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Giving And Receiving Feedback: Going Back to the Basics

Posted by Rick Lepsinger July 9, 2019


Regular feedback is an important part of employee development. Unfortunately, providing consistent and timely feedback can get lost in the weeds of the work week.

Sometimes, when in a rush to give immediate feedback, managers drop a few positive comments and move on. Or, even worse, criticize without considering how those comments are delivered. It’s important for feedback to be equal parts encouraging and constructive.

Managers should always focus on one or two important issues at a time to avoid overwhelming an employee when addressing performance. Using a balance of praise and constructive criticism while addressing issues helps them to identify what they can do to improve. Feedback should also be delivered in an environment that encourages two-way communication focused on problem solving.

Giving constructive feedback in a way that reduces defensiveness and motivates action requires skills that can’t be taken for granted. No matter how performance feedback is provided, managers should learn five communication strategies to ensure their feedback is perceived to be helpful.

Strategies for Giving and Receiving Feedback

Maintain and Enhance Self-Esteem

Because of the great impact self-esteem has on performance, it is a theme that runs throughout the feedback and development process.

The Pygmalion Effect demonstrates that people are motivated to work at a level consistent with their perceptions of their own competence. Managers have a significant impact on their direct reports’ perceptions of their abilities. If a manager erodes a direct report’s self-esteem, that person’s productivity and performance level are negatively impacted. Conversely, if the manager enhances a direct report’s view of themselves, that person’s motivation increases.

This psychological phenomenon can be utilized as a tool to bolster morale and productivity on an individual and team level. Setting reasonable expectations will give employees a standard to work towards, giving managers a means to specifically address shortfalls or mistakes in an encouraging way.

Practice Active Listening

Effective managers are effective two-way communicators. “Two-way” means they first listen to make sure that they hear what others are saying, and then they respond in a way that shows others that they have been heard and understood. This helps reduce defensiveness, promote self-esteem, and defuse emotional exchanges, which, in turn, enables people to engage in productive problem-solving. The three listening skills are:

  • Paraphrasing – Restating in your own words your interpretation of what the other person said. This shows that you understand (but not necessarily that you agree with) what the other person is saying.
  • Empathizing – Reflecting back, in your own words, your understanding of what the person is feeling and the reason for the feeling—without adding any opinions or advice.
  • Questioning – Used when you need to collect additional information, clarify information, and encourage problem-solving.

Focus on Behavior

When discussing performance, it is important to be specific about what a person is doing or saying. This puts the focus on the person’s behavior or actions, rather than on attitude or personality, which is likely to provoke defensiveness. If your boss said that you “lack commitment,” you would not know exactly what you needed to do differently. To improve your performance you would need to know what was it that you said or did that indicated to your boss that you lacked commitment. Are you arriving late to meetings? Are you missing deadlines? Are you failing to provide team members with needed information or updates?

Furthermore, such a label runs the risk of triggering an emotional reaction (anger or resentment) that could negatively impact performance. Therefore, to communicate clearly and effectively, focus on the specific behavior—what the person is or is not doing or saying.

Give Balanced Feedback

Balanced feedback gives others information on what they are doing effectively (performance and behaviors) and on what they could do differently to better meet expectations, to be more effective, or to improve future performance results.

There are several benefits to providing feedback this way. It allows strengths to be leveraged and recognized, enables concerns and gaps to be overcome without losing sight of strengths, maintains the other person’s self-esteem and self-confidence, and helps reduce defensiveness.

Open the Floor To Receiving Constructive Feedback

Having the confidence and humility to ask what you can do better is an essential leadership skill. Create a workplace environment where those who report to you feel comfortable helping you improve. Again, this is where active listening is vital. Hear where improvements in either management style or workplace processes can be made, clarify any misunderstandings, and then implement new strategies where possible.

Employees can be hesitant to offer feedback to a senior leader, but it’s as important for their development as it is for the manager’s. Lead the process by asking insightful questions and hearing what will make the team function better. Acknowledge your pain points and encourage others to bring attention to them. Ideally, as you practice giving quality feedback, those who report to you will also learn how to deliver it constructively. It is also important to follow up with employees on your performance changes.

Using these five strategies will increase the likelihood the other person will perceive the feedback you give as helpful and constructive. The skills involved are also fundamental to maintaining and enhancing employee self-confidence and creating a feedback-rich culture.

The ability to coach employees and give constructive feedback is an essential leadership skill. Like all skills, it can be developed and enhanced through leadership development and training. Put into practice, these strategies will yield significant results.


Topics: Identify And Develop Leaders, Leadership Development

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