I know an HR director who has a great saying: “Feedback is a gift. Sometimes you think it’s a gift you want to return, but it’s always a gift you should cherish.” As an executive coach, I do a lot of work with my clients on giving and receiving feedback, and I reference this quote often. The unfortunate truth is that most leaders have never been taught how to give productive feedback, and it’s something that holds many businesses back.
When done correctly feedback is actually a gift to all involved — it benefits the employee, it benefits the leader giving the feedback, it builds healthy company cultures, and it improves bottom-line business results. Giving feedback well is also aligned with conscious leadership principles, because good feedback is always based on respect for the people in your company. The key is understanding how to give feedback so that it can become a valued gift.
Feedback done the wrong way
A couple years ago I consulted to a company that epitomized the problems with feedback done poorly. It was a fast-growing firm of about 100 people. I was hired to work with the senior leadership team because the company was having significant growing pains. One obvious problem was that leaders were very bad at giving feedback. The company had grown so fast that most leaders had been promoted very quickly out of individual contributor roles, and they’d never been taught how to give effective feedback.
Two of the senior leaders in particular illustrated the depth of the problem — Karen and Alan. Karen gave very harsh feedback. Employees experienced discussions with her as punitive, and they dreaded the experience. Her team felt demoralized, and there had even been instances of people leaving Karen’s office in tears. Karen found the experience distressing too. She was devastated by the effect she was having on people, but she’d convinced herself it was just part of the job.
Alan had gone to the opposite extreme. He hated giving feedback, and he avoided it. Instead of having direct conversations, he gave very subtle messages. Ironically, that left people feeling just as demoralized as on Karen’s team. Alan’s people were unsure of themselves, and they felt like they were always trying to decipher cryptic hints. When issues that hadn’t been discussed directly escalated into serious problems — situations that could no longer be ignored — Alan’s people felt blind-sided. Although he had good intentions, his approach left his entire department felling abandoned, unsupported, and insecure.
Shifting to a culture of productive feedback
The solution was to establish a culture where managers were able to have productive feedback conversations. We established a set of five guiding principles all leaders could use to ensure effective feedback conversations. We also communicated those principles across the company, so that employees knew what to expect from their leaders. These shared principles and expectations allowed the organization to shift to a culture driven by productive feedback and accountability.
1. Recognize that feedback is in service to the company and the employee.
The foundation for effective feedback is to recognize that feedback is critical for a healthy culture and that feedback is ultimately in the best interest of both the company and employee. All employees need guidance about expectations, and how well they’re meeting expectations. The business depends on employees having appropriate guidance. Leaders should approach all feedback conversations from the standpoint of being in service to both the company and the employee. This perspective allows the leader to be productive, rather than punitive in the conversation
2. Be timely, direct, and specific.
It’s typically best to give feedback in a timely manner after an issue has occurred. Avoid allowing issues to pile up over time. That may lead to frustration on your part. It’s also a risk for the business, and it leaves employees feeling overwhelmed when they receive the feedback. Be direct. Give specific facts about what the problem was Provide a clear explanation of what you would have liked to happen instead. The objective of the conversation is to give the employee guidance on how to solve or avoid the problem in the future. Productive feedback conversations are not about berating the employee for making a mistake, they are about problem-solving.
3. Avoid being overly emotional or disrespectful in feedback conversations.
There’s never a reason for raised voices, or for being disrespectful towards employees during feedback conversations. Yelling is a hindrance to effective feedback communication because the exchange becomes about the emotions rather than solving the problem. Be aware of your own emotions when choosing the time to have a feedback conversation and, if necessary, wait until you’re not angry. Sometimes that might mean waiting an hour or a day before giving feedback, but that might be the right decision.
Disrespect towards an employee will also hinder effectiveness. It will trigger resentment and disengagement. With the appropriate forethought, it’s possible to give any corrective feedback, while still maintaining respect. It’s perfectly alright to tell an employee that you’re disappointed or unhappy, but make sure to be in control of the emotions you display.
4. Choose feedback language that’s behavior-based and specific — not personal or general.
Effective feedback conversations area about a specific behavior to correct. They are not about the personal. Examples of effective language might include: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been getting into the office late,” or “There were a number of mistakes in the report you delivered last week.” Avoid language like, “I think you’re the kind of person who’s always late,” or “You’re very sloppy in your work.” Specific behavior-based feedback opens the door for discussions on how to solve the problem. Personal or general statements are more likely to trigger a defensive response
5. Positive feedback is equally important.
One of the most important — and yet most neglected — feedback principles is remembering to give positive feedback. That’s a missed business opportunity. Just as with corrective feedback, employees need to know when they’re doing something right.
Like corrective feedback, positive feedback should be timely, specific, and behavior-based. Positive feedback should also be reserved for significant accomplishments, and not just given as a passing compliment. Identify the specific action the employee took that was of benefit, acknowledge the contribution, explain why it was important, and encourage the employee to continue their good work. When done this way, positive feedback improves morale, increases engagement, and drives business results. It allows employees to replicate similar behaviors.
Positive feedback can also be used as an effective follow-up for performance improvements after corrective feedback. For example, you might say, “The accuracy of your reports has really improved. I recognize that you’re putting in a lot more effort, and it shows. We feel a lot more confident now when talking to customers. Please keep it up.” This feedback demonstrates that you’re monitoring performance, that you were serious about the prior feedback, and it encourages the employee’s continued performance.
Use feedback to drive business results.
The Gallup organization studies employee engagement, and results are disturbing. In the US only one-third of employees are what Gallup calls “fully engaged” at work, meaning they love their jobs and strive to make their organization better every day. Sixteen percent of employees are “actively disengaged”— meaning they are miserable in the workplace and sometimes try to sabotage their companies. The remaining 51 percent are “not engaged,” meaning they’re showing up but little more.
One of the biggest drivers of employee engagement is when leaders provide effective feedback; and it matters for business results. While on average only 30 percent of employees are fully engaged, at the best performing companies 70 percent or more of employees are fully engaged. By using the aforementioned principles — turning feedback into a cherished gift for your employees and for your company — you can help your employees become fully engaged, and drive the business results you want.
Gerry Valentine is the founder of Vision Executive Coaching. He helps build companies that work, and that work for all — supporting profit, people, and the planet. Gerry focuses on business strategy, innovation, and leadership. He has 30 years of experience with multiple Fortune 100 companies, an MBA from NYU, and a BS from Cornell University. Connect with Gerry on Twitter @gerryval or by email at gerry@VisionExecutiveCoaching.com.