By Hannah Kaiser

The traditional perspective of feedback views it merely as a way for an organization to guide employees towards achieving business-related goals. In many organizations, feedback may be seen as an unpleasant exercise, where an employee infrequently meets with a supervisor to discuss past performance and means to improve it in the future. For most of us, giving and receiving feedback can be uncomfortable. And in some cases, the benefits may not seem to outweigh the consequences. 

If your organization has only ever had a negative relationship with feedback, now might be the perfect time to consider how feedback is delivered. While its primary purpose is often to help enhance or adjust employee performance, it must be delivered in the right way to be effective.

Instead of viewing it with such a utilitarian lens, consider approaching feedback as a means to communicate directly using language that has the greatest positive impact on the other person. If the feedback is overly critical and people fail to engage in the conversation, it cannot be effective.  

In fact, at its worst, feedback is not only ineffective, but can damage the confidence of both the leader and the employee, which often has further negative consequences on their performance. 

However, at its best, feedback can do so much more than just improve employee effectiveness. It can improve collaboration, develop trust, increase creativity, and strengthen motivation. Research shows that effective feedback, and especially multisource feedback, leads to more knowledge sharing and employee productivity, which can have a clear positive impact on overall organizational success. 

Establishing best practice guidelines is a good start. But, an organization will also stand to benefit from working towards an overall feedback-friendly culture that fosters positive perceptions of feedback. When the process is no longer seen as something to dread, it empowers everyone to be open and receptive to feedback. In this environment, even negative criticism can be exchanged without worry about meeting resistance or damaging confidence. 

Good Feedback 

Giving good feedback to someone should feel like giving them the tools they need to improve and grow. It shouldn’t feel like poring over an audit of all their mistakes—or, ignoring critical flaws in favor of handing out praise. The most useful feedback will include a mix of the positive and negative for most of us, but all of it should help us to improve in our careers and as people. However, many of us fail to provide that kind of feedback when we aren’t being mindful about what information we are providing. Perhaps we do this because we can’t help but soften critical feedback to save everyone’s feelings, or possibly because we are simply in a hurry to get it all over with. Here are some guidelines to consider when making feedback more useful:

  • Give Frequent Feedback. Giving feedback more often rather than less often offers two main benefits. The first is that frequent feedback is more effective in improving performance because you will always have recent and specific information about performance (rather than, for example, a vague summary of performance for the past six months). The second is that frequent feedback can help everyone involved acclimate to the experience of exchanging constructive criticism, especially for those of us who might be sensitive to giving and receiving negative feedback. 
  • Be Honest. Be direct and realistic about areas of performance that need improvement—don’t overstate or understate flaws. When offering constructive criticism, ensure the information you are providing is accurate and relevant to actual performance. It might be a good idea to use at least one concrete example of the issue (just one or two—don’t pile on with an extensive list) and describe how it can be improved upon in the future. 
  • Be Positive. Don’t let all of your feedback be negative. Compliment and reinforce good performance when you see it. When you have to give negative feedback, researchers recommend framing it as an opportunity to learn and improve (rather than chastising an employee for their mistakes), and be proactively supportive of their growth. 
  • Be Collaborative. People are more likely to accept feedback when they feel as though it is based at least partially on their ideas. In other words, feedback will be more effective if the employee participates in the conversation. When giving feedback, ask questions and get the opinion of the other person rather than simply talking at them. Decide as a team how they can improve rather than unilaterally assigning a verdict. 
  • Consider Timing. Even when using best practices, there will likely still be occasions where giving critical feedback to underperforming employees is uncomfortable for everyone involved. Researchers suggest that leaders should consider timing of negative feedback. For example, the ideal time might be at the end of the day so that everyone can leave directly after and perhaps participate in a recovery activity (e.g., taking a walk or reading a book) rather than having to continue to work while distressed. 

Creating a Feedback-Friendly Culture

Setting up the right guidelines for feedback is a good start. However, resistance to feedback may still be ingrained in the organizational culture. To foster a culture that is accepting of feedback, you as a leader may need to take a step back and think about how feedback is treated and perceived outside of the formal policies. There are some steps you can take to start moving the overall culture to be a little more feedback friendly: 

  • Create Psychological Safety. In order for the process to be useful, everyone involved must feel safe when giving and receiving feedback. One way to do this is to ensure the process is neutral. When offering feedback, it’s a good idea to make sure that you are not speaking out of a place of anger or blame. If the situation is emotionally charged, consider taking the time to pause and move to a state where you can be objective. Being in a stable mood can go a long way on both ends. 
  • Make it Part of the Process. Feedback should not be considered merely a retrospective activity, it should be integrated throughout the process. Regularly schedule meetings with members of your team, and encourage them to reach out to you as well. Address small issues sooner rather than later so they don’t become huge problems. 
  • Promote the Employee Voice. A truly feedback-friendly culture cannot exclusively include downwards feedback. Your team members should feel comfortable giving feedback to each other, and to you. Organizations run more smoothly when everyone is given the space to voice their opinions, frustrations, and concerns. To encourage your team to give you open and honest feedback, assuring them that they won’t have to worry about retaliation is the first step. But, it will also be important for employees to feel like their opinions matter. Regularly ask for feedback, and then use it

When we create a culture that welcomes feedback, the productivity and effectiveness of our organizations will improve. A feedback-friendly culture allows us to freely and efficiently collaborate on offering advice, sharing information, and helping one another improve—without dreading the discomfort feedback can sometimes bring. 

If you find yourself facing a change and are unsure of the best way to keep moving forward, let’s talk. We are an organizational effectiveness consulting company and have helped countless individuals and organizations through challenging circumstances. We would love to be part of your journey as you navigate the successes and uncertainties that lie ahead. Please contact us for a no-obligation, free consultation by clicking this link: Innovative Connections or calling us at 970-279-3330.

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