Feedback is key to improving performance. And yet when feedback sessions are poorly delivered, they harm employee engagement and productivity levels. A seminal meta-analysis suggested that although almost 70% of feedback recipients will perform above average, 30% of feedback interventions actually hurt performance.So, what are the key indicators of harmful feedback? Here are five critical signs that you are doing it wrong:You are not increasing their self-awareness. The goal of giving feedback is not just to get Tim to turn his work in on time, or Sally to stop being so defensive. It is increasing employees’ self-awareness, so they genuinely understand how they come across to others and how their actions affect other people.
As the famous Dunning Krueger effect demonstrates, the less competent people are, the less self-aware they are, so poor performers are particularly likely to benefit from a reality check. Furthermore, as Heidi Halvorson shows in her latest book, even highly competent people have self-views that don’t align with other people’s views of them, leading to all sorts of interpersonal conflicts. Thus there is often a gap between how we view ourselves and how others see us.There are only two solutions. One is to change people’s views of us, persuading them that we are as good as we think. The other is to change our self-views so they align with other people’s views of us. For example, if most people think you are arrogant, it is plausible that they are right, and if being perceived that way bothers you then you should do something about it. In short, effective feedback exposes the gap between how we want to be seen and how we are actually seen by others; ineffective feedback tells you what you already knew.
You’re not giving enough negative feedback. Although positive feedback is easier to convey, the most useful type of feedback is actually negative. The essence of negative feedback is not criticism or disapproval, but anything that exposes the candidate’s self-views as overly positive relative to their objective performance. In other words, feedback is negative when it shows us that we are not as good as we think.Naturally, this can be hard to accept and digest, because it wounds our ego. However, negative feedback is also indispensable for getting better: unless we know what we are doing wrong, we will have no desire to improve.
Unfortunately, the more senior employees are, the less frequently they receive negative feedback. Most people are intimidated by power and eager to suck up to those who have it. This creates a vicious circle whereby people’s self-views and overconfidence are reinforced as they climb the organizational ladder, making them more and more immune to negative feedback as their influence and power grow. Research also shows that when leaders are reluctant to accept negative feedback, they are also less capable of providing it to their subordinates. Thus organizations would gain much by not only providing negative feedback to their leaders, but also training them on how to provide it to their own teams.
This recommendation is in stark contrast with recent news that many firms are banning negative feedback to focus only on people’s strengths while turning a blind eye to their potential derailers or “developmental opportunities” (a common HR euphemism for weaknesses). Your feedback isn’t based on robust data. Another core element of effective feedback is reliable and valid data. It doesn’t matter if you lack sophisticated monitoring systems or objective performance metrics – the feedback can still include empirical evidence on how the person is doing. Ideally, candidates should be benchmarked against a normative group or their own KPIs.
Furthermore, there should be an obvious connection between each data point and the behavior of the candidate. Well-designed 360s tend to provide all this, especially those that use subordinates’ ratings. Unsurprisingly, independent studies show that one of the most effective ways of improving job performance is to base feedback and coaching on the results of 360s. This enables candidates to evaluate their performance with objectivity, as well as providing them with an independent yardstick to quantify change. You don’t give people a story. As the saying goes, data tell but stories sell. Or, as Immanuel Kant put it, data are empty without theory. Any feedback you give will have limited impact unless you can present a meaningful narrative, an explanation rather than mere description, of the person’s behavior.
In fact, a strong theoretical model is as important to the feedback facilitator as the data itself. Personality theory, the branch of scientific psychology concerned with human nature, is a powerful tool for making sense of behavioral data. It is comprehensive, in depth, intuitive, and based on 100 years of academic research. Accordingly, many developmental interventions combine personality assessments with 360s in order to evaluate both performance (360s) and potential (personality). For instance, it’s not enough to tell Joe that he has trouble prioritizing work assignments; it would also help him to understand that this is quite typical of individuals with low prudence and high excitability scores, and that those individuals find it helpful to team up with diligent and cautious individuals, and avoid taking too much on. As Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, and a fundamental strength of well-designed feedback sessions is to provide people with a story about what they repeatedly do and why, so they can understand who they are.You are not making it personal. Leadership styles have enjoyed a lot of airtime. But when giving people feedback, what matters is not focusing on your own style, whether you see it as straight-talking and direct or compassionate and caring. What’s important is thinking about the recipient’s style, and remembering that everyone is different.
Each person’s reaction will depend as much on their own personality as the nature of the feedback itself. Experienced feedback facilitators know this, so they tend to adapt their style and curate the message to the personality of the recipient. For example, if the person is a factual, analytical, thinker, they emphasize the data. If the employee is emotionally sensitive or neurotic, they establish rapport, make them feel at ease ahead of the session, and start and end the discussion on a positive note. Use your knowledge of the candidate’s personality to adjust your style to create a persuasive experience. At the end of the day, every feedback session requires influence and persuasion, and that requires personalizing your message and style.
Finally, it should be noted that the feedback cycle doesn’t end once the session is over. In fact, that’s just the beginning of the actual coaching, which requires follow-through in the form of actionable targets and measurable change. As thorough models of coaching show, the feedback process is only complete if it defines the “where to next?” question for the candidate, and establishes which interventions will be used, and what success will actually look like.