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Why We Fail at Feedback – and How We Can Do Better

Miles To Go | Volume 1 | Issue 2 | Summer 2014

For many leaders, the discomfort felt in receiving feedback about their performance is surpassed only by the discomfort in giving feedback.

 

This comes through loud and clear when you look at how well CEOs are mentoring their management team – a process that demands good feedback. Our survey with Stanford last year found that boards believe mentoring skills to be one of the top weaknesses in their CEOs, a rather troubling fact when you consider how important mentorship is to building an effective succession process. (But boards were hardly perfect in their own feedback duties –10% of companies polled had never evaluated their CEO!)

When it comes time to deliver constructive feedback to their reports, many executives struggle. They tend to approach the task in one of two ways: fight or flight. In the former case, the leader (usually a hard-charging high performer) comes into the situation braced to criticize, offering up a laundry list of things the executive is doing wrong. In the latter instance, especially when dealing with an underperforming employee, the leader “heads to the stadium seats” – avoiding conflict and hoping against hope that the situation will just work itself out. But some managers avoid candid conversations with even their top performers, despite the fact that most high-potential executives crave this honest feedback.

Both of these approaches are doomed to fail. When employees are just presented with a list of their weaknesses – without either a constructive conversation about how to improve or a balanced approach that also recognizes their strengths – they often freeze up, both in the moment and in the months that follow. Demoralization has a direct and measurable impact on performance, cascading deeper and wider into the organization. And avoidance (or conducting only perfunctory, check-the-box employee reviews) is just leaving money on the table: you are underleveraging the talent resources you have and are keeping your team from optimizing their results.

The key to giving better feedback – and giving feedback better – is to remember that the point of the exercise is to influence behavior. This is critical in formal performance evaluations but is just as true in the ongoing process of managing that we do every day. Instead of ticking off a list of complaints, or just giving passive commentary on “good” performance (rather than using it as an opportunity to take the employee to the next level), think about what it will take to really move the needle performance-wise.

To get the most ROI out of the feedback you give, use these do’s and don’ts as a guide:

  • DO conduct a feedback diagnostic. Find out how your team has responded to feedback in the past and how defensive they get. Adjust your feedback style accordingly so that you can best engage them around the content of what you’re saying.
  • DON’T be cruel. Anyone can make someone cry; what’s much more difficult is changing someone’s behavior by motivating them to do better.
  • DO make feedback a habit. Instead of using the built-in performance review mandated by HR as the only time to give feedback, incorporate the “check-in” into your ongoing management of employees.
  • DON’T neglect the “content” of the whole person. Look at employees holistically – strengths and weaknesses – and collect real examples of their work to provide content and context when you are giving feedback.
  • DO keep “tension” in the system. By providing informal (but detailed) feedback throughout the year, you let people know that you are watching, taking notes, and following up. This creates higher engagement all around.
  • DON’T present laundry lists. Overwhelming an employee with multiple to-do’s at one time will result in paralysis. Focus on the one to three things that truly matter.
  • DO “feed-forward.” If you are uncomfortable with delivering constructive messages about past actions of the person receiving feedback, couch the feedback in a forward-looking manner (“next time, let’s do it this way”).
  • DON’T forget the positive. What people need more than anything else in the world is affirmation – and the ones who say they don’t need it actually need twice as much.