Want High-Performing Employees? Change How You Give Feedback

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Feedback drives employee performance and engagement—when it’s given the right way. What does good feedback look like?

In his book Positive Leadership, University of Michigan management professor, Kim Cameron, demonstrates that honest and candid feedback helps employees perform better and develop resilience. Indeed, feedback in the workplace has many benefits, including the growth of employees and effective managers, skill development, improved morale, increased job satisfaction, more engaged employees, and a better bottom line—and those are just a few.

But for feedback to cultivate all these benefits, it has to be offered in a supportive way. Not all feedback is created equal. In fact, too much negative or critical feedback can backfire, reducing morale and espousing resentment and disconnection within teams. Does that mean only positive feedback is effective? Craig Chappelow and Cindy McCauley of the Center for Creative Leadership found that both positive and negative feedback can help managers and employees excel. So no, not all feedback must be positive. But certain characteristics turn feedback from off-putting to impactful. Let’s explore them further.

The Building Blocks of Effective Feedback

The following characteristics are critical not only for giving effective feedback between a manager and employee, but for building a healthy organizational culture overall:

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Specific: To help employees better understand how to use feedback to create real change, the feedback needs to speak to a specific action, project, behavior, or event. If, as a manager, you want to confront someone on your team for interrupting colleagues at yesterday’s meeting, you would say “in yesterday’s meeting you interrupted Jessica a few times, and I felt like we didn’t get to hear Jessica’s ideas as a result,” rather than “you are always interruptin

Timely: Effective feedback is offered in close proximity to the event or action in question. Part of the reason we know annual performance reviews rarely lead to improved outcomes is because they address issues months after they happened, with little context or relevance to the present. Addressing issues right when they happen helps managers speak more concretely to what needs changing, and employees to implement those changes while the initial action is fresh in their mind.

Action-Focused: When offering feedback, make suggestions that employees can take concrete action on. Make sure you can provide whatever tools, time, or support the employee might need to implement the actions you are suggesting. If you cannot provide those, consider whether it’s worth giving the feedback in the first place, so you avoid creating frustration among employees at a process they know they need to change, but lack the ability to.

Constant and Casual: Rather than turning feedback into an anomalous occasion that employees fear and managers resent, giving and receiving it spontaneously normalizes it. Feedback stops being this scary thing and becomes a regular part of the organization’s workflow. It creates new opportunities for connection between employees and managers, and among team members. And it encourages a transparent culture. Of course, some issues should not be discussed casually, so it is also important to know when a more significant matter requires a dedicated meeting. Continuous Performance Management (CPM) platforms can play a useful role here, creating space to note main points for feedback and delivering them to the employee ahead of a face-to-face conversation. This way, topics that deserve to be discussed in person get their moment, but ideas remain fresh between the initial action and the meeting to discuss it.

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Positive, Not Sugar Coated: Framing feedback positively does not mean you need to only speak about successes. In fact, the opposite is true. Managers whose feedback only focuses on successes set up their employees to be incapable of receiving constructive feedback, because they will perceive anything that is not entirely good as a failure. Their confidence will shut down and they will be even more closed to future feedback. Instead of shying away from challenges and problems, show your employees you are their partner in solving them. Ask open questions. Explore. The Center for Creative Leadership suggests, “telling someone how to fix a problem is often the wrong approach. You’ll foster more learning by asking questions that stimulate reflection and coaching people into exploration and experimentation.” 

Two-Way or More: Much of the advice here has focused on managers. But a feedback-forward organizational culture is one where feedback travels in all directions—manager to employee, employee to manager, employee to employee, and even employee/manager to executive.

To Improve Employee Performance, Don’t Fear Feedback

Organizations that encourage feedback perform better. But feedback can be given and received in many ways, not all of them effective. To use feedback to its full potential, know the signs of effective feedback and practice them with your employees, teams, and organizations.

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