Feedback is one of the pillars of performance management. Leaders adept at feedback are better able to influence behavior, redirect performance, build understanding of organizational objectives, and demonstrate leadership.
Why Feedback Works
Feedback motivates behavior. People who are well informed about their performance are better positioned to make decisions about how they behave. Feedback influences how workers see themselves, giving them the confidence to take on new challenges. Feedback provides leaders an immediate, direct and powerful way to give—and gather—information about performance.
Understanding the common reasons that feedback is underused helps us recognize how to use it more effectively.
- I Already Do Feedback
Telling reports “good job” is not enough. Feedback is information about performance relative to a goal. Unless the performance and the goal are communicated, it’s not feedback.
- Feedback is Only for Low Performers
When leaders fail to deliver information about performance, they send the message that they’re satisfied with the status quo and they fail to develop the potential of employees—no matter how good they are.
- Feedback Takes Too Much Time
Leaders are already interacting with their reports in meetings, e-mails, and so forth. Adding a few moments to ask about performance and providing feedback takes little time.
- Feedback is Micromanaging
The monitoring that accompanies feedback can be perceived as taking away from the employee’s discretion in doing her job. However, skillful feedback enables employees to perform better with their leader’s support.
- Feedback Should “Happen Naturally”
Effective feedback is a skill that can be learned and is a practice that must be planned for. Leaders need to keep it on their radar and actively weave it into existing interactions.
Getting Feedback Right
Feedback may not feel natural when it lacks an established framework. Monitoring (the gathering of information about performance that provides the substance of feedback) and feedback itself presuppose a context. The organization’s objectives provide a framework for monitoring and a starting point for feedback. Objectives might include encouraging upward communication about safety or having supervisors respond promptly to safety concerns. Within this context, conversations about safety come naturally.
Leaders need to create a system for gathering information that supports feedback. Within a workgroup, information can be obtained through direct observation, self-reporting, or documentation review. Lower down the organization, leaders can engage others in capturing information about frontline performance.
Effective feedback includes two elements: success feedback (reinforcing behaviors you want continued), and guidance feedback (redirecting behaviors that need to change). With established mechanisms for monitoring, the following principles contribute to effective feedback:
- Apply Feedback in a Timely Way
Provide feedback as quickly as possible following the demonstrated behavior. Saving feedback for the mid-year review diminishes its effectiveness and reduces employee participation in improving their performance.
- Make Feedback Explicit
The best feedback is interactive, with those receiving the feedback contributing to the discussion. Be explicit—this prevents misinterpretation of the discussion’s purpose.
- Make it Personal
Feedback needs to communicate the implications of behaviors to the person, the organization, and to you as a leader. State why the behaviors are important and show genuine interest in the success of the person receiving the feedback.
- Use Descriptive Language
Feedback that is specific and descriptive increases the objectivity and value of performance improvement. Use behavioral words (e.g., “You showed a lot of initiative in resolving that issue,” rather than, “You did a great job.”).
- Leverage Self-Attributions
Feedback helps shape self- attributions (how people perceive themselves). A person who defines herself as “someone who always delivers” tends to live up to that description. Leaders can leverage this with comments such as, “I can always count on you to keep a project moving.”
An Ongoing Practice
Feedback is a powerful tool through which leaders demonstrate support, reinforce values, and build accountability. Rather than an infrequent event, feedback needs to be an ongoing practice supported by shared expectations and effective monitoring.