Sometimes we’re hindering the growth of our enterprises by overlooking factors that lie on the surface. Striving to accomplish more in artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, we completely forget about a critical skill of leadership – honest and candid communication. Research shows that fewer than half of employees know if they’re doing a good job (6). Imagine how difficult it is for the rest to improve without knowing the right direction.
Correlation Between Feedback and Employee Engagement
Just hearing the word “feedback” can be nerve-wracking for both business experts and their teams – that’s because feedback implies change, and our instinctive response to change is reluctance. There’s a good reason why we should allow time for feedback, though.
Constructive reference and progress-related comments make your employees more focused and engaged. Zenger Folkman’s survey analyzed feedback practices of 22,719 leaders across different industries and found that leaders who are champions of giving feedback achieve better engagement with their workers. The study also revealed a shocking statistic: employees who receive less feedback are three times more likely to think about quitting.
Cherry Notti, Network System Administrator at US District Federal Court, is convinced that once accountability through feedback is exercised on a regular basis it will become an intrinsic part of a team. So the verdict is in our employees’ favor – they’re badly in need of feedback.
We’ve conducted an investigation (1) into the best ways to provide constructive feedback for employees and would like to share the results of our discussions with managers all over the world.
Feedback Semantics: Positive or Negative?
How you approach the notion of feedback turns out to be very important. In machine learning, feedback can be of two types: positive or negative. Negative feedback has no chance of surviving in the circle of human resource managers, however. After an insightful discussion with management leaders, we noticed a common opinion about negative feedback.
How about starting out by not calling it “negative feedback” and referring to it as “constructive feedback”? If you’re providing constructive input, it’s more likely to be received as guidance to help one develop or grow. – Sandra Ranney, HR Manager at Cisco
It turns out that feedback semantics has deeper roots than you’d think. Tasha Baker, IT Service Delivery Manager at Strategic IT Management Ltd, admits that there’s no such thing as giving negative feedback. In Baker’s words, you’re merely giving someone a confidence knock, and negative feedback is a code word we use so he or she doesn’t feel so bad about it.
Read more: How to Build an Effective Team
Situations that lead to negative feedback can nearly always be attributed to lack of employee training or guidance on the part of management. Samuel Vazquez, Director of Business Consulting at Nationwide Financial, believes that the negativity of feedback comes from the delivery or from accusations not grounded in facts. He suggests that you should either offer positive reinforcement or clarify your expectations and direction.
What is Constructive Feedback?
57% of people are essentially saying that their leader is not doing a good job delivering constructive feedback that improves their performance (7).
There’s no magic formula for constructive feedback, which looks different across all companies, industries, and cultures, and even varies from person to person.
If you want to shape long-term behavior, competence, and psychological safety across your organization, Jonathan Mansell-Cook, a Senior CX Consultant at Verint, recommends defining your own objectives for feedback both when giving and receiving.
When giving feedback, honestly defining the objective and potential value helps you to construct the format in terms of semantics, setting for any activity that you want to come out of the feedback (both structured and unstructured activity). If you first help the recipient understand the intent of the feedback then they will have a context in which to receive it. Otherwise their first reaction will be one of insecurity resulting in a fight or flight response.
Managers also share a common opinion that constructive feedback involves the analysis of an individual’s progress, preferences, characteristics, and even culture.
The most constructive feedback techniques start with understanding the strengths and preferences of the employee you’re working with. An effective tactic with one employee may not be effective with another. – Peggy Christensen, Project Management & Methodologies Professional at Hamilton Telecommunications
Arjan Koudijs, Senior Partner Consultant at RGHK Business Solutions, advises managers to give feedback calmly, using the “two strokes and a poke” method. But we admit that it may be too difficult for a leader to know each employee’s preference at a corporation like Google. Patrycja Jakubiuk, ex PMP at Philips, says that a company and its culture is a major factor. The way you approach feedback depends on whether you’re a director of a startup or an international corporation. At Google, for example, employees are asked to evaluate their managers’ performance based on 13 general questions. Managers can thus learn from their teams and more easily build trust and continuously improve. You’ll find Google’s template with 13 questions below (4).
Focus either on what’s working or what would work better. If you have constructive feedback, ask for what you need or what you want to see. Provide the whys and wherefore. Be brave and have the conversations. Ask people where they could improve. One of my best managers would do highs and lows in staff meetings personal or professional. That manager also would ask what was keeping us up at night. It was a good way to reframe the question to change the thought process. But we were mostly autonomous knowledge workers so there would be things we thought about after work.
