Make Feedback Normal

Make feedback normal. Not a performance review.
— Ed Batista

Feedback has been famously called “the breakfast of champions.” We all need feedback to optimize performance and make sure that we are doing our jobs correctly. Yet, ask most professionals to play the game of word association with the word “feedback” and you will often hear such negative words as fear, anxiety, and evaluation.

The concern, interestingly, does not lie exclusively with employees. Many leaders are as uncomfortable giving feedback as their direct reports are in receiving it. According to a survey conducted by Management Concepts, supervisors often feel uneasy advising their employees on how to improve their performance, even the high performers.

Why are so many leaders afraid to share their thoughts and why has the process resulted in such concern among employees?

Perhaps the problem lies mainly in the way that feedback is perceived. For many bosses, feedback is simply not a priority. When compared to the many urgencies on their list (real or imagined), they simply do not approach feedback with the same seriousness and preparedness.

Compounding the problem is that when feedback is offered, it is often done in the spirit of assessment rather than coaching. Emphasis is placed on checking off boxes whether the employee is performing tasks and meeting benchmarks, not on how to help him or her perform better and set goals and action plans for success.

In order for this to change, we need to better appreciate the benefits of feedback. For one, feedback, whether positive or constructive, is motivating. When feedback is regular and well structured, it has been shown to improve job performance while contributing to increases in worker engagement and decreases in employee turnover.

In order for feedback to be effective, it needs to be conducted as an organic component in how the company operates. The goal of feedback should not be, as Ken Blanchard calls it, “leave alone, zap!” (The leader remains quiet for an extensive period before “zapping” a report with “constructive” comments.) Rather, it should be something that happens often and as a natural outgrowth of worker efforts and attitudes.

Moreover, the primary goal of feedback should not be assessment (though that is a necessary element in determining whether or not to retain, promote or dismiss personnel). Rather, the focus should be on coaching employees to grow and set new goals. (In fact, the very definition of feedback, a term borrowed from testing of machinery, is: “The furnishing of data… so that subsequent or ongoing operations… can be altered or corrected.”) When this becomes the focus, all parties become more relaxed and can get into the work of celebrating successes and brainstorming on how to make necessary improvements. Moreover, the value of feedback sharing increases in the boss’ eyes and tends to happen more regularly, not just at scheduled quarterly (or less frequent) intervals.

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