We all need feedback, but most people could stand to improve a bit. So here’s some feedback on feedback.
When you think “feedback,” you’re most likely thinking of performance reviews. And in some organizations, that’s all you get—a once- or twice-a-year meeting between each employee and their manager that, typically, focuses on areas of improvement.
But delivering feedback only through formal performance reviews may be suboptimal. “It can be seen as an event versus a focus on feedback done regularly and consistently,” writes Allison Hopkins in TechCrunch. “And, as many of us have experienced, this feedback is less than ideal, constructive or helpful.”
“Accumulated feedback is overwhelming,” agrees Laura Vanderkam in Fast Company.
Consequently, many experts believe that more informal feedback—both positive and negative—delivered immediately after the behavior, offers a much better mechanism to improve employee performance, without being as stressful for either the manager or the employee.
The most important critical factor in giving feedback? Be direct and specific. “It’s not helpful to say ‘that’s really good’ or ‘that’s really bad,” writes Shannon Byrne in TNWNews. “It’s helpful to explain how something should be done.”
What makes this factor the most important? It’s easiest for the employee to understand and act upon. Just as with your kids, telling employees “I really liked the way you labeled all the cables that you installed” is a lot more effective than a generic “Good job!”
That goes for negative feedback as well. In fact, what’s helpful about giving negative feedback early and often is that the employee can get one piece of negative feedback at a time, deal with it, and improve his or her performance right away.
“There should be a statute of limitations on negative feedback,” writes Roger Schwarz, author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. “The longer you wait to give it, the longer you contribute to the person’s ineffectiveness and the less time they have to improve.”
It’s important to keep in mind that different employees respond to negative and positive feedback differently. For example, one study found that people who consider themselves experts tend to be more interested in negative feedback, while novices tend to be more interested in positive feedback, Byrne writes.
Opinions vary on whether the two types of feedback need to be coupled. Some believe, for example, that it’s important to deliver negative feedback surrounded by two pieces of positive feedback, to cushion the blow. “You begin with praise, address the problem, and follow up with more praise,” describes Courtney Seiter in BufferOpen.
However, this technique can teach employees to believe that the positive feedback is insincere and is being given only to provide the justification for the negative feedback. Alternatively, employees focus so much on the negative feedback that they don’t pay attention to the positive feedback, writes Alina Tugend in the New York Times. Either way, employees don’t hear the good stuff.
In fact, some experts say that positive feedback is more productive than negative feedback, and that it’s more important to focus on doing that well rather than dwelling on how to couch negative feedback. One survey found that what most motivates employees is the opportunity to do what they do best, writes Lori Alcala in CMSWire.
It’s also important to give the employee the opportunity to ask questions and discuss the feedback. Guess what: The more managers listen, the better employees think they are at giving feedback, according to a Harvard Business Review study.
Giving employees an opportunity to discuss feedback also helps ensure they understand it, especially if the manager feels like they’ve given the same feedback more than once. While it may take a few repetitions for it to sink in, keep in mind that the person giving the feedback might actually need some feedback on how to give it.
“If it takes more than three times sharing the same piece of feedback, you likely need to assess how you’re presenting such feedback. Are you being clear? Is the recipient understanding what you’re saying?” Byrne writes, adding that the employee should repeat it in his or her own words to make sure both parties are on the same page.
“Check to make sure you’ve made an impact on the first go-round by asking the person you’re coaching to paraphrase what he heard,” agrees Daisy Wademan Dowling in the Harvard Business Review. “If your coachee can clearly explain to you — in his own words — what he needs to change or do next, that goes a long way to ensuring he’s gotten the message.”
The biggest advantage to frequent feedback? People will get used to it instead of freaking out every time they hear something negative, writes Ben Horowitz from the VC firm Andreesen Horowitz. And that will percolate to the rest of the company. “If people get comfortable talking about what each other are doing wrong, then it will be very easy to talk about what the company is doing wrong,” he writes.
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