feedback from the time you're a toddler. "Good work!" "Put that
down, it doesn't belong to you!" "You can do it! "
In school, you get grades and report cards, win (or don't win) awards, become (or fail to become) part of a winning team.
Sometimes, feedback can be difficult to give or get. But in the business setting, feedback is a key tool for success. That's because a manager who doesn't give and take feedback is lacking key tools needed to lead a successful team, sell a successful product, or manage a difficult situation
In this article, we’ll look at just two kinds of feedback you’ll need to manage: feedback you give to employees for work they've done, and feedback you receive from employees about your managerial performance.
Each of these types of feedback can—if properly collected and shared—be a valuable tool for improvement. If poorly managed, though, feedback can become a painful experience which leads to bitterness, in-fighting, and other serious problems. Let’s look first at methods for giving feedback which inspire rather than undermine your employees.
5 Managerial Strategies for Giving Feedback
Feedback is, essentially, commentary on an employee’s performance. It is NOT the same thing, however, as a performance review or annual evaluation. Feedback, ideally, is immediate, accurate, fair, clear, and action-oriented. It happens, not on a schedule, but as needed. It may be positive or negative. Most importantly, as described on the Feedback and Coaching page of the Florida International University website, it is a collaborative tool to help your employee—not a weapon to punish, threaten, or humiliate.
We can unpack this description by looking at five specific examples of effective feedback.
1. Immediate Feedback
Effective feedback is immediate. Rather than waiting for many offenses (or successes) to pile up, it’s helpful to respond quickly when an employee has failed or succeeded in coming up to expectations. Feedback delayed can lead to a domino effect of problems.
Imagine Ralph, a young employee who comes in late. Rather than mentioning the issue, you let it go. It happens again. And again. You become increasingly annoyed. Ralph’s co-workers become annoyed. Meanwhile, Ralph assumes that your lack of response means the behavior is acceptable—so he continues to come in late. By the time you address the issue, you and Ralph’s co-workers are truly angry, and Ralph is confused, hurt, and possibly even overwhelmed by your response to a behavior that’s been tolerated up until now.
On the other hand, what if Ralph is doing a terrific job managing his clients? You’ve been hearing good things, but don’t think to mention it to Ralph. As a result, Ralph has no idea that his approach is a good one, and may start making changes that undermine his excellent work. Immediate praise not only leads to continued excellence, but can also motivate employees to even greater effort.
2. Accurate Feedback
Accuracy builds trust between manager and employee. It also forestalls the possibility of a pointless argument about whether your feedback is based in fact, hearsay, or assumptions.
Before giving feedback (particularly negative feedback), it’s important to do your research, ask appropriate questions, and have clear evidence in hand of the problem you’re addressing. If you’re not sure why a problem has arisen, find out rather than guessing.
When Bill tells you that Jessica is undermining their shared project, don’t take his word for it. Ask for details and evidence, and double-check your sources. When Linda’s performance begins to decline, don’t assume it’s because she’s become lazier over time; instead, describe the issue to Linda and ask her to explain what’s going on. True, she may just be lazy—but she may also be dealing with a personal crisis or an illness.
3. Fair Feedback
One of the biggest complaints employees have about their managers is that they are “unfair.” Typically, this means that some employees get more and are expected to do less than other employees. In some ways, this sort of “unfairness” is unavoidable: some employees may need to work longer hours because of a deadline or because of the nature of their work. Some employees may be paid more because of seniority, or because they’ve earned a commission. But often unfairness is the result of intended or unintended favoritism.
Before giving feedback, therefore, it’s important to analyze the content of the feedback to be sure it’s truly fair. That may mean checking your corporate policy to see whether, for example, it’s allowable for a parent to take extra time off for a sick child, or to what degree certain employees should have access to resources, supplies, perks, or other goodies that are not available to all. Be sure, before you share your feedback, that you’re ready to respond effectively to the comment “That’s not fair!”
4. Clear Feedback
Elizabeth is a member of your team, but she’s also a good
friend. She’s been shirking her responsibilities as part of a working group,
and you need to let her know that’s not acceptable. But you don’t want to
undermine your friendship. So you tell Elizabeth, “You know, it’d be great if
you did a little more, you know, with the working group.” Elizabeth walks
away hearing “If you like, you can do a little more with the working group,”
decides she isn’t interested, and does nothing. A clearer message would help
Elizabeth to work more effectively with her group, avoid negative comments, and
retain her positive relationship with you.
5. Action-Oriented Feedback
Hard as it may be to hear feedback, it’s even harder to hear feedback and have no idea what to do about it. When you tell an employee “Your performance is slipping,” you’re giving them almost nothing to work with. The same is true even of positive feedback: “Great job!” doesn’t give your employee any information about what’s working well. Whether you’re describing a problem or a success, therefore, it’s important to give concrete information about what’s working or what isn’t working, and what kind of action you hope to see in future. Much more helpful than general feedback are such clear, action-oriented statements as:
- “You’ve arrived late for work three times this week; I need you to be here five minutes before work starts.”
