Feedback: a subtle art

Lack of feedback is the most common complaint from staff

If you manage staff, how do you rate yourself at giving feedback?

I don’t mean feedback given during formal performance reviews held once or twice a year, but the more casual feedback you might give a staff member for a job well done. In some companies such feedback is actually replacing performance reviews.

Management-Resources.org says lack of feedback from managers is the area staff complain about the most.

“Few of us have the opportunity to learn the habit,” the article says, “because as we move along the management ladder, it becomes less likely that we will receive feedback ourselves.”

The consequences aren’t surprising — staff don’t feel valued, they start to feel their work doesn’t matter, their performance tails off and they take their knowledge and skills with them.

“When it can cost more than a year’s salary to replace even a junior member of staff, it becomes clear that providing feedback is one of the most important tasks that a manager can do,” the article says.

Staff feedback is “probably the most powerful tool a manager can use to develop a team,” yet there are several reasons why managers don’t give positive or negative feedback. They include embarrassment, not knowing how, not wanting to upset people and not having enough time.

The article advises that managers should be clear about their motives for giving the feedback — don’t do it to show anger or to demonstrate some sort of power relationship.

“We all fall foul of these impulses from time to time and the important thing is to be able to recognise the impulse and then replace it with something more useful.”

Structured feedback once or twice a year probably won’t make a real difference to someone’s performance, but “regular low-key feedback will provide real changes,” the article says.

That message was taken to heart at packaging materials manufacturer Glenroy. According to a Fast Companyarticle by Gina Imperato, the company ditched traditional reviews altogether, something which executive vice president Michael Dean says drives people crazy.

“Leaders here provide people with feedback. But the way for it to be effective is on a day-by-day, minute-by-minute basis — not twice a year.”

Imperato quotes a consulting firm principal as saying that carrying out annual appraisals is like “dieting only on your birthday and wondering why you’re not losing weight”.

Imperato says that feedback delayed is feedback denied, although she cautions against giving rushed feedback.

“Today’s business leaders expect workers to be project-driven and results-oriented. That doesn’t fit with the old model of reviewing performance every six or 12 months,” Bruce Tulgan, the author of FAST Feedback, is quoted as saying.

Tulgan says one reason feedback is only given once or twice a year is that there are no systems for day-to-day engagement with workers.

He has suggestions, however, such as including feedback into routine meetings and memos, either by email, voicemail or short notes.

“Ideally, [managers] should set aside a designated chunk of time each day, just for giving their people feedback. If we really want a just-in-time workforce,” he argues, “we have to create just-in-time feedback.”

Imperato also says that giving a raise is not the same as giving feedback, quoting one expert as saying: “Feedback is about success for your people and your customers. Pay is about marketplace economics and skills. Pay and feedback are not related.”

Imperato says it’s important to get feedback on the feedback you’re giving and quotes Tulgan: “There’s such a disconnect between managers’ impressions of the feedback they give and their employees’ impressions of the feedback they get. Most managers need a reality check.”

According to an article on the New Jersey Institute of Technology website, if you are trying to achieve behaviour change, then how you give the feedback is as important as what you say.

It advises waiting until you calm down, if it’s an issue that’s upsetting you, listening to what the employee has to say (the person may have a plausible reason for something that has bothered you), and using “words, body language and tone of voice to show that your intent is to help”.

Mills is a Dunedin-based writer. Contact her at kirstin_mills@computerworld.co.nz

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