When feedback backfires and how to get it right

When feedback backfires and how to get it right

Even the word ‘feedback’ can make us squirm, and many of us try our whole working lives to avoid receiving it.

We’re hard-wired to respond to (constructive) criticism as a threat to our status and self-identity; two things we hold dear. Yet feedback unquestionably has a positive impact on performance. It’s free, it’s immediate and helps us keep going in the right direction. There’s certainly no shortage of advice to companies on how to dish it out but organisations all over the world bemoan the lack of effective feedback their managers provide.

It all seems to start in childhood. Educational psychologist John Hattie analysed classroom feedback and its effect on performance. Teachers swore they gave regular feedback, but didn’t see the expected impact on student performance. Hattie discovered that the biggest improvements were in classrooms where pupils came forward and gave feedback about themselves.

Instead of waiting passively for praise (with a ratio of 25-odd children to one teacher, it could be a while), pupils actively commented on their own performance and as a result reaped all the benefits that positive feedback brings.

The reason feedback – or lack of it – remains a perennial issue in business is that we focus our attention in the wrong place. Training managers to give feedback more effectively is an uphill struggle, especially when that feedback falls on deaf ears.

Instead, we need to teach employees to actively seek feedback; relish it even.  However well or poorly feedback is delivered, ultimately the person hearing it determines whether or not they’ll change as a result.

Receiving feedback well requires employees to take maximum value from something they naturally feel threatened by. That means keeping emotions in check in order to really listen during the conversation, then later unpacking the information – spotting what’s useful and discarding the rest; reflecting without wallowing and figuring out what to change. There’s no snappy five-step acronym to teach people these sophisticated skills.

In this inverted feedback paradigm, the manager’s job becomes about encouraging team members to reflect on their own performance and responding in an appropriate way when those thoughts are shared. Going against the ‘traditional’ role of a manager, they have to resist the urge to butt in with their own observations. No-one said it would be easy. But the benefits are remarkable.

When individuals regularly seek out feedback, productivity, quality and effectiveness soar. People also feel more in control of their personal development, so engagement and retention improves, too. And there are other personal benefits such as becoming more resilient and able to take feedback in relationships outside of work. Combine all this, focusing on the recipients rather than the messengers doesn’t seem like such an outlandish idea after all.

For more insights on getting feedback right in the performance management cycle, download our white paper, Reinventing performance management here.

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