by Esther Derby

What Every Manager Should Know About Feedback

Apr 19, 200711 mins

Feedback—when it’s done well—can improve results and strengthen working relationships.

A company president in her 50s remembered when her first manager told her she wasn’t finishing her work. “I was surprised, because I thought I was finishing,” she said. “He explained what he meant by ‘complete.’ As I listened, I realized he was describing a pattern that I’d had all through school. I’d get to a certain point with a project, and then I’d lose interest and move on to something else. Somehow, my ‘not-quite-done’ work was enough for me to make good grades throughout college. When I entered the work world it was a liability. Once I started really finishing my work, I could see the difference in quality and how it affected our team’s product.” She made a wry face. “I still get bored and want to move on to something new,” the company president continued. “If that manager hadn’t taken time to give me feedback, I might not be where I am today; certainly it would have taken longer. And I’d be wondering why I wasn’t getting ahead.”

Feedback—when it’s done well—can improve results and strengthen working relationships. When it helps people see their blind spots and understand the impact of their behavior, feedback can change the trajectory of a career.

Unfortunately, many managers I talk to confess that they put off giving feedback because they are uncomfortable. Others tell me that their feedback attempts go awry. The conversation ends up in an argument, the recipient rejects their feedback, or they feel put on the spot when the other person asks for examples. When I talk to the receivers of feedback, I hear horror stories of mysterious hints, vague announcements, arguments, blame and humiliation.

A VP of development told me this story. “I had a habit of joking and teasing my staff,” he said. “I thought I was being informal—you know, showing the team I wasn’t a stuffy suit. My boss explained that what seemed like friendly ribbing to me felt like intimidation to people lower on the totem pole.” The VP’s eyes unfocused as he remembered the conversation. “It was uncomfortable. But you know, none of my other managers had the guts to tell me my teasing was holding me back. Once I understood the damage I was doing—both to my staff and my own career—I changed my ways.”

If feedback is so important, why is it seldom done well? It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at some of the facts of feedback, what gets in the way and how to do it well.

What Is Feedback?

In a work context, feedback is information about past behavior, given in the present, with the hope of influencing future behavior. (See What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback by Charles Seashore, Edith Seashore and Gerald M. Weinberg; Bingham House, 1992.) Giving feedback on work performance and work results is part of every manager’s job. Most people want to do well at work. And most people need information about what they are doing well, and where they may need to adapt to be successful.

There’s a difference between feedback and evaluation or judgment.

Feedback is information, not judgment or evaluation. Labels, such as lazy, sloppy, careless or “not a team player,” signal judgment about a person’s character. Words such as good, bad or worse telegraph evaluation—assessing the quality of work or the rightness of behavior. Most people don’t like to be judged, and they’ll turn off. Feedback, on the other hand, is specific information about behavior or results that a person can choose to change.

As a manager, you do need to evaluate whether work results and interaction meet the needs of the business. When you want people to hear your feedback and to make changes (or to continue to do something), focus on information—and keep your judgments to yourself.

When people don’t agree with the data, they won’t accept the feedback.

Take the case of a technical lead who was in the habit of putting senior managers on the spot in company meetings. His manager wisely phrased his feedback this way: “In our meeting this morning, you interrupted the VP three times to point out errors in his data.” The technical lead readily admitted that he had indeed done that. Had his manager started with, “You’re undiplomatic” (a judgment), the likely response would be, “No, I’m not; I have the courage to bring up tough questions.”

Descriptions in neutral language lead to recognition. When people recognize themselves in feedback they are more likely to keep listening. When they don’t agree with the data, they’re likely to tune you out.

Elements of Effective Feedback

If judgments and labels are out of bounds for effective feedback, what’s in? My experience is that effective feedback has three elements. It starts with an opening that sets the stage, provides a clear description of behavior or results, and helps the person understand the impact his behavior has on others.

An opening lets people know that you have something important to say, that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill conversation. It also gives people a chance to respond, “This isn’t a good time. Can we talk later?” Giving feedback when someone is rushing to catch a bus or preparing for an important presentation won’t help get your message across. (If the individual never has a good time for feedback, it’s a different problem.)

Clear descriptive data and examples help people recognize themselves in your feedback. Most of us are in the habit of making judgments, so providing descriptions of behavior takes a little practice.

Here are a few examples:

Your report uses subheads to help organize the material. Great report!
I see your face is turning red and you are hitting the table. You’re freaking out.
In our design meeting, you rolled your eyes after Trudy presented her ideas. You were rude to Trudy in our design meeting.
I noticed that your questions in our strategy session helped us think about the issues more clearly. You’re really smart.

