Feedback: Signs that you are doing it wrong

Is your feedback doing more harm than good for your employees’ performance?

Feedback can be key to improving performance. Yet when feedback sessions are poorly delivered, they harm employee engagement and productivity levels. A pivotal meta-analysis suggests that although almost 70% of feedback recipients perform above average, 30% of feedback interventions actually hurt performance.

So, what are the key indicators of harmful feedback? Here are five critical signs that you are doing it wrong:

You are not increasing their self-awareness. The goal of giving feedback is not just to get your employees to meet deadlines, or to stop them from being defensive. It should also increase an employees’ self-awareness, so they genuinely understand how they come across to others and how their actions affect other people.

As the famous Dunning-Krueger effect demonstrates, the less competent people are, the less self-aware they are. So, poor performers are particularly likely to benefit from a reality check. Furthermore, as Heidi Halvorson shows in her latest book, even highly competent people have self-views that don’t align with other people’s views of them – leading to all sorts of interpersonal conflicts.

In short, effective feedback exposes the gap between how we want to be seen and how we are actually seen by others. Ineffective feedback tells you what you already know.

You’re not giving enough negative feedback. Although positive feedback is easier to convey, the most useful feedback is actually negative. The essence of negative feedback is not criticism or disapproval, but anything that exposes a candidate’s self-view as overly positive, compared to their objective performance.

In other words, feedback is negative when it shows us that we are not as good as we think.

Naturally, this can be hard to accept and digest, because it wounds our ego. However, negative feedback is also indispensable for getting better: unless we know what we are doing wrong, we will have no desire to improve.

Your feedback isn’t based on robust data. A core element of effective feedback is reliable and valid data. It doesn’t matter if you lack sophisticated monitoring systems or an objective performance metrics – the feedback can still include empirical evidence on how a person is doing. Ideally, candidates should be benchmarked against a normative group or their own Key Performance Indicators.

Furthermore, there should be an obvious connection between each data point and the behavior of a candidate. Well-designed 360s tend to provide all this, especially those that use a subordinates’ ratings. Unsurprisingly, independent studies show that one of the most effective ways of improving job performance is to base feedback and coaching on the results of 360s. This enables candidates to evaluate their performance with objectivity, as well as provides them with an independent yardstick to quantify change.

You don’t give people a story. As the saying goes, data tell but stories sell. Or, as Immanuel Kant puts it, data are empty without theory. Any feedback that you give will have a limited impact unless you can present a meaningful narrative, i.e. providing an explanation rather than a mere description of the person’s behavior.

As Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do. So, the fundamental strength of a well-designed feedback session is to provide people with the story about what they repeatedly do and why, so they can understand who they are.

You are not making it personal. Leadership styles have enjoyed a lot of airtime. But when giving feedback, what matters is not focusing on your own style, whether you see it as straight-talking and direct or compassionate and caring. What’s important is thinking about the recipient’s style, and remembering that everyone is different.

Each person’s reaction will depend as much on their own personality as the nature of the feedback itself. Use your knowledge of the candidate’s personality to adjust your style and create a persuasive experience. At the end of the day, every feedback session requires influence and persuasion, which in turn requires personalizing your message and style.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the feedback cycle doesn’t end once the session is over. In fact, that’s just the beginning of actual coaching, which requires follow-through in the form of actionable targets and measurable change.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that the feedback process is only complete if: it defines the “where to next?” question for the candidate; establishes which interventions will be used; and defines what success actually looks like. Leaders who are reluctant in accepting negative feedback are also less capable of providing it to their subordinates. Thus, an organization would gain much by not only providing negative feedback to their leaders but by also training them on how to provide it within their own teams.

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