- “You did a great job describing our services to the client; stick with that approach for future client meetings.”
- “I’m worried about your progress toward the deadline; let’s meet weekly to be sure you’re hitting objectives in a timely manner.”
Your job as a manager doesn't end with giving others feedback or direction. As the leader of your team, you also need to be open to hearing and responding to feedback about your own abilities and challenges. Even more importantly, you need to create a channel of communication that allows your team members to keep you in the loop when problems, challenges, or opportunities arise.
6 Tips for Receiving Employee Feedback
According to the Harvard Business Review, “Most people have good reasons for keeping their opinions from higher ups.” The most prevalent reason given is fear of retaliation.
The more power you have as a manager, the more anxious your employees are about saying anything that could result in lower pay, fewer opportunities, or a glass ceiling.
As a manager, though, you need to hear from your employees. What’s working well for them? What’s working poorly? Are there bottlenecks you’re not aware of? Personnel issues no one has mentioned? How can you improve your employees’ situation so that they can improve their performance? A great example of this comes from an article produced by the Academy of Management which describes the value of employee feedback at NASA:
On one occasion during his tenure with NASA during the 1960s and 1970s, famous chief scientist Wernher von Braun sent a bottle of champagne to an engineer who admitted that he might have inadvertently short-circuited the Redstone missile which went out of control during pre-launch testing. A subsequent investigation revealed that the engineer was right. As a result of the engineer's voluntary disclosure, an expensive missile redesign was avoided.
In this example, a manager let his employees know that they were encouraged to share even bad news—and that open communication would be valued above flawless performance. As a result, an employee chose to share information he might otherwise have withheld. In the long run, opening lines of communication led to huge savings in cost and time. Here are some tips for opening up communication between yourself and your team members.
1. Create an Old-Fashioned Suggestion Box—and Use It
Nothing says “anonymous” like a suggestion box placed in a public location, where anyone can drop in a note without signing it. Not every suggestion will be positive or welcome, but some will be. When you receive a useful suggestion from the box, be sure you mention it to your employees so they know their voice has been heard.
2. Develop and Consistently Follow a No-Retribution Policy
It’s one thing to
say “there will be no retribution for negative feedback;” it’s another thing to
get employees to believe it. Make sure your employees are aware of your written
policy and how it works, and mention it when appropriate so they know it’s
3. Show Employees What Useful, Constructive Feedback Looks Like
you provide feedback to your employees, be sure it’s immediate, accurate, fair,
clear, and action-oriented. Explain what you’re doing so that the process is
transparent; for example, you might tell an employee “I’m letting you know this
right away because you’ll be doing this type of project in the future, and I
want to nip any potential problems in the bud.” Let employees know that
they are encouraged to give you similar feedback.
4. Listen Carefully to Feedback, and Gather More Information When Necessary
If an employee tells you “I need more direction,” rather than nodding and
smiling, ask for more details. Find out what information the employee feels
he’s missing, and how he’d like to receive additional direction. If
appropriate, get the team together to find out whether the individual
employee’s criticism is relevant to the whole group.
5. Show Your Employees That You Listen to and Value Their Feedback
you’ve received helpful feedback, say so—in meetings, in newsletters, or in
group emails. Give credit as it’s due; for example “Joe mentioned to me that
you’re having a hard time getting the resources you need, so I looked into
options and found that I could get you more laptops and an updated version of
the software you’re using.” This type of positive response should inspire
more employees to share critical information with you, rather than complaining
behind your back.
6. Respond to Feedback With Moderation
An employee accuses you of unfairly favoring another employee, and you hit the roof or give a long explanation of your motivations and reasons. A few minutes later, upon reflection, you realize that the accusation had a grain of truth in it. By now, though, it’s too late to take back your hasty response.
Even if you were to apologize, your employee might think twice about bringing concerns to you in the future. A better choice is to listen, take notes, ask questions, and let your employee know that you’ll think carefully about his feedback. If your employees are upset, it’s more important to understand and fix the problem than it is to defend your motivations or actions
Like Werner von Braun in the NASA story described at the beginning of this section, you can benefit tremendously from honest, timely feedback from your employees. Like von Braun, though, you'll need to show your employees that you honestly want, value, and will listen to feedback. It takes self-confidence and flexibility—but isn't that why you were promoted to a managerial job in the first place?
Feedback: A Tool for Growth
Whether you're giving or getting feedback, as a manager you're using feedback as a tool for growth. When you provide the right kind of feedback to your employees, you're offering them immediate, relevant, actionable information they can put to work for positive change. When you make yourself available to receive and act on feedback from your employees, you give yourself the opportunity to learn, change, and grow.
As you improve your feedback skills, you’ll also improve your ability to recognize and respond to positive and negative behaviors. You’ll also gain insight into your own strengths and challenges as a manager. Over time, you’ll develop a solid rapport with your employees—and your business will benefit.