Crucial to a high-functioning team, feedback needs to be delivered in a way that will inspire—not alienate, says Harvard's Cynthia Phoel
Posted on Management Essentials: April 27, 2009 5:10 PM
Fundamentally, feedback is a good thing. For managers, it's an important tool for shaping behaviors and fostering learning that will drive better performance. For their direct reports, it's an opportunity for development and career growth.
Why, then, is it so problematic? Most managers say they dislike giving feedback and don't think it's as effective as it could be. Those on the receiving end say they don't get enough feedback they can actually use.
Many reasons account for this disconnect. Strong emotions on both sides, a focus on character rather than on behavior, and a lack of clarity about what needs to change and why are just a few of the factors that can undermine a feedback session, write Mark D. Cannon and Robert Witherspoon in an Academy of Management Executive article. What can a manager do to improve feedback?
Focus on business outcomes
Business outcomes should be your starting place for giving feedback: You need to develop talent, boost sales, improve service. When feedback is framed as a means to reach a specific business goal, it becomes an opportunity to solve a problem rather than criticize.
This opportunity is not geared only to the manager. When feedback is focused on the employee's development, "that makes it a lot more helpful," says Cannon, a professor of leadership and organizational studies at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. "Feedback becomes a gift of someone investing in the recipient's career."
Give feedback often
Feedback works best when it's a continual process rather than a formal session once or twice a year. In fact, experts agree that the yearly performance appraisal is the worst time to surprise an employee with negative feedback. You're nervous, and so is the employee. With pulse rates up and adrenaline flowing, the natural response is fight or flight, not the thoughtfulness an effective feedback session requires.
Practice giving feedback often; soon it will become a habit. Praise good performance right away. When negative feedback is required, talk with the employee within 24 hours.
If you've managed your direct reports for a while, you've drawn conclusions about them. That's fine, but don't let these conclusions lead you astray in a feedback session, write Cannon and Witherspoon. For instance, saying something like "You're unprofessional" is a recipe for disaster. A character attack provides no information and doesn't offer any actionable ideas for change.
Before a feedback session, find concrete data that may or may not support your conclusions. Your goal is to gather evidence that will allow you to describe:
Specific behavior. Be specific about what the person has done or not done, without judging her intent. Avoid statements that begin "You always…" or "You never…"
The impact of that behavior. Tell the person how her behavior is affecting you, the team, or the business.
What you want the person to do differently. Your employee can't read your mind. Be explicit about what needs to change.
Don't assume you're right
Even after you've collected your data, you might not have the complete picture. Other people may not see this person's behavior as you do. Furthermore, the employee will have his own side of the story. "Difficult feedback is rarely about getting the facts right," says Witherspoon, an executive coach and president of Washington, D.C.-based Performance & Leadership Development Ltd. "It's about conflicting views, feelings, and values. Reasonable people differ about all these things."
Approach the feedback session with the goal of getting a complete and accurate picture of the situation. Just as you want your employee to listen with a willingness to be influenced by what he hears, you need to be willing to be influenced by what you hear.
To make this a learning conversation for both you and your employee, ask questions to get her thinking:
How do you see the situation?
How might you do things differently next time?
What do you think worked, and what could have gone better?
Questions like these establish a supportive atmosphere in which the employee can explore alternative approaches that might produce better results. The more an individual thinks about improving her performance, says Cannon, "the more committed she is to making it happen."
Because managers dread giving feedback, they like to feel that once they've had the conversation, they're done. Not so fast! says Cannon. "There is a big difference between understanding and changing," he says. Your employees' ability to make that leap requires ongoing support. Thus, follow-through is vital. Ask, "Now what are the next steps you will take, and how can I support your progress?" Plan to meet again in a month.
Consider yourself a catalyst for the change you'd like to see. Suggest specific steps that will help the employee work on performance gaps. Cannon recommends having him gather his own data by asking peers or subordinates for feedback and suggestions on a particular performance area.
Gather feedback on how you give feedback
Is giving feedback an area in which you need to improve? At the end of a feedback session, ask what your employee thought of the conversation and how you can be more helpful.