Feedback is a funny thing. Everyone loves to receive it, but no one likes to give it. And that spells trouble. Because without feedback, there is no improvement; and without improvement, relationships fail—especially in business. After all, employees leave managers, not companies. That’s right; at the end of the day, employees disengage and eventually quit because of poor relationships with their coworkers and leaders. And the root cause of that failed partnership often is feedback—or lack thereof.
But, like I said, feedback is a funny thing, because even though everyone wants it and no one offers it, it’s also tough for most people to give or receive it. As this Fast Company article points out, “If provided effectively, feedback can inspire, uplift, and motivate the recipient to do better. However, if the job is botched, bad feedback can result in lingering anger, demotivation, resentment, loss of respect, and permanent damage to the relationship.” And science backs up that conjecture: in a study published in 2005, professor Andrew Miner and colleagues discovered that “employees reacted to a negative interaction with their boss six times more strongly than they reacted to a positive interaction with their boss,” reports Harvard Business Review (HBR).
So, you know giving feedback to employees is crucial to not only keeping them happy and engaged, but also retaining them. But, you also know you have to deliver feedback the right way to achieve the right results. What are you to do?
1. Pick the appropriate setting.
To effectively process and act upon feedback, employees need the environment in which they receive it to feel safe. And that feeling of safety partially depends on whether the feedback is critical or positive. “There’s nothing more humiliating than being criticized in front of your co-workers,” states this HBR article. “At a bare minimum, make sure to deliver your criticism in private.”
Alternatively, if you’ve providing words of affirmation, then it’s usually better to provide that “praise generously, publicly, and at every opportunity,” states the above HBR article. But, as someone who has gone through DiSC training, I know that not every employee is receptive to public praise—especially not frequent and lavish compliments. As this 15five article advises, “Even praise for some people is better delivered in a private meeting, rather than being pointed out in a public arena: some people simply don’t like being the center of attention.” You work with your employees every day; you most likely have an inkling as to who reacts favorably to public praise and who feels uncomfortable being in the spotlight. Pick a setting that suits that preference.
2. Provide more positive than negative feedback.
There are a lot of theories on the proper ratio of positive to negative feedback. Whether we’re talking about Mary Kay Ash’s constructive criticism sandwich, the Rosenberg 4-part nonviolent communication process, or the Losado (3:1) ratio, it’s pretty obvious that people need more positive feedback than criticism. And that’s because humans are naturally biased toward the negative. “When we receive criticism, our brain tries to protect us from the threat it perceives to our place in the social order of things,” explains this Buffer article. To combat said threats, the brain has evolved to handle what it perceives as negative more sensitively and thoroughly than what it perceives as positive. As a result, our memories of criticism are much stronger and more detailed than memories of praise. Unfortunately, though, “when we hear information that conflicts with our self-image, our instinct is to first change the information, rather than ourselves,” reports Buffer. So, to increase the likelihood that people will receive, process, and act on the criticisms they receive in the way you want them to, frame said criticisms with a hefty scoop of good ol’ fashioned praise. For more advice on how to deliver—and receive—positive feedback and criticism, check out this webinar from PT leadership coach Daphne Scott.
3. Don’t wait.
“The adult brain learns best by being caught in action,” explains Scott Halford in Entrepreneur. “If you wait three months to tell someone that his or her performance is average, he or she usually can't grasp the changes needed in order to change direction.” Furthermore, as time passes, “memory fades, and people are more likely to interpret the situation differently,” reports Fast Company. Even worse, if critical feedback is left unsaid, “the problems will only recur and may multiply by a domino effect, so that by the time the quarterly performance review comes around, you’ll be faced with having to address a host of issues that could have been avoided if mentioned earlier,” explains 15five.
It’s much easier to give feedback immediately, because everything is fresh in both parties’ minds. So, don’t backburner a simple task, leaving it to either fester into a larger issue or disappear temporarily—only to rear its ugly head again later (at a much more inconvenient time). As this Forbes article explains, “If something is worth noting, it’s worth noting immediately.”
4. Get specific.
Another reason to give feedback immediately: you can get your facts straight. Memories get fuzzy fast, and that doesn’t bode well for feedback. “People generally respond better to specific, positive direction,” explains Scott Halford in Entrepreneur. The folks at 15five agree: “Employee feedback should be task-focused, crystal clear, and to the point.” Another reason to stick to the facts: you’re more likely to leave emotions out of it, allowing you to focus on performance rather than personality. As previously mentioned, receiving criticism is not something our brains enjoy; so, don’t worsen it by being mean, egotistical, or callous. (Interacting with someone who cries, yells, or gets defensive? Check out this feedback guide from HBR.)
5. Be inclusive.
Conversations should never be one-sided, so make sure you allow the feedback recipient an opportunity to speak. “Evaluation is tough and it takes a lot of thought and care to do it properly,” states 15five. “Give your employee the opportunity to speak up.” This allows you to:
- Clarify your feedback based on questions the employee asks.
- See if your feedback actually lands.
- Garner buy-in from the employee, thus increasing his or her motivation to implement the feedback.
- Strengthen the relationship through honest dialogue.
Most feedback happens on the fly; it’s minor, and it really isn’t anything to sweat over. With more complex situations, though, you should document your conversations. “If you later have to rely on your performance assessments to demonstrate why you disciplined or fired an employee, contemporaneous documentation will be your best legal friend,” explains Lisa Guerin, J.D., in this Lawyers.com article. If necessary, your documentation “will help your company prove that the problems were real, the employee knew about them, and your company didn’t manufacture them after the fact to try to cover up an illegal termination,” Guerin continues. Just make sure you document the interaction promptly. For more on legal issues with performance appraisals, check out this article and this post.
Feedback is essential. As Bill Gates once noted, it’s the only way we ever learn anything. So, shy away from nail-biting, gum-snapping, eating candy corns (they’re gross, c’mon) and doing everything else society at large agrees is bad—but don’t avoid giving feedback. Scientists and business mavens agree: the benefits of it far outweigh the initial discomfort of giving it. Plus, the more you give, the more you get (especially when you follow the above steps).