By Ben Dobbs
Feedback may be informal or formal, it might be an event in the form of an appraisal or maybe an ongoing process. It is a linguistic competence as it needs the right choice of words and tone, but it is also an interpersonal competence as it requires trust and impacts directly upon a working relationship. Feedback is both linked to management in that it affects the effectiveness of workplace processes and tied to leadership through the consequences it has for motivation and more. It seems an easy part of a manager’s role yet it is a gross error to dismiss it as such. The intricacies of effective feedback and the potential problems it may create if handled poorly suggest feedback provision is not as simple as we may like to believe. We can see numerous problems with feedback in the workplace that impact upon its effectiveness and thus on the performance being observed and commented upon:
Focus on improvement over maintenance:
Ask a group of managers what the purpose of feedback is and you will invariably elicit responses such as “improvement” and “change”. This is revealing and shows where the priorities of too many managers lie as far as feedback is concerned. It also shows a telling omission on the part of the managers; that is, of course, neglecting to mention in feedback what needs to be kept, what should continue and what is working perfectly in the feedback recipient’s performance - focusing only on improvements.
Learning experience: effective feedback not only focuses on justified, actionable improvements for development but also on what is positive and should be maintained.
Whose solution is being provided?
Traditionally, feedback has been a top-down matter. A manager explains to a subordinate what they did or are doing, the effects it has had or is having and, finally, what the manager wants or needs the subordinate to do in order to change or improve. The “discussion” then ends - feedback done! This highlights a major issue with feedback that the solutions and ideas generated are not those of the feedback receiver but are the insistence of the feedback provider. A discussion approach to feedback combines coaching questions to drive reflection with discussion and direction as needed. These coaching questions are highly useful at the start of a feedback session but must never be vague or general. A question such as “how did it go?” or “how do you think it went?” will result in either vague responses or guesses as to what the asker wishes to hear. It is much better to use questions along the lines of: - “what went well?” - “what went not so well?” - “what did you learn?” - “what will you do differently next time?” - “what will you continue to do?”
Learning experience: use coaching approaches to drive reflection if appropriate before moving on to more directive feedback.
Focus on the past not the future:
Feedback is unavoidably dealt with after the event. Think of a manager providing feedback to a team member about a presentation they have given, the feedback will focus on the presentation just done. While the feedback provided looking at the past may be useful to assist the receiver in realizing some of their strengths or weaknesses, it may be limited in use. Managers, therefore, must focus on the learning experiences for the future and make the transition from “what you did” to “what we need next time”.
Learning experience: feedback should not simply pull apart a past event or performance but should link this to future development and potential including actions to take.
How specific is too specific?
A manager is assisting a team member with a proposal they must deliver to a potential client. The manager has reviewed a draft of the report and is to provide feedback to the team member who created it. In this case, specific feedback is needed on specific aspects of this specific document; however, more general points of feedback linked to business writing and associated training needs may arise. This is especially important to address if the task is to be regularly repeated.
Learning experience: as a feedback provider, consider how specific the feedback needs to be to the task in hand or if more general learning experiences and developmental interventions need to be mentioned.
Location, channel, and audience:
The location of feedback is highly important. It may be easy and quick to provide feedback in passing but having any “audience” at all, such as other working in an open-plan office, may have dysfunctional consequences. Whether the feedback is positive or negative, observers and overhearers are undesirable. The channel of feedback is about how the feedback is delivered and our point about making feedback public or shared rather than private still stands even when feedback is delivered electronically. Managers should not risk damaging a working relationship by providing feedback with an undesired audience or over-use the “cc” function of e-mail by e-mailing a group with specific comments for each individual simply to save time when providing feedback.
Learning experience: choose the right channel and the right location for the receiver of the feedback so the best can be gained from it, working relationships are not damaged and professional pride or privacy is not negatively affected.
End of feedback, end of the conversation?
True feedback is a discussion. If a manager insists on taking a top-down telling approach rather than engaging in a coaching style conversation, then there is no room for the feedback provider to improve. The end of the feedback from the manager should not be the end of the conversation. If a manager really wishes to develop as a feedback provider, there must be a willingness to receive feedback on the feedback. In practice, this means three things:
- The recipient will explain if they accept the feedback or not and why
- The recipient provides developmental feedback to their manager on the manager’s competences in providing feedback.
- Training linked to feedback must stress not just how to give feedback but also how to obtain and receive feedback including reacting to it.
How many managers would be brave enough to try this and leave themselves open to scrutiny?
Learning experience: be bold and ask your feedback recipient for how effective your style and approach of providing feedback really is! Consider numerous factors you might want feedback on such as the structure of the feedback, coaching or telling approach, justification, usefulness, location, communication and more.
An obsession with the “sandwich approach”:
The ever-popular (and cliched) “sandwich” approach is a dreadful way to provide feedback. As we know, this involves three steps: firstly, the provider giving their positive feedback before, secondly, moving on to the negative (or “constructive” if we wish to be more generous) and, thirdly and finally, to some further positive feedback. Using this approach, the feedback recipient experiences three stages:
- Delight or satisfaction at the initial positive feedback
- Shock or disenchantment at the negative (often signalled by a stressed however or but)
- Rejection of the final positive feedback as an afterthought (often this stage is a very general statement rather than meaningful feedback)
It is also very top-down with no opportunity for coaching and thus no chance to drive reflection. Instead, we get the feedback provider\'s solution hedged in a somewhat cowardly way that avoids real discussion. Learning experience: do not use the sandwich approach, do some coaching before moving to a real discussion. There are much better approaches combining coaching and direct (rather than directive) feedback on what to maintain and what and where to improve or change.
Positive, affirmative feedback (that we might term as “praise”) is of great value in maintaining and developing motivation and thus pushing performance; however, words such as “great”, “excellent” and so on do not, in the long run, provide development as the recipient of the feedback does not know why. This justification may take the form of explaining the benefits of an approach (either being done or being suggested) or talking about the effects or consequences something has had. Effective feedback needs a suitable proportion of affirmative feedback and justified, developmental feedback.
Learning experience: maintain provision of affirmative feedback, it is essential, but never forget to justify developmental points being made.
Feedback is complex and there is no single best way to do it. No manager though should presume that just because feedback provision is such a frequent and obvious part of their role, that it is easy. Feedback provision has no perfect example and it might often be much easier to say what should be avoided, as we have seen, in feedback than what makes one a brilliant provider of feedback. So, let me ask you: are you handling feedback in the best possible way?
About the writer:
Ben Dobbs is Head of Practice for Behavioural Skills with Leoron Professional Development Institute. He specialises in coaching and intensive in-company training in areas including leadership, communication and functional competences. He most frequently delivers training in Saudi, Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and other international locations. Ben is also a frequent article writer and conference presenter.