By Gary S.Topchick
Feedback lets others know how they are doing in terms of their work-related performance and behaviors. Positive feedback tells team members exactly what they did well and why it deserves recognition. Positive feedback also encourages team members to repeat those same behaviors.
Constructive feedback, often called coaching, corrects any performance or behavior issues before they become serious.
Misunderstandings About Feedback
Unfortunately, too many managers don’t use either positive feedback or constructive feedback. Rather, they most frequently use the following three approaches:
Negative feedback. Ken Blanchard has said that negative feedback is catching people doing something wrong and letting them know that they did something wrong. It doesn’t offer or ask for alternative actions. It is the way that some managers get back at their staff, especially if the manager is feeling stressed, short-tempered or time-pressured.
Silence or no feedback. Often managers forget to give feedback because they think their team members already know when they are doing well or when there are problems. Or they think feedback will have little effect on performance. But many team members really do not know about problems in their performance unless their manager tells them. And it’s unfair to employees to prejudge their response to feedback.
Unrelated positive feedback. When managers give feedback, the feedback should be related to their team members’ job performance or work behaviors or habits. Feedback should never be given on non-work-related issues or subjects, even if it is positive feedback.
So, how is positive feedback different from these three wrong approaches?
Positive feedback is letting team members know what they did right and how it has positively influenced the work environment. Providing positive feedback correctly is valuable because it can increase employees’ confidence and improve their performance. And it should only take seconds to give someone positive feedback, and it can be done face-to-face (the best method) or by phone, e-mail or even fax.
For positive feedback to be correctly given, it should be:
Timely. Giving someone positive feedback should be done as soon after the event as possible. It is best to give the positive feedback within days. Longer than that and the positive feedback loses its conviction and importance. Additionally, the manager loses credibility and the trust of the team member.
Specific. If managers want certain behaviors repeated, they need to be very specific in the type of positive feedback they give. The more detailed the manager is, the more likely the behavior or action will be repeated. Managers should avoid general statements like “Nice job” or “Good to have you around” or “You did excellent work on that project.”
Impactful. Most team members like to know how their work ties into the bigger picture or the larger scheme of things, such as meeting the goals of the unit, department or organization. As a part of the feedback, telling staff members how they have contributed to the goals or the mission of the group makes the feedback more meaningful. For instance: “Cynthia, we were able to sell the client the new prototype because your field analysis convinced him that he would make money. This met the department’s goal of selling three new prototypes this year.”
Solely About Performance. Too often, managers combine positive feedback with assignments, especially the same type of work. Under these circumstances, staff members feel that they are being punished for doing well.
Not Overdone. Managers who go to extremes when they give positive feedback—for instance, giving feedback for everything that a staff member does, from coming to work on time to showing up at a meeting, to returning from lunch on time—diminish the value of the feedback. Positive feedback needs to be saved for those times when employees have really done something outstanding or have improved their performance or behavior.
Not Attached with Criticism. This occurs when managers tie a criticism to the positive feedback. For example: “Vincent, I want to congratulate you on such an excellent presentation. The audience recognized all the new features and how those features will be of benefit. You’ve done a good job with your team. But when you run your staff meetings, you have a tendency to….” As soon as the manager mentions that “but” word, he or she contaminates the positive message.
Congruent. By that, I mean that the words, voice, and body language should all be in sync. If a manager is giving a staff member positive feedback but his or her tone of voice doesn’t reflect that, or if he or she has an unhappy look, then the message is incongruent and the staff member will be confused about how to interpret the message.
Giving positive feedback, once mastered, is one of the most valuable skills a manager has to motivate staff to high levels of performance. However, when team members are experiencing performance or behavior problems, managers need to act quicky and provide constructive feedback in order to allow team members to continue their progress.
Giving constructive feedback, sometimes referred to as coaching, involves the general communication skills of commenting, clarifying and committing. These skills are called the 3Cs.
Commenting. This is letting your team member know that some aspect of his or her performance or behavior is not what it should be. Performance issues relate to team members not meeting goals or not doing what is delineated in their job descriptions. Behavioral concerns refer more to company rules and regulations and accepted codes of behavior.
Clarifying. This entails stating the impact of the performance or behavior problem, making sure the team member understands what the problem is.
Committing. This is getting the team member to take action to change what he or she is currently doing in order to achieve positive results.
Constructive feedback should not be used under three conditions:
- When the employee cannot take any action on the constructive feedback. The problem is not within his or her power to change.
- When the person giving the constructive feedback is overstressed or has a limited amount of time. Coaching sessions demand time and calm. Once a manager loses his or her temper, the feedback loses its impact because the person receiving the feedback has shut down and is no longer listening.
- When the focus is on the person, not the person’s behavior or performance. In giving constructive feedback, out intention should be to modify the individual’s performance or behavior. It’s a big mistake to focus on trying to change someone’s personality.
Your organization may have specific guidelines to deal with coaching. It’s imperative that all executives and managers adhere to those rules. If you haven’t reviewed them recently, take them out of your personnel files and study them to ensure that you and your peers are practicing the platinum rule of giving feedback correctly. It’s critical if you want the very best performance your staff can give.
This article is excerpted from permission of the publisher from The Accidental Manager, pp. 99-105, by Gary S. Topchik. Copyright 2004, Silverstar Enterprises. Published by AMACOM, AMA’s book division.
About the Author(s)
Gary S.Topchick is the managing partner of Silverstar Enterprises, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm specializing in management development.