Employees are a company’s biggest asset. The success or failure of any company is largely determined by how skillful, motivated and productive its employees are. An environment of trust and open communication is crucial for developing an organizational culture in which employees can perform at their peak ability and capacity. Managers benefit by creating and fostering such an environment, and in order to be successful, both managers and employees must be able to exercise a critical skill of giving, as well as receiving, feedback.
The many advantages of constructive feedback are widely acknowledged and hailed by a vast majority of present-day business leaders. Timely and sound feedback allows for expedient evaluation and optimization of the employee’s performance, which in turn streamlines organizational processes and communication flow, obviating numerous potential setbacks and the need to spend time and resources correcting them. While recognizing the benefits of constructive feedback, scores of managers and company employees quickly lose their nerve at the thought of personally giving or receiving feedback, and try everything in their power to avoid dealing with it altogether.
In the minds of far too many, “feedback” has developed a negative connotation. Psychologically damaging effects of the negative past experiences of being exposed to verbal attacks, poorly constructed criticism or meaningless advice – all conveniently labeled “feedback” – usually prove to be a main cause of the feedback-associated apprehension or fear. If the employee’s response to the manager’s feedback is lukewarm at best, there are undoubtedly some roadblocks at play that cause the effectiveness and value of managerial feedback to diminish. Some of the most common impediments to effective feedback are:
- Lack of preparation for the feedback
- Lack of time discussing the feedback
- Vagueness and poor phrasing
- Being affected by emotions
- Fear of upsetting or angering the recipient
- Fear of straining personal relationships
- Fear of blemishing a personal image
- Fear of ruining team dynamics
- Fear of backlash
- Defensive reaction of the recipient
- Denial or lack of understanding on the recipient’s part
- Difficulty dealing with anything that seems like “conflict”
Both reinforcing (positive) and corrective (negative) feedback are valuable learning experiences. It seems logical that good, constructive feedback provides its recipients with important pieces of information that has power to help them do a better job in the future. Effective feedback will motivate its receiver to improve and strive to do well, whereas poor quality feedback will only confuse and exasperate. Oftentimes, having received terribly constructed and delivered feedback, employees feel helpless, unappreciated or looked down upon by their colleagues, team leaders or managers, and instead of learning from that experience they would condemn the one who gave them the evaluation.
Between unclear and inaccurate feedback, the former is the lesser of two evils; unsound feedback not only leads to bitterness and outrage, but it also undermines the manager’s trustworthiness – and therefore authority – in the eyes of the employees. When administering corrective feedback, it is imperative for the manager to be open to discussion, in addition to being well-informed and objective.
Positive feedback, on the other hand, although less “popular” than corrective, is just as essential for employees’ success. Mistakenly, many managers believe that reinforcing feedback is limited to “You did well!” and “Great job”. Neither one should be considered feedback, as they provide no analysis, advice, plan of action or any other learning opportunities. They are simply trite statements that have no real value to their recipients. Employees need to understand exactly what they are doing well. Not only that, they need to be able to take that knowledge and apply it in future to ensure continuous improvement. If the feedback employees receive has no substance to it, no improvement will take place.
It is certainly easier to hear what we want or like to hear, rather than what is necessary; however, the latter is far more meaningful and significant for the personal, as well as professional, learning and development of any individual. Research shows that most leaders understand this fact, and therefore willingly seek feedback from others. Based on a study of 51,896 executives, professional services firm Zenger Folkman discovered that leaders who ask for feedback are substantially more effective than those who do not. For instance, the research findings demonstrate that leaders who ranked at the top 10% in asking for feedback were rated, on average, at the 86th percentile in overall leadership effectiveness:
In a smaller study of 22,719 leaders, Zenger Folkman unveiled a relationship between feedback and employee engagement levels: The leaders who ranked in the top 10% in their ability to give honest feedback received engagement scores from their subordinates in the 77th percentile in engagement, and conversely the leaders who ranked at the bottom 10% got engagement scores that averaged in the 25th percentile:
The value of constructive feedback – to employees, managers and companies – cannot be overemphasized. Think through and keep in mind the following recommendations to guarantee that the next time you give feedback it is on point:
- Plan ahead. The best kind of feedback – in terms of time – is the one that is given on a regular and continuous basis. Feedback is not to be given only when the problem arises; you should approach feedback as a regular part of your managerial responsibilities. In cases where a problem needs to be addressed, your feedback should follow closely, so that appropriate corrections and adjustments can be made in a timely manner. Effective feedback requires careful preparation, so make sure you give yourself enough time to review and analyze all the aspects of the scenario. You must be well-informed in order to avoid delivering feedback that is superficial or unjust.
- Mind the differences in behavioral style. There is no point to great feedback that only overwhelms and confuses employees. Your feedback may be well-constructed, insightful and actionable, but if the recipient does not understand what it implies then your efforts have been wasted. Don’t generalize! Different people have their own individual behavioral styles, and different approaches to problem solving, communicating, and addressing issues. An approach that might work for one person will not necessarily work for another. You need to understand the people you are addressing, the way they take in the information, the way they process it. People function best within their own style; you need to adapt to those particular styles to achieve maximum effectiveness.
- Don’t attack people, attack problems. When personalities collide and tensions run high, it becomes very easy to get caught up in the blaming game. You have to be objective and civilized; don’t turn this learning opportunity for your subordinates into a skirmish or a personal vendetta of some kind. Instead, focus on the underlying causes of a problem and possible solutions. Don’t criticize – discuss! Instead of “You never talk in meetings. You are too quiet,” try something like “You seemed preoccupied in the last meeting when Joe asked you a question. Why did you respond as you did?” Effective feedback usually takes the shape of a dialogue, and not a one-way torrent of condemnation.
- Don’t assume they know what you mean. People cannot read each other’s minds; why do we always seem to forget such overt and straightforward truth? There is no guarantee that just because you understand what you are trying to convey, others will be able to comprehend your perspective. Don’t hint or tip-toe around the problem – you need to be specific. In your feedback, tell the employees exactly what they do well and not so well, what are their areas for improvement and ways in which they can do it. Be meticulous. Use examples and avoid ambiguity at all costs.
- Walk the talk. If you are going to give feedback to others, you must also ask for it. You need to show your employees that feedback is not an exclusively managerial instrument of power. Nor is it a way to put down people; whether people like it or not, it is still a learning experience, an opportunity to improve, for everyone. Show your employees that you are open to their feedback. This two-way-street approach to feedback is going to help create a culture of open communication and trust, facilitating stronger relationships between management and employees.