There is overwhelming agreement among leaders that team members should receive performance feedback real-time, as opposed to just during annual or even quarterly reviews. The trouble is, most people only like to hear how well they are doing, not where they are falling down. Receiving feedback once a year may be uncomfortable, but getting it real time could be akin to torture. There are alternatives to traditional ways of giving feedback.
Feedback is essential. No one likes it, but no one can improve without hearing it, both negative and positive. So how do we do it right?
Research Proves: No One Likes Negative Feedback
If we are to give employees feedback in real time that is meaningful and that can actually be used to improve performance, we have to get around the obvious hurdle: everyone hates to get a negative review. We know this intuitively, but it is backed up by research. In a study published in The Journal of Personnel Psychology, researchers investigated how employees react to feedback from managers.
The researchers hypothesized that most workers would not like getting criticism, but that those who are driven to improve their performance and who like to learn would value negative feedback and use it to get better. To their surprise, this turned out to be false. The results showed that not even they liked negative feedback and that any kind of criticism in a performance review limited what the employees took away from it. In other words, everyone hates negative feedback, and traditional performance reviews do not help anyone improve.
Darwin Explains Why
Constructive criticism is supposed to foster a discussion for improvement and to help individuals learn from mistakes and work better and more efficiently. If, however, we all hate hearing it, how can it ever be a positive experience? We are hard-wired to despise and to defend against negative feedback. Our aversion to negative feedback is rooted in our evolutionary development. Our brains perceive criticism as a threat and we try to protect ourselves from that threat. We have a biological imperative to survive and any threat can be seen as a threat to survival, no matter how trivial it may seem to us intellectually.
Perhaps a consequence of this survival instinct, research shows that people make worse decisions after receiving negative feedback. In a study in which people were asked to complete tasks and received feedback in between attempts, the results showed that negative feedback did not help them improve. Performance and the ability to make good decisions actually dropped after receiving constructive criticism.
6 Ways Of Giving Feedback Without Demotivating
We know that people despise constructive criticism, no matter how well-intended, and we know that the traditional performance review does little to help anyone improve at their jobs. This does not mean that any type of review or feedback is bad. We need to tell our employees how they are doing and how they can improve or the company will stagnate. Fixing the gaps in employee performance is essential for a company to achieve its objectives. We cannot change the biological need to protect against criticism, but we can give feedback in ways that are more supportive and that will be better received and more useful.
One of the most widely known techniques for softening the blow of negative feedback is called the sandwich method. The idea is to sandwich criticism between two pieces of positive feedback. This may be better than just giving negative feedback, but it is not good enough. It is still a direct criticism that turns people off. Here are five techniques, which I think are better, and that I try to use every time I need to give feedback to employees. I sorted them by degree of aggressiveness. I try to start with method #1 and if it fails, proceed to #2, and so forth.
1. Look into the mirror
Nothing is more irritating to an employee than to be criticized for something the manager also does (or does not do, as the case may be). When I have the same gap that an employee has I start the discussion by talking about my own failing.
For example, I notice that in meetings Frank uses the phrase “you know” excessively. I would love for him to drop this habit so he sounds better and gets his message across more clearly. I think about my own speaking and realize I have a similar habit, so I talk to Frank about it. I tell him that I am trying to improve my own speaking and ask him to interrupt me every time I say “you know.” By doing this, I have developed a strategy for closing my own performance gap, while also helping Frank to reflect on his own errors in speaking. I do not have to criticize him directly to push him to improve.
2. Be a role model
People naturally evolve to become better at their jobs and other aspects of their lives. They do so by observing people around them, especially those they look up to, respect, and aspire to be like. As managers and bosses we should be aware that our employees look to us for how to behave at work and how to do their jobs well. When I see a gap in one of my team members, I try to expose them to learning situations where I can model better performance. For example when I notice that Mary could use some help when it comes to making presentations I might ask her to observe a couple of my presentations at meetings instead of directly criticizing her performance. It is my responsibility to create these opportunities for my team members to learn from me as I role model the skills they need.
3. Tweak their work
A typical way for a manger to critique an employee’s work might be to take a deliverable, such as a spreadsheet or presentation, and list all of the things that the employee did wrong in creating it. This is a harsh and direct way to criticize someone’s work and it is very dispiriting. Instead, what I do is tweak the project directly. I take that spreadsheet and make (at least some of) the changes I think it needs. I then send it back to the employee and describe the changes I made so that she or he can learn from them. If the changes are too numerous and I do not have time to do them all, I make a few edits and ask the employee to have a look at them and make similar changes throughout the spreadsheet. This approach, I hope, feels more like collaboration between the two of us than a criticism of my team member’s efforts.
4. Feedback by invitation
People react better to feedback if they have asked for it. How do we make people ask for it though? If a team member has a weakness that needs to be addressed, I find an opportunity to engage her in a conversation about what her own professional development goals. I always let the team member come up with her own personal development plan, rather than me prescribing areas where she needs to improve. More often than not, as part of the self-created professional development objectives, the employee would list the same development areas that I have also noticed.
Most people are quite self-aware in this way. By prompting them to recognize a development goal and to trust me with helping them achieve it, I have gained permission to provide feedback which will not come across as threatening but as supportive.
5. Passive role modeling
Sometimes I just need to step in and tell a team member that she is doing something wrong, but I still try to use role modeling instead of direct criticism. For example, Anne is emailing back and forth with a customer without resolving the issue. They are misunderstanding each other and getting frustrated. Instead of telling Anne to just pick up the phone and call the customer, I tell her about my own similar experience. I tell her that I notice the struggle she is having with a customer and that it happened to me once. I describe how I resolved the problem by calling the customer and that by picking up the phone to talk directly we were able to communicate much more clearly. I consider this passive role modeling because instead of pointing out Anne’s failing, I talk about my own, similar experience and how I resolved it.
6. Nonviolent communication
This final strategy is a last resort. When the first five techniques fail to help an employee recognize his gaps and correct them, I fall back on this strategy. It is proven to work, but it is still a form of direct criticism that I prefer to avoid. When I have to use this strategy, it is typically because I failed to use the other four techniques well enough to help my team members improve. Nonviolent communication is an effective strategy that has been developed over decades and it relies on empathy. When used for negative feedback, it takes the focus away from shortcomings of the employee and instead, appeals to her desire to please.The essence of nonviolent communication is a process using four basic statements:
- Observations. “What I observe is that you and the customer are having many emails going back and forth without the issue getting solved.”
- Feelings. “I feel you are frustrated about it, and the customer is too.”
- Needs. “I really value seeing my team members and customers communicating effectively because it resolves issues better for everyone."
- Requests. “Would you be willing to pick up the phone and call the customer? I really think you would feel better after talking to him directly.”
By changing how we deliver feedback and constructive criticism, we will better engage employees and motivate them to be constantly improving performance. Leading by example will create better relationships between workers and management.
Changing the status quo is never easy. To encourage management to make changes to the way feedback is delivered and to eliminate the traditional annual performance review will be a challenge. These changes will undoubtedly meet with resistance.
Giving feedback is a standard part of most manager-employee relationships. The traditional way of doing it, the dreaded annual performance review, wastes everyone’s time, and yet we still need a way of giving our workers the critical feedback that will help them close their performance gaps. I truly believe that I can give feedback and effect real change in my team members by improving my own performance, by modeling good performance, and by being a direct and passive role model. The first step to making this change is to educate managers about better ways of providing feedback.