At a glance
- The culture around providing feedback in the workplace has changed considerably over the past few years.
- Many organisations have moved to a system of regular check-ins, in addition to formal, annual performance discussions.
- Feedback should answer three important questions: “Where am I going?”, “How am I going?” and “Where to next?”
By Johanna Leggatt
The annual performance review once struck fear and trepidation into the hearts of many employees: a yearly ritual involving the boss – all knowing, all powerful – handing down a “report card” on the worker’s performance.
Times have changed, or at least they are in the process of changing, according to Melbourne-based former accountant Georgia Murch, who now designs feedback cultures for organisations.
Forward-thinking companies, says Murch, are moving to regular check-ins – often fortnightly or even monthly – in addition to an annual performance discussion.
“We now have so much data to prove that performance reviews in isolation don’t work, and they are quite demotivating for staff,” she says.
“Many companies are, thankfully, moving away from this performance review dependency to an informal check-in culture, which we know boosts performance by more than 60 per cent.”
Yet, we still have some way to go.
“We are still nervous about giving feedback for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that people worry it will impact the relationship,” Murch says.
“Yet, the evidence tells us that, in fact, when we give feedback with good intent, the relationship actually improves.”
How to give good feedback
John Hattie, leading educator and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, says feedback serves to answer one of three questions: “Where am I going?”, “How am I going?” and “Where to next?”.
Most crucially, bosses need to focus on the third component – the “where to next” – as the success of the feedback hinges on the outlining of a future course of action.
“If you give no feedback on the question of ‘Where to next?’, despite a page of comments about where and how the person is going, then the person won’t hear it and will actually report that no feedback was given,” he says.
Hattie also urges managers to resist the temptation to insert praise during feedback conversations, as recipients then tend to focus on the positive and ignore the areas for improvement.
“Separate praise from feedback – it can be given, but at a separate time,” he says.
Murch says some managers give feedback using a command-and-control approach, assuming their “truth” is always right.
“We do want people to be honest, but what I don’t think people realise is, not only could they be wrong, but the way in which they are sharing that feedback can be quite damaging,” she notes.
Murch recommends managers give clear examples to back up their feedback.
“We need to give others concrete examples, so that they understand where we’re coming from, and then our opinion makes sense even if the person disagrees with it,” she says.
When giving feedback, the intention matters as much, if not more, than the content of the discussion.
“We need to ask, ‘Am I actually coming from a place of learning?’ or ‘Am I coming from a place of being right?’,” she says.
If you are open-minded and curious, then the feedback content will naturally fall into place.
“People can tell if you’re really interested in their perspective,” Murch says.
“The trick is to work out whether you really are leading by listening, and if you’re actually interested in other people, so that, when you share feedback, the person feels they are part of the conversation.”
Focus on the reception
The concept of feedback, as Hattie notes, has moved on from the notion that feedback is something that is delivered, to an emphasis on the feedback being adequately received and “digested”.
People think feedback is something “you just give, and then magically things happen”, but it must be a dynamic, two-way process, Hattie argues.
“What we ask in assessing its value is, was the feedback heard, was it understood and was it actionable?
“If you can focus on the recipient, check that they understand what you are saying, and if you get that part right, you can dramatically increase the effectiveness of feedback,” he adds.
Psychologist and corporate consultant Clare Mann agrees and says it is imperative that the feedback conversation is approached with empathy for the other person.
Rather than blaming someone for a misstep, she says, it is wise to consider whether they have had a tough time of late and what their version of events may be.
Once you have provided feedback, Mann recommends checking that you are both on the same page by putting the responsibility on you, the issuer of the feedback, to make your points clear.
“You may say, ‘So that I can be absolutely sure I made myself clear, could you put in your words what you think I meant by that?’,” she says.
“That way, if it’s misunderstood, it’s my fault, because I didn’t make myself clear. It’s so subtle, but it makes a big difference.”
Language and tone
The choice of words is also extremely important, says Mann. Using “we” instead of “you”, for example, can change the tenor of the discussion.
“By using ‘we’, it does something neurologically in the brain – it creates a sense we are solving an issue together as opposed to ‘I’m perfect, but you need to get your act together’,” she says.
If a specific issue needs to be raised, avoid the word “why” – as in, “Why didn’t you do this?” – because this puts the other person on the defensive.
