A frequently cited meta-analysis from 1996 found that in more than 30% of cases, feedback leads to a drop in performance. This statistic is disheartening, especially when you consider the proportion of training budgets dedicated to programs that aim to build feedback-giving skills and their hidden cost (the hours managers spend in these programs). Small wonder that some thought leaders go as far as saying, “It’s time to stop training managers to give feedback.” These leaders urge organizations to decrease their investment in teaching managers how to give feedback and, instead, focus on building employees’ ability to seek it.
The Problem With Feedback Training
It’s true that feedback-seeking is an important skill; in fact, 2013 research linked seeking feedback to a variety of positive career outcomes. However, particularly in today’s environment, where job and company changes are frequent, learning and development (L&D) professionals should proceed with caution on what might look like the panacea to a deficit in leaders’ skills. Shifting the focus from the managers to the employees risks a diffusion of accountability that, over time, will lead to less feedback. Training professionals who are committed to building strong leaders need to stay the course, double down and do so with confidence.
We recently completed research that highlighted stark differences between how human resources (HR) leaders see this topic and how business leaders see it. Our findings indicate that the most frequent reason business leaders cite for not giving feedback to employees is the lack of training.
Is this finding surprising? Yes, in the context of the effort and expense dedicated to feedback training. But this finding is not necessarily inconsistent. Instead, it points to the need to examine the effectiveness of current training. Training managers must consider how their organization is approaching building feedback-giving skills by asking the following questions:
- What’s the content? What exactly is the course teaching? Does the context emphasize the skills of giving feedback but fail to address managers’ underlying beliefs? Does training examine beliefs but fail to teach how to diagnose performance issues?
- Is it easy but comprehensive? Are the feedback tools provided to leaders easy to use? Can they use those tools in the moment? Does the training help leaders understand that performance is contextual and feedback is situational? Tools can be simple, but they must also recognize that in the manager’s world, situations are rarely black and white.
- Who’s the audience? Training often focuses on emerging or first-time supervisors and misses a critical and influential audience: senior leaders.
The answers to these questions differ by organization. Some training programs balance the “why” of feedback with building skills — but without providing training for employees in managerial positions and above. Others provide useful methodologies but don’t address how to use them in an organization where the culture isn’t one where feedback typically happens.
Think about your organization. What would your answers suggest? Most L&D leaders conclude that the organization would benefit from thinking more strategically and holistically about their approach to feedback — and then training accordingly.
Helping Managers Think Like a Sports Coach
Rafa Nadal, currently ranked the No. 1 tennis player by the Association of Tennis Professionals, did not achieve this success by practicing only his powerful lassoed forehand. His trainers also have him practice his serve, backhand and volleys. They diagnose his fitness. They support his practice with doctors, nutritionists, and even technology to analyze his performance and focus his training on what he needs to improve.
Let’s apply this approach to training managers on how to give feedback. First of all, ask yourself how good your managers are at diagnosing their employees’ performance issues. This area is often a major skills gap, with biased feedback or feedback based on aspects of performance that are not critical to results. This feedback often muddies the waters and overwhelms or confuses the employee instead of providing clarity on what needs to change. Training programs that teach feedback-giving skills must include a section on diagnosing performance issues correctly. As management thinker Russell Ackoff said, “The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter! If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better!”
So, start with equipping managers to zoom in on the right thing.
Second, help managers understand that human performance is contextual and that context varies. Their employees come to work with different capabilities and skills, personalities, and motivations. And the environment varies, just like conditions on the tennis court. Training has to help managers vary their feedback to the context. A message to a highly learning-agile person will be different from feedback to someone low on self-awareness. Much training teaches a feedback methodology but then fails to show managers how to apply it in different circumstances. Teaching leaders to adjust their style depending on the situation is central to building the skill of giving successful feedback.
Finally, while context varies, the model for giving feedback does not need to. Models help organize our thoughts and map out conversations. They keep the feedback giver on track, and they enhance accuracy and fairness. However, the complexity of the model is often reversely related to its usefulness or effectiveness. Pick one that is both universal and easy to use. We suggest this simple three-step feedback statement:
- Tell me why it matters.
- Tell me how I am doing.
- Tell me what to do.
Employees are more likely to hear and act on feedback when there is a reason to act (why it matters), when there is a rationale for the feedback (how someone is doing), and when the emphasis is on the future and moving forward toward positive action (what to do).
A Final Word
As training professionals, we’re in the business of building the skills that organizations need to be successful. The skill of giving feedback is one of them, and it’s not a hard skill to learn. Empirically, however, it seems to be a hard skill to teach.
Don’t give up. Diagnose your current offerings. Ask the right questions. Adjust and improve. Why? Because, as the talent guru Marc Effron said, “There is no more powerful force to improve performance than high quality feedback.”