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Giving Feedback at Work: When, Why, and How

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Posted by Darleen DeRosa March 6, 2018

AdobeStock_132774866-311174-editedThe ability to deliver feedback is a critical part of a leader’s ability to develop the employees they lead. Without feedback, employees don’t have the information they need to improve performance or develop their careers. This, in turn, can lead to lower engagement with work, increased turnover, and reduced productivity for the organization as a whole.

Yet, many people struggle to deliver feedback that helps others—both employees and leaders alike. Rather than helping others to improve their performance, they inadvertently demotivate the target of their feedback and make things worse.

Additionally, there are many barriers that people have to overcome to deliver feedback in the first place. For example, sometimes, people wait too long. So, when that feedback is finally delivered, it is no longer “in the moment,” reducing the efficacy of the feedback.

Some leaders may be conflict-averse—preferring not to deliver negative feedback because they’re worried about “getting into an argument” or adversely affecting employee morale. As a result, the leader ends up simply hoping the employee will change without telling them how they need to change and why. This can lead to larger issues down the road.

Part of delivering effective feedback is knowing  why feedback should be given, when to deliver feedback, and how to deliver feedback in the appropriate manner.

Why Feedback Should Be Given

There are many reasons to give and receive feedback. For example, providing feedback to employees can:

  • Help address performance problems before they become chronic;
  • Motivate direct reports to improve performance and solve problems;
  • Improve overall team performance by identifying opportunities for improvement; and
  • Help people understand how others perceive them and their actions so they can see the gap between what was intended and the actual effect.

Also, it is important for the person delivering the feedback to remember what the goal for giving that feedback is: to encourage growth for the other person. Feedback is not meant to be simple reprimands, but to provide insights into how a person’s habits and behaviors can be improved to make them more successful.

When leaders ask for feedback from employees, they can gain insights into how their leadership style is affecting their direct reports. It also helps to build a rapport with them that encourages two-way communication and trust.

When to Deliver Feedback

Feedback should be a consistent, ongoing process. Typically, the more frequently feedback is given, the better. When feedback about an employee’s performance is delivered only once a year, the feedback is often too far removed from the inciting incident to be valuable and whatever undesirable behaviors that were exhibited may have been given ample time to become habitual.

Such infrequent feedback can even lead to employees feeling that they were “set up” by their leaders to fail when they get a year’s worth of negative feedback all at once. This fuels disengagement with work, and possibly even active resentment

So, rather than just having one annual performance review, it is often better to have quarterly or even monthly reviews with employees. Additionally, when an employee makes a significant contribution or an error, providing extra feedback as soon as possible afterwards can help encourage positive behaviors and curtail negative ones.

How to Deliver Feedback

Feedback, when delivered poorly, can be upsetting and cause the employee to become unmotivated and disengaged with their work.

There are four key skills for providing  effective feedback:

  1. Maintaining/Enhancing Self-Esteem. The goal of feedback is to improve behaviors. Maintaining an employee’s self-esteem when giving feedback increases the likelihood they will be open to hearing the feedback and acting on it. Treating employees with respect and making it a two-way conversation sets the proper tone, helps decrease defensiveness, and increases the likelihood it will be a constructive conversation
  2. Active Listening. By asking questions, paraphrasing responses, and demonstrating empathy, leaders can accomplish more in a feedback session. Active listening provides deeper insight into the motivations behind behaviors and helps determine what feedback should be given and how to give it .
  3. A Focus on Behaviors. As noted in one Harvard Business Review article on providing feedback, “Vague labels like ‘inspiring,’ ‘great,’ or ‘lacking executive presence,’ are of little use without more clarity… Useful feedback should focus on what a leader is actually accomplishing.” Instead of providing vague impressions about the employee’s personality, feedback should be about specific behaviors/comments exhibited by the employee.
  4. Balanced Response. Feedback should have a balance of both positive and negative information. If the feedback is too one-sided, employees may be given the impression that they either: a) don’t have to change anything; or b) are incompetent. Either could lead to a decline in engagement and productivity at work. Additionally, the person being given feedback should have an opportunity to discuss it and be part of a two-way conversation.

When a leader is preparing to deliver feedback, they should consider the following questions:

  • What Are My Goals for the Discussion? Are you primarily concerned with improving productivity, enhancing employee morale, or preparing the employee for a new role in the company?
  • What Will You Say to Begin the Conversation? How will you start off the feedback session on the right foot? Is there a particular achievement or concern that needs to be addressed?
  • What Steps Do You Want the Person to Take? Considering the goals you have in mind for the conversation, what are the “next steps” for the other person that will bring them closer to these goals?
  • What Reactions Can You Expect to Your Questions? Think about how the person is likely to respond to your questions during the feedback session and how you can minimize the risk of either you or the other person becoming overly defensive.

Such preparation can be the key to delivering effective feedback to an employee. It can also help leaders appear more competent to employees—helping to build trust and respect.

For the feedback session itself, leaders may want follow a process to help guide the conversation. One example of an effective template for providing feedback to an employee would be this 5-step process:

  1. Set the stage for the discussion by establishing a rapport with the person and explaining the context of the situation you’d like to discuss.
  2. Provide your perception of the person’s performance. Begin with a discussion of the positives and then lead into your concerns. Be specific by focusing on particular situations, behaviors, and impacts.
  3. Ask the person for ideas on how they can change their performance/behavior in the future. Also, provide some of your own ideas for how they may change as well.
  4. Agree on next steps. Make sure you form a “contract” with the person by asking them to clearly state what steps they will take following the discussion and when they will take them.
  5. Summarize the discussion to make sure the other person understands what is expected of them. Thank the person for taking the time to listen to your feedback, set a date for a follow-up discussion (if appropriate) and end the talk on a positive note by expressing confidence.

Following the feedback session, it may be helpful to send the other person some notes reminding them about the next steps they agreed to undertake via email—along with some resources that might prove useful.

Creating a Feedback-Friendly Workplace

Creating a workplace culture that actively encourages people to both give and receive feedback is the first step in making sure that feedback is perceived to be helpful and relevant.

Here, discussing the positive effects that feedback can have on individual and team performance can be useful for fostering a feedback-friendly environment. Of course, being able to demonstrate that feedback has a positive effect can also help to strengthen the “feedback culture” in an organization. If common problems in giving effective feedback go unresolved, it can make managers/leaders less inclined to provide feedback and employees less open to receiving it. Additionally, by showing openness to feedback from employees, leaders can model the appropriate behaviors that are expected of everyone else, further increasing commitment to the feedback process.

Need help building a culture of  giving and receiving feedback in your company? OnPoint Consulting has years of experience ensuring leaders at all levels have the skills and knowledge to give high quality useful feedback and to create a culture that supports giving and receiving feedback.   

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