The Problem with Feedback
The word “feedback” has origins in audio technology meant to describe the noise heard when a sound is returned as input. Today, its common meaning is not technical and refers to helpful information used to improve. If feedback is supposed to help the receiver improve, why is it that there are problems with feedback?
Leaders today have been taught a model of feedback that doesn’t work for employees. In this model, they “deliver” feedback thinking that telling people where they went wrong will help them. In practice, that rarely works. There are three main things that are wrong with this model.
First, it is still a “command and control” approach to working with people. When leaders tell people what went wrong, it causes employees to feel punished rather than helped. Even when people are complimented, they are waiting for the rest of the story where they messed up. By doing this, we teach people to avoid conversations with leaders about work. The relationship becomes one of leaders positioning themselves as experts correcting the incompetent employee.
Another problem is that feedback is not immediate and in the moment. In most cases, leaders wait for the next time they are scheduled to talk with the employee before they go over what they saw and how the employee can improve. By then, no one remembers the details so the real intent of feedback (performance improvement) is not realized. Out of fairness, leaders are rewarded for being busy “working“ so they claim they don’t have time for their people.
Finally, leaders are hesitant to give feedback. There are a number of reasons for this. Some leaders are uncomfortable with telling people what went wrong because they think this can cause conflict. Other are not aware of the details of what happened and don’t want to say anything without the facts. And some think people won’t change so why bother. By doing this, leaders fail to help people think through how to improve or recognize where they did well.
A better approach to feedback is where the leader takes a coaching approach and asks the person to self-assess. They may provide a context but they ask the person to identify what went well or what they would do different next time. There is no judgment, just an attempt to recognize people so they will repeat the positive behaviors or make a small change to become even better.
For example, a leader of a customer service representative listens to a call regarding a billing question. They observed that the agent did well explaining how the bill is structured but missed a cue from the customer that they wanted to purchase an additional service. The leader could say, “I heard that last call you took. How do you think it went? What is one thing that you could do different next time to handle that situation even better?” After each question, the employee will give their opinion (self-assess) and the leader will listen and make sure what they say is accurate. Unlike coaching, feedback is quick and focuses on one thing.
Other than agreeing with accurate self-assessments, the leader only gives their opinion if the employee can’t think of something (one thing they did well OR one thing they would do differently). Even when the leader gives their opinion, it is phrased more as a question than a statement. This takes them away from the “tell” model and empowers the employee to think things through on their own.
It is important that we use feedback to improve performance and help people gain the ability to think things through. By doing this, you are partnering with your employee rather than trying to control them. Which method do you think works better in the long run?
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Michael Sabbag is a leading author, advisor, executive, and coach with over 30 years of experience working with companies of a large variety of sizes and industries. He helps executives and leaders with the people, culture, and strategy side of business focusing on human capital strategy and processes across the entire employment lifecycle. While his main passion is helping leaders continually coach and develop people, he also has deep expertise in training, HR, organizational change, and strategy. Michael is a frequent strategic contributor for the Institute of Organization Development.