Feedback – often delivered formally at annual reviews, can strike fear into the hearts of employees at every level.
For those receiving it, it can seem critical, sometimes harsh or unfair. For those delivering it, it can be a delicate balance between providing encouragement to the employee and flagging performance that is under par.
Feedback is a crucial part of development – or is it? Used in the right way it can provide motivation for improvement – but get it wrong and it can not only demotivate at the time, but can have severe repercussions down the line if the individual believes they are not good at their work and consequently becomes less likely to use their initiative.
Unfortunately, feedback has become associated with fault finding, rather than a constructive report and motivational conversation. Humans find it difficult to accept criticism, however well–intentioned. It often results in physical and mental defences going up, thus closing the person to any change of mindset growth and movement by locking down their ability to see situations in a different light and admitting where they could improve.
It’s not that people don’t want to be better – they do. But as Korn Ferry found out in a recent survey, they don’t necessarily want traditional feedback.
So, what are the problems with feedback, and what might work better?
One problem with motivational feedback is that one person’s view of what excellent performance looks like can differ significantly from another’s.
So, are managers getting it wrong?
Those who focus on particularly candid feedback, argues Marcus Buckingham, are ignoring the research that ‘indicates just how hard it is for individuals to rate other’s performance, to standardise and homogenise what ‘excellence’ really is’.
The value of work performance lies within the individual’s perception of it, which can create difficulties for managers who need to guide and coach employees towards better performance and indicate when those individuals have not come up to par.
It’s a fact that many managers still don’t like having difficult conversations. And without the ability to deal with awkward situations effectively, feedback is never going to work in an organisation.
It’s never easy to know how to handle an awkward situation with a team member, and managing emotions can be difficult if you have to deliver difficult feedback; for both parties.
The statistics bear this out – with only 36% of managers completing appraisals on time, 55% of employees believing their most recent appraisal was ‘unfair or inaccurate’, and one in four employees admitting they ‘dread feedback’ more than anything else in their working lives.
Additionally, of those questioned, 63% of HR Executives said managers inability or unwillingness to engage in difficult conversations was their biggest performance management challenge.
The only way to deal with difficult conversations is to tackle them head-on. Stick to the facts, be specific and avoid being tempted into letting emotional responses to behaviour dictate your delivery.
Plan out in advance what you are going to say, and make sure you have blocked enough time in your diary to have the conversation – in private – so you are giving your full attention to the individual. And finally, empathy will enable you to deliver difficult feedback more effectively, and show the recipient that your overall aim is to help them succeed.
Are You Listening or Just Hearing?
Not all who hear are listening.
Successful feedback also relies on the ability to ‘actively listen’ to the other person. If you are a manager providing feedback, it’s critical to remember to give accurate and relevant feedback rather than oblique impressions.
For example, keep feedback non-judgemental. So, instead of saying “You’re always shouting over people!” it’s better to question to understand, “Can you explain why you dismissed Gail’s proposal before she had a chance to talk through it. The way you did it made her feel undermined and her opinions undervalued.“
As well as talking, the feedback provider is well advised to listen to the other party. Active listening allows you to hear what they are saying – they may have reason to defend certain actions or they may not but allowing them the space to discuss the situation allows you both to reach an agreeable conclusion and move on. Failure to do this can result in festering resentment, which will only build over time.
Are you practising active listening?
If you catch yourself formatting your next question while your member of staff is still speaking – you’re already not listening anymore.
Conversely, if the employee isn’t absorbing the feedback, nothing is going to change. What’s required here is a mindset move to accept that feedback isn’t something that is pushed onto the individual as a form of criticism, but an opportunity to gain knowledge and insight into how they, the individual, can improve and succeed in their career.
And what might help with challenging conversations is to view feedback less as ‘feedback’, and more as ‘advice.’ And there is some evidence to suggest that this does work. Which leads us on to…
Is Advice More Productive Than Feedback?
Whether it’s a formal appraisal or an informal request for comment, third party input on workplace performance often takes the form of feedback. But is this the best way?
The whole point of feedback is to get a critical overview with emphasis on actionable input for the future. So, maybe managers should be providing advice instead?
HBS research looked into whether ‘people offer more critical and actionable input when they are asked to provide advice (versus feedback)—even when they are asked to give comments on identical output.’
The research found that when asked to provide feedback, ‘givers focus too much on evaluating the recipient, which undermines their ability to generate constructive (i.e. critical and actionable) input.’
These findings suggest that framing feedback as advice may be a promising way of soliciting valuable third-party input.
Additionally, it helps if you engage the other person to view your ‘feedback’ as a coaching session where the recipient is encouraged to find their own answers to development methods…
Is Coaching Better Than Feedback?
Giving feedback can often see leaders experiencing a defensive response from the recipient from the word go.
Maybe a better method would be to see feedback as more of a coaching session? That means using an inquiry-based methodology which is specifically designed to increase awareness.
So, instead of commenting on a situation, you ask the individual what they think they could have done better. This method promotes creativity and invites people to reflect on the situation to arrive at the answer, i.e. what they need to do to improve stage themselves.
Self-diagnosis and solutions are a much more effective process than telling others what to do. Even if behaviour needs addressing, using this method should focus more on what is stopping a person achieving X than giving your instruction on how they should change.
For example, your IT Manager is disrespecting her team in meetings. Rather than pointing this out and telling her she needs to change, you could talk about her concept of leadership and what she sees as the responsibilities in her role. If her aim is to inspire change in the team, then how can she do that without being disrespectful?
You can help her see that instead of trying to beat others into submission, she can use other more effective – and acceptable – methods to be an inspirational manager.
The important thing is to remember to let the individual come to the appropriate behavioural change themselves. This allows them to move from a fixed to a growth mindset, which will inevitably lead to new skills and behaviours across the team.
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