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6 Strategies for Delivering Effective Employee Feedback

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Contrary to what many leaders may think, employees welcome feedback — and it doesn’t necessarily have to be positive.

Studies have found that an employee’s preference for the type of feedback they receive — positive versus negative (or constructive) — may vary according to their experience level. While positive feedback can be a confidence booster, negative feedback may be more valuable to employees with higher levels of proficiency looking to step up their game.

One fact is certain: Meaningful feedback increases employee engagement. In fact, according to a Gallup report, employees would prefer to receive negative feedback than no feedback at all.

An employee who is ignored by a manager is twice as likely to be actively disengaged at work as an employee whose manager focuses on his or her weaknesses, according to the report.

Delivering effective feedback to employees can achieve many benefits that ultimately lead to enhanced job satisfaction, higher achievement levels and increased engagement. Likewise, receiving feedback from employees can offer valuable insights that can help leaders become stronger and more efficient in their roles.

6 STRATEGIES TO DELIVER EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK

As a leader, the way in which you provide feedback to employees has a tremendous impact on its effect.

1. Time it right — Feedback comes in many forms; while the annual performance review is usually held at a specific corporate-mandated time, many other opportunities for delivering feedback crop up throughout the year. Grab them! Feedback is generally most effective when it is delivered when the event or issue is fresh in both parties’ memory. One caveat: It is not wise to vent anger under a veil of “providing feedback.” When negative emotions are running high, it is usually best to allow yourself ample time to cool down before meeting with an employee to ensure a productive feedback session.

THE POWER OF EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK

By providing meaningful feedback to employees, leaders can:

  • Motivate
  • Improve a situation
  • Solve a problem
  • Foster employee development
  • Open lines of communication
  • Increase employee engagement 

2. Prepare — Employees take feedback seriously, and so should you. Take the time to prepare for a feedback session as you would any other important meeting. Use facts, examples and statistics to substantiate your references to particularly outstanding work on the positive side, or to issues in need of attention on the negative side.

3. Ditch the “sandwich approach” — Once a popular technique to cushion the blow of delivering negative feedback, the sandwich approach has now fallen out of favor. This technique — slipping a criticism in between two compliments — has been recognized for its faults. For starters, employees see right through it. When served as a way to make it easier to digest negative feedback, praise is diluted. Second, delaying the inevitable invokes anxiety.

If you are meeting with an employee to deliver negative feedback, be direct: “Jay, as we both know, things haven’t been running very smoothly lately. Let’s see if we can address the problem together.” In order to provide effective feedback, make sure it is authentic.

4. Understand the power of negative feedback — Research conducted by Professor Andrew Miner (then of the University of Minnesota) and his colleagues showed that employees reacted to a negative interaction with their boss six times more strongly than they reacted to a positive interaction with their boss. Clearly, negative feedback packs a far stronger punch than positive feedback. As such, leaders need to be cognizant of its effects on an employee’s well-being and productivity.

When you do have to deliver negative feedback, when possible, do so in person (versus via email). Approach the issue as a challenge to conquer together, exploring causes and possible solutions. A less punitive tone to the conversation will decrease the likelihood that it will feel like a personal attack — and will likely yield greater results.

5. But don’t assume that everyone wants only positive feedback — Research has found that while novices prefer positive feedback, once people become experts in a subject area, they prefer negative feedback. The reason: Positive feedback provides encouragement to novices, who may lack confidence when starting a new venture (in the study, subjects were learning to speak a foreign language). By contrast, those with greater expertise were already committed to the venture and felt that negative feedback was more instrumental to their progress.

6. Avoid gender (and other) biases — As evolved as we think we are, one place gender bias still rears its head is in employee feedback. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on research conducted by Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, suggesting that men and women are evaluated differently in the workplace. “Specifically, managers are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong, and their accomplishments are more likely than men’s to be seen as the result of team, rather than individual efforts,” according to the research.

Effective feedback is based on equal standards fairly applied across gender lines, age brackets and races.

GUIDELINES FOR DELIVERING CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM

Often, negative feedback takes the form of constructive criticism. As Gregg Walker, professor in the Department of Speech Communication at Oregon State University, explains, critical feedback can promote constructive growth in individuals and relationships if handled appropriately.

Following are some of his guidelines for offering constructive criticism:

1. Understand why you are offering criticism. (Is it appropriate/constructive?)

2. Engage in perspective-taking or role reversal.

3. Offer criticism of the person’s behavior, not the person.

4. Focus on a particular situation rather than a general or abstract behavior.

5. Direct your criticism to the present rather than the past.

6. Avoid “critical overload.”

7. Focus criticism on behaviors that the other person can change.

FEEDBACK IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Receiving feedback can be equally valuable for leaders, who can gain powerful insights from employees.

While it might seem awkward to turn the tables, asking your team members to provide feedback on your performance as a leader can help you strengthen your performance. A couple of ways to pose this question without making anyone feel uncomfortable is to ask: “How can I make your job easier?” or “What type of support could I offer to help you perform your job better?”

Another is to give your team members an anonymous survey (let’s face it: not many employees would be bold enough to air a beef if their name was attached to it).

When you are on the receiving end of feedback, take pause and consider the comment before either letting it go to your head or taking a defensive stance. Remember that the objective is not to flatter you or to be mean-spirited; it is — or at least, it should be — to help you improve. Have you heard similar comments from other people? Can you think of instances where this comment may ring true? If it is negative in nature, how can you use it in a constructive way?

If feedback is coming in the context of a verbal discussion, it is important to resist the urge to argue. Instead, thank the person for their feedback. Whether you agree with them or not, their feedback is based on their perceptions.

THE FUTURE OF FEEDBACK

As the Society for Human Resource Management reports, many companies are trading in traditional employee performance reviews for web- and mobile-based technologies that can conduct real-time, 360-degree employee evaluations. These tools not only appeal to an increasingly younger workforce, but they also allow companies to address issues with employees more quickly.

Companies such as Impraise, Workday and Engagedly, to name a few, have already begun to transform feedback delivery systems by offering mobile apps that enable managers and team members to exchange feedback on a real-time basis, when thoughts are fresh in their minds.

THE BOTTOM LINE

While methods and techniques may change over time, the essence of effective feedback — both in delivering it and in receiving it — remains grounded in authentic communication.

Leaders who have developed high levels of emotional intelligence will find themselves well-positioned to conduct feedback sessions with tact, empathy and active listening skills.

The bottom line: Effective feedback is one of the most powerful ways in which a leader can positively influence employee satisfaction, performance and engagement. 

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