How Do I Make Feedback Work?

One of an organizational leader's responsibilities is giving feedback to employees as a skilled communicator. To this day, it remains one of the most dreaded responsibilities because it has become associated with negativity or hypocrisy, to be honest. What needs to be discussed is avoided, and the cookie-cutter approach stifles healthy discussion that could be motivational rather than fear-based. There has been more progress towards positivity in that many leaders now take steps like doing pulse surveys and holding periodic conversations. Yet, people still tend to worry about getting and giving feedback. It's time for innovative, non-traditional ways of thinking about giving and receiving feedback as an employee engagement process 

Changing the Perspective on Feedback 

The performance review process is fraught with anxiety. Both the leader and the employee usually dread the difficult conversation because the employee worries that his or her job or career plans could be harmed. In many ways, this worry reflects a lack of trust in the manager or supervisor to be fair or helpful rather than critical.   

At a 2021 SHRM Annual Conference & Expo, attendees learned:  

  • 25 percent of men cried at a performance review 
  • 18 percent of women cried at a performance review 
  • 34 percent of Millennials said the annual review drove them to tears 
  • 57 percent of people surveyed said the annual review made them feel as if they competed with co-workers  

The speakers sharing this data said the traditional annual performance review promotes favoritism, recency bias in which the most recent employee performance is applied to the entire year, inconsistency, and swings between leniency and severity. When people are afraid, feedback doesn't work. It doesn't apply to just the annual performance review either. It applies to any feedback given when the organizational leader's perspective is mostly using the feedback to criticize the employee.   

A much-needed change in perspective to make feedback work is for your managers and supervisors to approach employee feedback as an opportunity for strengthening employee engagement and for developing positive employee relations. That change will, in return, change the perspective of employees. It also changes the entire feedback process.   

make feedback work

Giving Employee Feedback 

Marianne van Woerkom and Brigitte Kroon discussed their original research in Frontiers in Psychology. They investigated the effect of strengths-based performance appraisals on the employee's perceived supervisor support and whether it motivated employees to improve performance. The strengths-based performance appraisal flips the entire narrative. Instead of focusing on "areas for improvement," the appraisal "focuses on identifying, appreciating, and developing employee's qualities in line with the company goals."  

This approach does precisely what leaders should be doing anyway to develop good relations with employees and deepen employee engagement. The researchers hypothesized that strengths-based performance appraisals will promote a "stronger motivation to improve (MTI) performance, by making subordinates feel supported by their supervisor and thereby fulfill their need for relatedness" and "reduce the threat to the relationship between supervisor and subordinate when the performance rating is relatively low." In other words, the strengths-based performance appraisals could help employees perform at their best and strengthen relatedness because the supervisor and employee discuss how to leverage strengths for employment success.  

The researchers found that organizational leaders who discuss an employee's unique qualities stress the developmental purpose of the performance review instead of the evaluative purpose, which led to more positive evaluations by supervisors. Even when performance ratings were disappointing, employees could better focus on the support a supervisor offered to help them build on their strengths.  

Using performance reviews to develop positive employee relations remains a non-traditional way of approaching and making feedback work. It also changes the approach to giving feedback. Instead of having a fearful periodic review, your employee and manager or supervisor have conversations throughout the year. The leader becomes a coach instead of a judge and jury, giving objective feedback. Feedback is constructive, helping the employee discover the best path to improving performance or pursuing career goals.   


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Getting Employee Feedback  

Some companies have abandoned the annual performance review completely, but others have retained some formal feedback process. One of the issues with the formal feedback process that isn't strengths-based is that it tends to be one-way. The supervisor is approaching the performance review process to inform the employee, but it should be a time to get feedback from the employee.   

However, some of the most valuable feedback will come through informal interactions with employees, which can take many forms. Supervisors can learn from their workers by giving employees a voice through opportunities to provide feedback. Upward feedback from employees can provide insights that were not discoverable through the traditional manager-employee feedback process. Informal feedback is gathered in many ways. 

  • Impromptu chats with employees 
  • Holding events where employees are encouraged to share perspectives, problems, needs, etc. 
  • Walking around the department and asking various employees how they are doing and what resources they need 
  • Holding virtual informal meetings with remote employees 
  • Asking employees questions and listening to the answers 
  • Maintaining an open-door policy 
  • Telling employees that constructive feedback is appreciated 
  • Doing pulse surveys or other types of engagement surveys 
  • Instant messaging or other digital communication tools  

These are not all the ways to get informal feedback, but they all have one thing in common: they are not formal performance reviews.  

making feedback work

Both Sides Now: Making Feedback Work 

There are some basic behaviors your leaders should develop to make feedback work. Using a strengths-based performance review perspective and giving employees a feedback voice not only leads to productive two-way communication but a positive organizational culture is developed.   

Another way of approaching psychologically positive performance reviews is discussed by Authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in the Feedback Fallacy. The principle is the same as the strengths-based approach. Don't focus on people's faults. Focus on their capacity to learn and their ability to succeed in their work and their career. These authors focus on feedback as a process for helping each person thrive and excel by learning, and learning happens when a person sees how he or she might do something better by adding or expanding on their current understanding.   

The authors write, "Learning rests on our grasp of what we're doing well, not on what we're doing poorly, and certainly not on someone else's sense of what we're doing poorly. And second, that we learn most when someone else pays attention to what's working within us and asks us to cultivate it intelligently." Recognizing excellence when it happens is their recommendation, so people gain an insight into (learn) what behaviors work best and can build on that. This is opposed to trying to overcome faults by focusing on the negative instead of the positive. 

For example, an employee successfully solves a work problem. Your supervisor recognizes the success at the moment so the employee can recognize it, anchor it, assimilate it, refine it, and store it for future reference. That is an innovative approach to making feedback work. It's not just praise. Your supervisor explains what was witnessed and how it made him/her feel. Use statements like, "This is what that made me think" or "This is how it came across for me." There is no judging or rating.  

A lot has to do with language. Buckingham and Goodall present a chart showing the language that promotes excellence. For example, instead of saying, "Can I give you some feedback?" you say, "Here's my reaction." Instead of saying, "Here is where you need to improve," you say, "Here's what worked best for me, and here's why." 

A Culture of Feedback 

One of the most innovative approaches you can apply to feedback is to embed it in the organizational culture, which means feedback becomes part of daily life at work. Feedback should never be only an anxiety-filled event, and it's frustrating that it still remains so in many workplaces. It should be a welcomed way to learn and grow for employees and leadership. There must be a safe environment for feedback to become a strategy for building positive employee relations.  

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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