By Dale S. Rose
Feedback is a fact of organizational life. Employees respond to feedback in varied ways: They will ignore it, overlook it, embrace it, or reject it. But the fact is, that if you work with people, you’re dealing with feedback one way or another.
Despite the ubiquity of 360 Feedback (Rose and Biringer, 2022) as a method for diversifying the sources of feedback, an employee’s manager remains the primary and most career impacting person to share insights on the basic question of how well an employee is performing. And yet, if you talk to just about any manager, they will happily share that giving feedback is one of their least favorite parts of their job. Not surprisingly, without a structured process to follow managers frequently struggle to give good feedback.
So, what does good feedback look like and what is the best way for managers to give it?
Go high, or go low?
A popular current debate is whether it is better to point out successes or failures. Should you pat an employee on the back for a job well done, or should you point out the parts of the project that could have been better? Most managers naturally tilt toward pushing standards higher by shining light on areas for improvement. After all, it’s a manager’s job to push for better performance and to hold high standards, right? Indeed, it is.
But, when providing feedback managers are well advised to consider who is receiving the feedback, and what will motivate them most. Is this a new employee on their first assignment who just hit the ball out of the park? Is this someone who is taking on a stretch assignment and actually pulled off a result that was on the mark? These are situations where positive encouraging feedback is the best approach. Comments like “wow, great job on that report” are likely to get these folks confident in themselves and comfortable they can perform well.
On the other hand, maybe your superstar who is thirsting for challenge just delivered a solid performance, but you know they are trying to “level up” and they are always asking where they can improve. In this case, something encouraging but challenging is going to work best: “Good work on that report. You covered all the bases, but you could have dug deeper into the global issues, the capital demands, and the likely risk factors – these things would have made it a better tool for making the go-no-go decision.” Depending on who is receiving this feedback it can be completely demotivating (e.g., “Nothing I do is ever good enough”) or greatly appreciated (“thanks for showing me where I can get better – That’s going to help me on my next report!”)
Behaviors vs. traits
By far, the most important thing to remember when giving feedback is to make it specific and behavioral. Behavioral feedback is the opposite of labeling. Labeling an employee is to assume their behavior will be consistent – that their successes of the past will continue regardless of circumstances. It assumes their performance is due to some inherent character fact, rather than caused by their effort in a given situation. Putting an employee in a box that defines them is to suggest they can’t grow or improve; it suggests they are stuck. So, don’t tell employees they are “lazy” or “stubborn” or even “superstars.” Instead, be specific: “You clearly didn’t put enough time into this, too many details were missed” or “you could be more open to others’ ideas” or “you’ve been having a great quarter!”.
Modality. The way feedback is delivered can make or break the message. Tone and facial expression accounts for as much as 93% of the information in a message, whereas content only carries around 7% of the information (Mehrabian, 1981). If you want feedback to be well received, your tone and affect need to communicate the message that you are there to help. Feedback delivered as a critique, judgment, or attack will be ignored. Giving no feedback is better than taking this approach. Instead, express compassion and a desire to problem solve with your employee on how they can level up. This can be done effectively at all levels and with all sorts of performance profiles or issues. Your superstars want your help as much as employees who are struggling. If your feedback message is an encouragement to continue successful behaviors, make sure to deliver the message with enthusiasm. A flat affect with positive feedback is sure to backfire.
Well delivered feedback shared at the wrong time is sure to be wasted. The thing to remember is you want your employee to hear the message, internalize it, and take some form of action. To get this outcome, they need to actually pay attention to what you are saying. In the middle of a push effort to meet a tight timeline is not going to work – the employee is rightly focused on hitting the deadline. They won’t have enough mental bandwidth to do anything with your feedback. Set a meeting and take some time to explain your observations, let them ask questions and then generate a plan. On the other hand, don’t wait too long either. The feedback needs to be tied closely enough to the event that the employee can reflect on the moment and will remember the behaviors you observed clearly enough to make changes.
It’s also worth thinking about the individual you are dealing with. Are they distracted by their own life circumstances? Have they just lost a parent? Do they have a newly sick child? How is their own health? When an employee’s personal life is at a peak stress is among the worst time to deliver corrective feedback – but this can also be the best time to congratulate them on a job well done! The bottom line is you’ve taken the time to figure out what your employee needs to hear and how to deliver the message, why not wait till the time is right?
Giving feedback is an essential task for all leaders. But giving the feedback once will rarely suffice. Follow up with your employees after you’ve given them feedback to let them know you’ve seen them make positive changes. Check in with employees a few weeks after feedback is given to see if they have questions, have thought about the feedback, and what they have done to integrate it into their work. Ideally, feedback is an ongoing iterative conversation between a manager and their staff – and, in a perfect world, it’s a two-way conversation. All the ideas I’ve suggested for giving employees feedback also apply to them giving you feedback on how you are doing as a leader.
- Rose, D.S. & Biringer, J.C. (2022). Current Practices in 360 Feedback (7th ed.), Emeryville, CA: 3D Group.
- Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes (2d ed.). Wadsworth Pub. Co.
Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the President and co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 7th Edition