How to overcome your feedback phobia

21 June 2016 -


Don’t tell people what they’re doing wrong; give detailed feedback on what they should do. That way, you should see an improvement

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

Name one organisation where people are generally happy with their Appraisal process. Name one organisation where, if they indeed have a process, it has not been chopped and changed as disillusionment, anger and sabotage have set in.

Name one senior person who doesn’t want personal feedback. And one who actually enjoys delivering it.

The concept of performance appraisal is based on some important and simple principles: people want to know how they are doing; managers and supervisors are able and willing to give performance feedback; accurate, timely feedback improves performance.

True? So whence the cynicism, dread and distrust around the whole appraisal process?

The consequences of not having feedback can really be very serious. Is the real reason simple then?

Give them positive feedback and you unrealistically raise expectations of salary increase, promotion and the like. Give them negative feedback and you get tears and allegations of aggression, bullying and harassment. Tribunals and lawyers follow from telling feckless, lazy, incompetent people that they are precisely that!

So let’s start again. Do we always want feedback? Answer: yes - if it’s positive, yes- if it fits in with our picture of our efforts and abilities. No – if negative, very strongly no - if not constructive, in the sense that it does not suggest and support alternative behaviours.

Feedback can be bland, overwhelmingly complex, or carefully coded to make it worthless to the individual.

Point two: managers can and will give feedback. Answer : no – if they don’t have, keep or understand performance data; don’t know how to conduct appraisals; don’t have any control over how the performance ratings are used; or are scared of confronting poor performing employees.

Third, does the feedback always produce positive changes? Answer? Sometimes. Depending.

It all depends on two things. First, is it focused on personal characteristics, or task behaviours? The former often lead to worse performance. Second, is it specifically behavioural with a description of what is wanted and what is not?

Tell people not what they do wrong, but what (in detail) they should do and you should get an improvement.

Of course much depends on the purpose of feedback ratings. Are they ‘administrative’ in the sense that they are to inform salary, promotional and other decisions? Are they ‘developmental’ in the sense that they are meant to inform overall training or are they ‘performance-oriented’ in the sense that they are aimed at maintaining or changing very specific performances?

It seems there are two general categories of factors that influence the willingness to give and receive feedback. The characteristics of the people involved and the particular organisations.

Seven personal characteristics have been shown to relate to feedback exchange:

Demographics: females seem more happy to act on feedback than males. Also people from less egalitarian and collectivist cultures seem happier to receive and do something about feedback.

Personality: stable, agreeable, conscientious people give and receive feedback more enthusiastically.

Performance level: by and large, better performers deal more in feedback. Some seek feedback more when they are under-performing but that depends on the job and their motivations.

Relationships: no surprise here. The better the relationship between rater and rated the more feedback is sought and used.

The rater’s emotions: this means how hot or cool the way in which the feedback is delivered. Show negative emotions when giving negative feedback and the point of the activity is lost.

Impression management: both the rater and rated can play games, put on roles. One can play therapist-patient; wise/elder/new kid on the block; ego-enhancement; job focus, etc. Being job focused is best, obviously.

Supervisor commitment and engagement: happy bosses give more lenient ratings and vice versa. The pissed off, political survivor uses and abuses the system for specific ends.

Managers who trust the process give and receive better appraisals.

Inevitably appraisal works better in some organisations more than others. Organisations with higher morale, better overall performance, stronger systems, less politics were better, more frequent and happier users of feedback.

Much depends on perceptions of the point of using feedback systems too – how fair open, honest they were.

Some organisations go in for 360o or multi-source feedback in a big way. That involves being rated by superiors, peers, subordinates and clients as well as self.

It’s meant to increase awareness and facilitate development. The trouble that is mostly the feedback is inconsistent and unclear. Why are the ratings so different; what should one do with it?

It’s like advice: you are not always sure what to do.

But surely to be in a feedbackless world is a nightmare?

To know how you’re doing and how to do it better must be good for the individual and the organisation. People need to be taught to give detailed and objective feedback. But there is a gain/pain calculation to be made.

Is all the ducking and weaving; game-playing and political shenanigans worth it?

Can we help people make accurate and fair self-assessments? Of course… but as ever it depends on what they are used for.

Most of us want to know how we are (really) doing and improve. But we are not as closely managed as we once were and may have to find different ways of getting and giving feedback.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here.

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