As a longtime proponent and researcher of all things feedback, it’s been exciting to see the upswing in business articles and training programs for managers on feedback skills. The new focus on feedback has led to corporate campaigns; cultural initiatives; and greater time allocated to tools, apps and practices for implementing feedback. Where feedback is actually practiced, results have been positive: Many leaders at all levels are happy to see how useful employees find it and to see its impact on business results and employee retention.
However, when it comes to how managers should offer feedback, there’s been a huge divergence in the advice given. One popular approach has been to ask managers to stick to praise and positivity and leave improvement advice out of the conversation. The rationale for this idea is that a leader should, first and foremost, build employees’ confidence and let them identify their own performance gaps and solutions. Some believe that corrective feedback stunts improvement in companies.
Based on the research that went into my recent books, “The Feedback Imperative” and “The Everyday Feedback Workbook,” let’s clarify some of the flawed assumptions that go into the view that corrective feedback is harmful.
Flawed Assumption #1: Feedback Depends on Numerical Ratings
The Fallacy: Modern feedback is all about numbers, ratings and reports from managers. Since managers are notoriously poor raters of performance, people often feel judged and alienated by the resulting feedback. Feedback conversations need to stick to positive motivation.
The Everyday Feedback Approach: Performance ratings are only one aspect of helpful feedback. In fact, major companies such as Adobe, Microsoft and Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global have stopped the practice of performance reviews in favor of continuous, open exchanges of feedback. The best form of feedback is daily interactions filled with empathy and performed with the aim of reaching a common goal.
Flawed Assumption #2: Improvement Feedback Always Causes Stress
The Fallacy: Brain science concludes that any feedback calling for improvement causes trauma. The receiver’s fight-or-flight reaction kicks in automatically and blocks constructive learning.
The Everyday Feedback Approach: While it is true that feedback can cause stress, the greatest stress is experienced by the giver, not the receiver. Employees want feedback, which is correlated with positive employee engagement in Gallup research and many other studies.
According to a survey performed by Wakefield Research and commissioned by Reflektive, 94% of employees want real-time feedback. Lack of frequent feedback is a key factor in turnover and employees’ feelings that no one cares about their careers.
Flawed Assumption #3: Feedback and Ideas for Improvement Should Originate with the Employees
The Fallacy: People learn and grow far more when they are self-motivated to do so, and the manager cannot add much to this process.
The Everyday Feedback Approach: While self-motivation is a necessary component for professional success, it is not enough for the leader to voice expectations once and then rely on the employee to perform successfully. The manager and employee must discuss goals, tasks and needs on a regular basis, especially for goal-oriented companies that track their business performance and rely on the alignment of employees’ goals with company goals.
After discussing goals with employees, great managers demonstrate known methods to accomplish them and lead a two-way discussion about how best to achieve them. A lack of such coaching will bewilder the employees and make them feel they aren’t being supported. With such a relationship in place, the employees are more prepared to jump in, try new approaches, ask questions and adjust behavior. The coach partnership is a learning alliance in which feedback is a natural and helpful route toward the employees’ finding new solutions on their own.
Managers can avoid negative effects by focusing on:
- Helping the employee learn and improve.
- Avoiding insulting negativity.
- Remaining optimistic and respectful of the recipients’ ability to perform successfully with feedback.
Feedback is nothing more (or less) than information, and in our information-based economy, it is more essential now than ever before. In a world devoid of continuous open feedback, how could people gain input about how they can do things differently and more effectively?
I suggest using COIN™ — connect to common goals, observe behavior, improvement ideas and next steps — a simple model that connects with people, stays positive and offers powerful learning. As a manager, you cannot afford to give up on helping people learn!