“Asking instead ‘what’ happened in a situation, and not ‘why’, gives a person the room to explain,” she says. “For example, you could say to an employee, ‘I notice that you are missing deadlines. What is happening there?’.”
Mann also recommends focusing on asking “open” rather than “closed” questions, as this allows the deliverer of feedback to gather more information and bond with the recipient.
“Lots of open-ended questions give the other person the time to say what they need to say, and that investment is gold, because every time you give people your time as a manager, they’re warming to you,” she says.
When feedback fails
Despite your best efforts with communication and tone, feedback could be misinterpreted. Hattie says sometimes the best solution is practical.
“In the workplace, sometimes the best form of feedback is to simply re-teach the information,” he says.
“Teaching would ideally come before feedback, as it is distinct from feedback, so if something isn’t working, then teach it again.”
However, if it becomes clear that the feedback is routinely not being heard or taken on board, that is where you need to enter a dialogue.
“But it shouldn’t be, ‘You misunderstood me, you are wrong, you are bad’,” Hattie says. “It should be, ‘Let’s have a dialogue. I need to improve what I’m saying here, because I’m not making my suggestion to you to improve very clear, am I?’.”
Workplace culture within each organisation has an influence on the quality of feedback.
Hattie argues that companies should preference an “improvement mentality” over a “change mentality” culture.
“If I have a change mentality, then it comes down to whether a worker meets certain criteria, because all I want you to do is either change or not change,” he says.
An improvement mentality, however, avoids this duality, and the recipient realises that the feedback is not being given for “any nasty or vindictive reason,” Hattie says.
“If you’re in a culture where the feedback given is all about improvement, then you want to know what you’re not doing well,” he says.
Mann notes that a robust work culture can act as a vital counterpoint to a human tendency to run from feedback – especially in tough times, such as an economic recession or pandemic.
“If we don’t have a culture in which it’s safe to give and receive feedback, with an open mind and genuine willingness to learn, it could become very personal,” Mann says.
“Then feedback can be perceived as an attack on identity rather than merely talking about an aspect of what someone is doing.”
Some managers may argue that remote working makes it hard to give feedback, but Murch disagrees.
“It’s not the technology that makes feedback good or bad, it’s the content and the intent,” she says.
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Taking feedback in your stride
We are all on the receiving end of feedback at one time or another – whether from our boss, our colleagues or others in our lives – and, of course, there will be times when this feedback will get under your skin.
Murch says that, in order to become good feedback recipients, we need to be aware of our “triggers”.
“It doesn’t matter how much you teach people to give feedback – your feedback culture will be stifled unless you also teach people how to receive it,” Murch says.
If we become defensive when receiving feedback, we can’t hear the point the other person is making.
“Our learning opportunities decrease, but also relationally it has an impact on people wanting to ever give us feedback again,” Murch says.
Mann says that, when we are annoyed or bothered by specific feedback, it is worth doing some self-detective work.
“Ask yourself, what it is about the feedback that specifically bothers you and give it an adjective or a label,” she says.
“Often it’s not what has been said – it’s the fact that that manager has not really listened to you, or it could be your own self-esteem, or that you are a perfectionist.”
Finally, remember that, at the end of the day, it’s just feedback.
“We are so much more than our jobs, so try to separate what do from who you are,” Mann says.
The difference between feedback and criticism
In 2018, LinkedIn compiled insights from various data on feedback trends that revealed workers were hungry for the “right” kind of feedback.
As for frequency, PwC research found that 60 per cent of workers wanted feedback on a daily or weekly basis, while for employees under 30 years old that figure was even higher at 72 per cent.
Meanwhile, in a survey by international research firm Zenger and Folkman, 92 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance”.
Crucially, feedback is distinct from criticism, and it is vital to understand the difference between the two, says Clare Mann, psychologist and corporate consultant.
“Feedback is to criticism what aggression is to assertiveness,” Mann says.
“When we are aggressive, we are saying what we want or telling someone else, and undermining the respect for them as a person.”
Conversely, assertiveness is less personal, and it comes from a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.
“The difference is in the attitude behind the feedback, which, with criticism, is often exasperated, and it’s not collegial,” Mann says.
“Whereas with feedback, true feedback, there is a genuine opportunity for someone to do something different, to make a change or respond.”