emotions.If tempers are hot, take some time to let things cool down. While effective, constructive feedback is delivered as close to the observed incident as possible, if the situation is heated, it’s fine to schedule a meeting for the next day.
- Praise in public, criticise in private. Never deliver negative feedback in front of team members. Conduct the meeting in your office or schedule a conference room for your feedback discussion.
The power to give feedback is immense, as it can either make or break an employee’s zest and confidence. Similarly, by receiving constructive and useful feedback, a leader can gain an understanding of how things are tracking on the ground and get a sense of satisfaction and engagement levels. It’s a myth that negative feedback or criticism can disengage an employee; what can be worse is no feedback at all, no acknowledgement of his/her work and no guidance on the future.
Giving fair and accurate feedback is a skill, and just like any skill, managers may need a helping hand to develop it. Provide them with the training, offer them the tools, and watch the transformation begin.
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- “How Millennials Want to Work and Live”, Gallup, 2016