Feedback Patterns and Methods
There are many effective ways of providing feedback to ensure that your employees aren’t left in the dark. Coordinating projects for the Eccentex Corporation, Sheila Lyons-Sherman noticed that it’s pointless to be wishy-washy about an area of improvement you’d like to see. Be specific and give employees an alternative way of thinking and working through an issue you’ve observed.
A commonly used approach to encourage self-corrective actions is to sandwich your ideas in three layers – acknowledge positive effort, point out areas that can be improved and that demand more effort, and ask for your employee’s opinions and suggestions. Managers who comply with the sandwich feedback method consider it a nifty technique that lets them stress their employees’ accomplishments while also showing them room for improvement at the same time. Even though this way of giving feedback is popular, however, there’s disagreement as to its effectiveness.
The so-called “sandwich” approach may be okay for annual reviews, but it’s absolutely the wrong approach for event-based feedback: most individuals will remember the “bread” and forget the “meat.” – Bill Duncan, Owner at Project Management Partners
After 8 years at nTelos Wireless/Shentel, Justin Humphrey, now occupying a Retail Sales Manager position, feels that the sandwich approach is so so uniformly taught that this is a great debate to have:
You’re encouraged early on in your career to coach through building a bank of positives, this way when criticizing you’re not exhausting your employee. I think the reason this technique is so widely used is because it reinforces the characteristics that a leader should already have – respect to the employees, experience, work ethic. The sandwich approach would not work without these characteristics, thus reinforcing the idea that it all fits.
Glen M. Jones, President at GMJ Leadership, believes that the approach needs to be tailored to the person and the situation, though there are several rules that always apply. First, you must remain respectful and professional. In Jones’s opinion, you have to address the issue or pattern of behavior (good or bad) but never focus on the person as the problem; instead, you should praise the individual. Second, you must be clear and direct with your employees. People don’t catch subtlety, especially when feedback is negative. Third, acknowledge that it’s the employee’s issue or pattern, so he or she must resolve it. And fourth, provide encouragement for improvement or continued success. Following these rules is critical to demonstrate that you care and are willing to help (where appropriate) and to give your time. Remember that your employees are people with feelings. These are Jones’s two critical points. But he’s noticed that the sandwich approach conflicts with the second rule – it confuses the discussion. Yes, if your feedback is corrective, you want your employee to know that not everything is wrong – but sandwiching the critique isn’t clear or direct.
During the discussion, we also found a couple feedback methods that follow more detailed patterns – the Fogg Behavior Grid and the PAUSE Method. The Fogg Behavior Grid is a matrix of different kinds and levels of desired behavior. It ranges from “try this idea once” to “always do this.” There are 15 categories in all, which appear very helpful for both “reinforcing feedback” (I want more of the same behavior) and “redirecting feedback” (I want a different behavior).
Mark Lassiter, a Counselor at Carpenter, Hazlewood, Delgado, advised us to check out the PAUSE Method. PAUSE is an acronym for
Prepare (get your data: sales info, billable hours, harassment reports, etc.)
Affirm relationship (“we really like having you here, so let’s talk about how we can make it an even better experience for all of us…”)
Understand interests (what are the internal or environmental factors driving the behavior that needs to change?)
Search for solutions that align with mutual interests
Execute and evaluate those solutions
A true drawback of using any pattern is that your employees will recognize it sooner or later and come to the conclusion that you don’t show consideration for them as individuals.
This may be the outcome of any pattern you use. Constructive engagement is a complex phenomenon that should involve all of the above. Scrum co–inventor Jeff Sutherland opposes the formal performance appraisal approach and recommends abolishing it. The project management guru advises management experts to adopt his three meetings review method, which stems from 360-degree feedback. The template for this method will be provided below.
You might ask what approach is most practical, simple, and helpful for giving feedback. Barbara Anna C, a project manager at Search Technologies, suggests watching what people are actually doing. “It’s a good idea to ask them what they are working on,” she says, “discuss it and give hints how to improve, what to share with whom and whom to ask for support.” In general, project experts agree that constructive feedback is nothing similar to a weekly performance review. But how can you monitor the workload of every employee and maintain excellent visibility over all your resources under one roof? For that, we recommend using Epicflow, a tool for managing multiple projects that gives you access to the right project information at the right time and solves three problems: overhead, overload, and prioritizing.
Sign up below for a product demonstration and get a step closer to constructive feedback and better team performance.
P.S. We’d like to thank all those who participated for their comments and attention to this important question.
- LinkedIn Discussion: What is the best way to give feedback to your employees?
- Agile Performance Review Template
- Zenger Folkman: The Feedback Issue
- Google Manager Feedback Survey
- Fogg Behavior Grid: Video
- Forbes: Fewer than Half of Employees Know if They’re Doing a Good Job
- Forbes: Why Leaders Need More Training On How To Deliver Constructive Feedback