Many leaders understand that employee feedback needs to be timely and specific. But it’s less clear how much feedback is needed, and at what point feedback creates a contentious environment.
Some companies, like Netflix, practice “radical transparency,” which entails blunt public assessments directed at individual employees. Managers reportedly use this technique during performance evaluations, and peers offer critiques one-on-one and in group settings. If someone is considered for a promotion, for example, the conversation can take place office-wide, and any employee could voluntarily contribute their opinion.
Netflix’s radical transparency creates a continuous feedback loop—which can put staff on edge. But its advocates argue this technique also drives employee performance and innovation.
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In “The Feedback Fallacy,” published in the Harvard Business Review, authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall caution against this approach and feedback loops. Why? They make the following arguments:
- People can’t reliably rate the performance of others because the process is inherently subjective.
- Criticism has the tendency to provoke a “fight or flight” response, which keeps employees from internalizing feedback and adjusting their behavior.
- Excellence is difficult to define from one person to another.
- When employees feel attacked at work, leaders risk facing higher attrition rates and losing talent.
In contrast, Buckingham and Goodall point out research that suggests people respond best when comments are encouraging and focus on the employee’s strengths. They support their claim by looking to scientific observations from Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University.
LeDoux compares neural pathways to branches—when someone learns, they create a new synaptic connection. He says this new synaptic connection resembles a bud on a branch rather than a thick, fully formed branch. Building off this metaphor, he explains that people are more likely to learn and develop areas that already have substantial synaptic activity and growth.
In “The Feedback Fallacy,” Buckingham and Goodall claim this phenomenon also applies to how employees respond to criticism. They argue that people are more likely to improve on their interests and strengths, so managers should focus their efforts by maximizing the employee’s impact in those key areas—rather than dwelling on performance gaps.
But if managers don’t provide constructive criticism at least some of the time, productivity will almost certainly suffer. So as a leader, you might ask yourself: How can you encourage engagement and loyalty, while still providing the feedback employees need to drive the company forward?
The answer probably lies with striking the right balance between positive and negative feedback.
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Lessons From the Playing Field
A competitive sports league is one arena where leaders are known for their tough-talk. After all, a coach’s job is on the line if the team doesn’t perform. Alex Molden, a former NFL player, says, “In the NFL, feedback was a huge component of player development. We had meetings and watched films before and after practice every day, and, as you can probably guess, feedback was flowing freely.”
Molden learned from his coaches and has some recommendations for managers:
- The best coaches and managers will deliver a “feedback sandwich,” which means acknowledging their efforts, identifying an area that needs improvement, and then following up with a positive point again.
- Feedback should be delivered behind closed doors where employees feel safe. When criticism is delivered publicly, a bruised ego can keep employees from processing your comments.
- Deliver employee feedback swiftly and choose your words carefully. Try to avoid expressing anger or disappointment and remain objective. Most people hate feeling like they’re letting someone down, and both the manager and employee can feel uncomfortable by the situation.
Employee Feedback That Drives Performance
Robert Morlot, managing partner of Clearwater Business Advisers in Tampa, Florida, explains his views on evaluating employees and building a performance management system. “Feedback, quite simply, is information that distinguishes actual performance from expectations,” he says. Employees need that information to ensure their performance is contributing to company goals and the bottom line. But how the evaluation is delivered determines your team’s engagement and trust.
“Negative feedback that is generalized and subjective can be perceived as punishment,” says Morlot. “Overall, be mindful of your tone and choice of words. Maintaining a worker’s self-esteem is important and can affect relations with the entire workgroup.”
That doesn’t mean you should only offer positive reinforcement. Authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman surveyed 900 employees around the world about receiving feedback at work; then in 2014, they published their findings in the Harvard Business Review. They found 57% of respondents preferred corrective feedback over positive reinforcement, and only 43% preferred praise or recognition.
Bring On the Numbers
Gargi Rajan is the head of HR for Mercer Mettl, an HR technology company and talent measurement firm. She recommends that feedback be continuous, aligns with organizational objectives, and is supported with quantitative data. “You don’t need to justify what you’re saying when you have numbers to show,” she explains. She recommends that managers hold monthly reviews with employees to help them understand where they need to improve and offer course-corrective steps. She says to clearly outline the employee’s KPIs and explain the overall organizational objectives—then open up a dialogue about how to achieve those objectives.
The big takeaway: Most employees want to improve their performance, and they can’t do that without constructive feedback from their managers and colleagues. How the feedback is received and implemented is really a matter of trust, motivation, and tact. If there’s a strong relationship between employees and their managers, transparency can be effective. Without rapport, though, even praise and recognition may be considered suspect.