Making feedback count

Wednesday 30 November 2016
It would seem that straightforward feedback would be the most effective way to facilitate this process; but in reality, it doesn’t work the way managers tend to use it
Indicator showing high positive feedback

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions” according to an oft-quoted management guru. But is it really?

Who says feedback produces better results than giving none? It’s a good question, since so many managers and leaders rely on feedback to create changed behaviour.

As individuals, we’re supposedly hungry for feedback. We want to hear we’re clever, beautiful, successful, efficient, or whatever. There are plenty of consultants and organisations that exist specifically to teach managers, supervisors and leaders to give useful feedback, or to create a feedback culture.

Let’s start with the raison d’etre of feedback at work

Essentially it’s information about how an employee is doing, usually delivered by people they trust, admire or respect. The issue is whether this helps an individual to perform better, or even to feel better about themselves.

In practice, while positive feedback seems to work, negative feedback doesn’t. Managers who relish the opportunity of “telling it as it is” to someone at work for example, soon learn comments about attitude or personal traits usually causes more harm than good. Neuroscience finds just saying; “let me give you some feedback” triggers a threat response in the brain. To be felt as productive, information must be specific and positive.

If you’re someone who thinks people’s performance mainly reflects abilities fixed by intelligence or talents, then feedback won’t make much sense. You probably find it hard to see the point of it, since efforts to affect behaviour will be limited or a waste of time. In contrast, if you think hard work, experience and effort are intrinsically linked to performance, then you’ll probably approve of feedback.

If it's positive, it can work

Feedback that contradicts our own self image, or how we’ve performed or seen as professionals can cause a mental conflict. Known as “cognitive dissonance”, the only way to resolve this unpleasant feeling is to reject the feedback or entirely go along with it.

Performance reviews in business have long relied on a manager’s ability to give feedback. The results have mainly been a disaster. Feedback-givers hate the entire process as fraught with emotion and lacking reliable metrics. Those on the receiving end also detest the experience, complaining it’s unfair, threatening or both. Consequently, ever more companies are seeking to replace feedback with better ways to inspire more effective performance.

Despite the decline in support for feedback, if it’s positive it can work.

First, it’s best to avoid unsolicited feedback

Dumping a whole lot of feedback on someone when they’re not receptive is likely to land badly.

There must be a desire from recipients to hear about their performance, and at time and place that makes them feel secure. “Come to my office for some feedback” is a sure way to initiate a negative experience.

To trigger behavioural change, aim for clear language and readily understood examples:

  • “When you keep arriving late at the office it causes your colleagues to resent this and wonder if they could also do the same.”
  • “When you sent me that copy this morning I noticed several factual errors and several typos. We aim to avoid that around here.”

Second, sharing feelings also helps bring feedback to life

It makes it more personal: “I felt frustrated because I had to spend a lot of time sorting out the logic of this report. I found it tiring and unhelpful.”

Showing empathy is also a sound way to make feedback count. Try describing a situation from the other person’s perspective to explain their behaviour: “I imagine you were rushed when you wrote this, and didn’t have enough time to check it before giving it to me.”

Another route to making feedback work is describing a preferred alternative outcome. This can transform feedback into a more positive form: “I’d like it if you could start giving the other team members more chance to speak about their ideas or concerns.”

Finally, if you’re not part of the solution you are part of the problem

Invite people to comment on your own performance, not just offer up their ideas: “I’d really like to know how best to help you perform at your best; what can I do to make the job more interesting?”

To make your feedback work, focus on comments about progress towards a goal that’s regarded as important.

Also, encourage people to assess their own performance – they’re usually tougher than any manager will ever be.

Andrew Leigh is co-founder of Maynard Leigh, a leading provider of professional training and development programmes