Feedback essential for employee growth

By Minu Ipe, Clinical Assistant Professor, Management  

Everybody needs feedback to learn and grow. Yet how many employees can say they get the feedback necessary to perform well at work and develop their skills for the future?

Research indicates that it's not anywhere near enough.

According to a study by the consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide Inc. (now Towers Watson), more than 60 percent of employees say they don't get adequate feedback and 43 percent say they don't get enough feedback to improve performance. This is clearly a problem.

Giving feedback is not an activity that many managers relish doing. Research indicates that fear of feedback (both giving and receiving it) is a real issue. Yet, giving employees the feedback they need to improve performance and develop skills is a key responsibility of every manager. The good news here — it can be learned!

The first step in learning to give feedback that works is to recognize the myths about feedback that exist in organizations. First, only poor performers need feedback. Second, feedback needs to be given only with the annual appraisal. Third, feedback is typically a negative message. These myths are detrimental to performance management and employee development. Everybody needs feedback. Feedback that works most effectively is given on an ongoing basis, both formally and informally, and not once a year. And feedback needs to be both instructional (redirection) and motivational (reinforcement).

A good place to start developing feedback skills is to master the basic principles of giving feedback. Instructional feedback in particular needs to be:

  • Specific
  • Timely
  • Accurate
  • Actionable
  • Meaningful

Specific: Focus on observable behaviors or data. Feedback should not be general impressions or opinions about an individual or his/her performance. Let's work with a simple example to illustrate these principles. If you have a situation where somebody needs to work on dealing with customers, you wouldn't want to say "you need to improve your customer service skills." That is too broad. The feedback needs to be more specific so the person hearing it understands exactly what is being communicated. For example, if timeliness of response to customers is an issue then communicate that this is the issue, providing a few examples when the individual delayed in responding to a customer. Identify the impact to the customer and the employer from these delays.

Timely: It needs to be as close to the event as possible so the person receiving the feedback can recall the situation and the context. For example, feedback on delays in responding to a customer needs to be given as close to the event as possible. It is not helpful for anyone to hear that at some point in the past, their performance did not meet the standards of their employer.

Accurate: Managers need to ensure that the feedback being provided is based on facts or good information. If you are providing feedback about three situations where the response to customers was not timely, the facts need to show that there were in fact three separate situations. If there was only one situation or if in two of the three situations, the delay was not caused by the employee, the manager hurts his/her credibility by providing feedback that can then be challenged by the employee.

Actionable: The person receiving the feedback should be able to answer the question — "what can I do with this information?" Part of making feedback actionable and effective is to see feedback as a two-way conversation. Really listen to the person who is receiving the feedback and understand what they have to say. When you bring up the situation of customer response delays, you want to understand why the delays happened. Perhaps there were some issues with technology or perhaps the employee was so focused on getting it perfect that they actually waited for an additional day to respond to the customer. Using the opportunity to listen to what the other person is saying is also important to generating action plans that will work. It gets the employee's buy-in when you hear what they have to say and use their inputs in defining an action plan.

Meaningful: Feedback should be given about performance or behavior that is important to the job, relevant to the person receiving feedback, and important to the team or the organization. Giving feedback for the sake of giving feedback takes away from the value of this process. Once feedback is given, timely follow up on the action plan and supporting the employee with making the change in performance or behavior is critical to making sure the feedback really works.

Motivational feedback should also specific, timely, accurate and meaningful. Saying "great job" is not a good example of providing motivational feedback. To make it useful, motivational feedback needs to show why it was an example of a great job and the impact of that performance or behavior. Unless motivational feedback is thoughtfully provided, reinforcement of this behavior is not likely.

First published in The Arizona Republic, October 2, 2015.

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