Secrets of Effective Feedback: Knowing What to Avoid
So many managers tell me that providing constructive feedback—or at least feedback they hope will be perceived as constructive—is one of their biggest challenges. All too often they avoid giving it, because they know it’s going to be awkward and could possibly make matters worse.
The effects of ineffective feedback
When a manager attempts to give constructive feedback, but does it ineffectively, the employee may:
- Feel misunderstood—and therefore hurt and resentful
- Feel put down and disrespected
- Believe that all the good things he does aren’t noticed or appreciated
- Conclude the boss doesn’t know what he’s talking about
- Not understand exactly what is expected of him and so may continue to make the same mistakes
- Lose his motivation and become less likely to go the extra mile when necessary
How to avoid giving ineffective feedback
The ability to give truly valuable feedback depends not only upon knowing what to do but also what NOT to do.
- Sugarcoat negative feedback. When you’re overly concerned about triggering a negative response, it’s natural to try to sugarcoat negative feedback. The result? The employee doesn’t really understand what you’re trying to say or the seriousness of the situation.
- Back down if the employee becomes upset. While taking a time-out might be the best response when a person truly becomes unglued, revising your assessment downward or deciding “it’s not worth it” are never appropriate responses.
- Avoid the conversation until you’ve “had it up to here.” When you wait until you are in a frustrated, take-no-prisoners state, not much good is going to come out of the conversation. The employee will likely feel attacked and will become defensive.
- Use an overly formal or forceful opening. Managers often do this as a way to let the person know they mean business and/or to reduce the odds that the employee will “fight back.” While a formal, all-business demeanor is appropriate for very serious matters, it’s not necessary in many situations. Most people appreciate a more low-key approach that communicates, “We’re two adults here” instead of a “You are about to be scolded by the principal” tone that tends to trigger defensiveness.
- “Control the airwaves.” Some managers present a monologue instead of encouraging a dialogue, believing this approach will prevent the employee from disagreeing or making excuses. In reality, the manager will trigger resentment and resistance in the employee.
- State what you’re unhappy about without offering a clear picture of what you want. This approach doesn’t let the employee know what he needs to do to succeed, which leaves him feeling impotent.
- Present an action plan without first getting agreement about the problem. A plan is meaningless unless the person understands what the issue is, what needs to be changed and why.
- Give positive feedback without specifics. (e.g. “You’re awesome!”; “You do such a great job!”). This is especially counterproductive for people with personality styles that value data, precision, and detail. These people also tend to dislike flamboyant or emotional language. When they hear undefined and unspecified praise, they question the praise giver’s sincerity and knowledge about what they’re praising.
- Mistake valid reasons for excuses. Some bosses are so worried about being taken advantage of that they’re unable to recognize valid reasons and extenuating circumstances. To them, everything other than a “You’re right, boss” agreement seems like an excuse. When employees feel that their legitimate points are seen as excuses, they shut out the accuser and become resentful.
- Wait for annual performance review time to give feedback. This is a great way to spark confused “What are you talking about?” resentment-packed conversations. To be effective, feedback must be ongoing, addressing problems as they arise
- Use vague judgments without specific examples. Concepts like “more of a team player,” “more service oriented,” and “more professional” mean nothing. Labels without examples leave people feeling helpless about making changes because they don’t know what specifically you’re unhappy about or what you want.
- Deliver a long preamble before giving the negative feedback. This just builds suspense for what they know is coming: the negative feedback. (“I really appreciate what a team player you are and I really love your attention to detail and I think you’re doing a great job with …. BUT…”).
- Use blunt, provocative, or shaming language to make a point. There is no reason to resort to language like: “I would think that would be a no-brainer…”; “That train has left the station, so let’s move on, huh?” and so forth.
- Pretend to agree and then disagree. “I can see why you feel that way, but…” There’s a difference between honestly acknowledging the other person’s viewpoint and just pretending to agree as a way to soften them up for your opposing point of view. You can acknowledge that you understand their perspective even if you don’t agree with it.
- Wing it. Few things spark resentment or diminished respect for the critic than the feeling that one is being judged before the critic has thought through the possible angles and has gotten all the facts.
- Tell someone what’s going on inside his head. You’re a manager, not a psychiatrist. If you have a good relationship with the employee, it’s fine to ask her if your guess about what’s going on is accurate; just don’t imply you know what’s going on inside her head—that’s presumptuous.
- Use a “one size fits all” approach to praise. Our natural tendency is to praise people the way we like to be praised, but that only works for people who are like us. What works for some personality types doesn’t work for others.
- Give feedback only when there is a problem. Gallup’s research reveals that 65% of employees say they did not receive any recognition in the previous year. Since positive feedback is a huge motivator, neglecting to give it is a huge mistake. If the only time you give feedback is to say something negative, your employees will automatically respond defensively the moment you try to give them feedback—not the ideal condition for a constructive conversation.
- Use sarcasm to makec a point. Some humor—used judiciously—can lighten the tone and help diminish the sense of power differential that causes so much awkwardness when a boss gives a subordinate corrective feedback. That’s very different from using sarcasm or “just joking” comments to make a point, that is, “Oh, are you on the 8:23 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift now?”
Now…how about some constructive feedback for you?
If you’re serious about improving your feedback skills, give this article to your team members. Ask them to check off any “Don’ts” that you’ve made regarding providing feedback. It could be an eye opener.
By following up and asking for feedback about your performance, you:
- Get a reality check
- Show your employees you really do care about them
- Let your employees know that what their input is important to you
- Show you’re humble enough to hear feedback
- Increase the odds that people will accept your feedback
- Create a more engaged and motivated team
OK, now go get and give that feedback!
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