A plethora of material and training courses about best management practices are readily available with just a few clicks and swipes. So why do we struggle with feedback conversations? Despite the need for continuous improvement, research suggests (subscription required) that most feedback doesn’t help employees improve, let alone promote change or new learning.
For years, I have observed managers in training sessions complain about the challenge of giving feedback. They either share subtle feedback, avoid the real issue or become overly harsh in their approach. So what really works, and how do you bring clarity and structure to effective feedback?
Let’s start with what feedback is not:
Feedback is not reliable.
More and more evidence suggests that we are incapable of providing objective criticism when we assess performance. Our ability to be realistic is tinted with subjective data. In fact, research has shown (subscription required) that more than half of our “rating” of someone is actually a reflection of our own intrinsic traits and characteristics, as opposed to objective perceptions of the other person. In other words, we tend to see in others the gaps that we dislike in ourselves.
Feedback is not insight.
Neuroscience research informs us that when we give critical feedback, we provoke the human “fight or flight” response (subscription required). This means that access to learning is blocked. The presumption that feedback is useful and inherently informative relies heavily on the message. Criticism provokes defense, and when we don’t feel safe, we tend to react, not receive. The archaic notion that learning is a function of adding to what is not there is inaccurate. Quite the opposite, learning comes from recognizing the person’s strength, reinforcing the right behavior and introducing new insights.
Feedback is not distinct.
No two individuals wear success the same way, let alone perform in the same manner. Your most essential role, as a manager, is to clarify expectations and articulate terms for success — ahead of time and consistently. When you observe a positive behavior, highlight achievement. When you observe a gap, invite the person to share their perspective on the situation and empower them to offer their version of how to course-correct. Telling is not learning. The distinction is imperative.
So what makes feedback effective?
Feedback is effective when it is safe.
When the recipient feels safe, the need to fight or flight is diminished. Building a relationship of respect and trust must precede all feedback conversations. When your team trusts you, they hear your message clearly with no distractions. People decide how they receive your feedback based on how they think of you.
Feedback is effective when it is specific.
You must first review the facts and be very clear about your motive before you attempt to share feedback. I’ve found this four-step process works well:
Step 1: Share appreciation. Start with a sincere appreciation for something the person does well. “What I appreciate about you is …”
Step 2: State the behavior using neutral language. Review the facts prior to your meeting and practice using “I” instead of “you.” Ensure that the person feels safe and respected. Share observations, not assumptions. For example, “I could not help but notice that there is a noticeable drop in your participation during meetings. It appears to be impacting the progress of the ABC project.”
Step 3: Solicit feedback from the person. Ask open-ended questions, and show a sincere interest in listening to understand. Ask for the person’s perspective and pause. Wait for them to respond.
Step 4: Seek agreement and shape future alignment. Tap into the person’s intelligence — not yours — to identify a solution. You may have the answer to solving the problem; however, what matters is that the person commits to the task. Instead of offering a solution, seek their input and refocus the conversation on commitment. End the conversation with sincere gratitude and solicit their feedback regarding the overall conversation.
While providing a space for confidence to grow, your team’s confidence sits at a vulnerable position where unnecessary feedback may inhibit learning and ultimately growth. Start to celebrate small wins, articulate achievements and indicate how the team can benefit from learning.
Feedback is effective when it’s timely.
No matter your intentions for sharing feedback, the way I see it, keeping a list of all performance issues until the end of the year is the root cause of why so many performance conversations fail. The surprise factor during the annual performance review is insulting and quite demeaning. Consistent coaching conversations are inherently helpful.
How do you start the year right?
1. Share clear expectations and co-create pathways for success using performance goals and objectives.
2. Recognize team and individual achievements and milestones consistently.
3. Maintain and encourage ongoing coaching and feedback conversations among the team.
4. Design routine, two-way discovery and problem-solving conversations with your team.
One final thing. We likely all agree that constructive feedback is essential, and ignoring these conversations could be a liability. Remember to start with intentions. Constructive feedback is more effective when you share your intentions out loud. So be clear about your intentions, and recognize how to soften the impact of your words.
Struggling with feedback? Make feedback the norm. Hold breakthrough conversations with your team. Allow time for self-reflection. Your team members must be able to pause and connect the dots to put their best foot forward. Encourage sharing to generate a better understanding of your team members and what motivates each of them. Highlight their uniqueness and their value to the team, and always encourage a space for candid expression.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If your will is to see your team thrive, then there’s a way to achieve it. Bring empathy, dignity and care into your workspace. Become grounded as an empowering (not limiting) manager and coach your team to stretch and thrive.