Stick to what you know and what you’ve observed. Avoid labels, comparatives and absolutes such as always and never. There’s sure to be one exception for people to use to invalidate your “always” or “never,” allowing them to dismiss your feedback.

Notice that not all of these examples are about behavior that isn’t working. People need specific descriptive information about what they are doing well, too.

If there’s no impact to the behavior or result, there’s no need to give feedback. If the only impact is, “I don’t like it” or, “I think people shouldn’t act that way,” it’s time to hold off on giving feedback and to examine your own judgments and responses. Describing the impact helps the feedback recipient understand the effect of his behavior, and why it would be useful to change. Again, stick to what you know and what you’ve observed.

Sometimes when I give feedback, I only get as far as describing the behavior or results. Then the person says, “Do I really do that? I guess I didn’t realize it was a problem.” And then they make a change. Other times, people recognize the behavior, but don’t realize it’s a problem until I tell them about the impact. Once in a while, I need to make a request. My request may be for a specific change, for joint problem solving or for a proposal on how to address the matter. Even more rarely, I need to talk about consequences—as in, if this doesn’t change, you won’t work here anymore.

Feedback given at work should be about work—and only about work.

Once upon a time, a manager attending a night ball game noticed a member of his staff, Fred, sitting several rows in front of him. He also noticed that Fred was drinking copious quantities of beer. The next day, Fred nodded off during a meeting. The manager wisely commented on Fred’s inattention and said nothing about Fred’s beer consumption. Fred’s attention in meetings is the manager’s business. How Fred spends his evenings is not. There’s a word for feedback that isn’t about the work results or work interactions; it’s called interference.

Secondhand feedback poisons the well.

Too many managers create problems for themselves by passing along feedback from other people. There are two potential problems with secondhand feedback. First, when the feedback receiver asks for examples and clarification, you won’t be able to give it. If you have secondhand examples, you’ll be in the middle of he-said-she-said. Also, the person receiving feedback will wonder why he’s hearing this from you, and not from the person who actually had the issue. That’s going to put him on the defensive. Either coach the person who has the issue to give feedback directly, or use your own data. Unless the situation involves sexual harassment, an ethical matter or bodily safety, stay out of the middle.

In spite of your best efforts, your feedback may not be well received, or may not be received at all.

Here’s another place where judgments hinder feedback. Most people have a hard time believing that someone who makes a negative judgment of them has his best interests at heart. When people believe you have good intentions toward them, they are much more likely to consider your feedback.

You can do flawless job of describing behavior and stating its impact, and the other person may still not hear or accept it. How people receive feedback depends on your relationship. If you have a poor relationship, your feedback may be received as “picking on” the other person.

The power difference between managers and the people who report to them gets in the way of congruent feedback. The paradox is that the less vested interest you have in changing someone else’s behavior, the more likely she is to hear your perception.

Whether the other person hears your feedback also depends on how he is feeling at the moment, and on his own self-esteem. Some people resist new information that conflicts with their self-image. You can control only your part of the feedback equation. Do your best, and know that you won’t always succeed.

Performance is a function of the person and the environment [Performance = f (p,e)].

We like to believe that performance is all about the individual: his skills, motivation, talent. Performance is actually a function of the person and the environment. It’s management’s job to create an environment for people to succeed and to support them to reach their best performance.

Before you comment on some else’s performance, consider the environment. Are there policies and procedures that penalize people for doing their jobs? Have you communicated expectations? Are you setting clear priorities? Are you insulating the team from undue interference so they have the time and space to do their work? Are you micromanaging? The bottom line is that if you aren’t doing your job as a manager, the people who report to you won’t be able to do their jobs well, either.

Feedback is always about the giver.

We never see ourselves as other people see us. That’s one reason feedback is important. It helps us gain a better picture of how our actions affect the people we work with. Feedback is about our perceptions of another person, and reveals something about us: our behavior standards, what we consider important, what we value, what makes us uncomfortable. What that means is that, on some level, feedback is always about the giver, and our perception of the other person, not The Truth about the other person.

The Upside of Discomfort

I hear many reasons not to give feedback. “He must know it’s a problem,” or, “She’s so sensitive; it will just upset her.” Yes, sometimes people feel upset when they hear feedback, especially when it’s new information and conflicts with their self-image. If you assume that employees can’t handle these emotions, you relegate them to childlike status. Most people in the workplace are adults, and don’t need managers to protect them from their own emotions.

It can be uncomfortable to give feedback. However, the discomfort is usually short-lived. Withholding feedback—or substituting judgments for descriptive information—has long-term consequences in lower productivity and damaged relationships. Feedback that describes behavior and explains impact can improve both results and relationships.