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Feedback—the exchange of information about the status and quality of work products—can be used to motivate, support, direct, correct and regulate work efforts and outcomes and ensures that managers and employees are in sync and agree on the standards and expectations of the work to be performed. But don't confuse feedback with a performance appraisal. While there may be some small similarities between the two, they fundamentally differ:
When managers regularly provide feedback about the quality and quantity of their employees' work, they're more likely to fully understand what is needed to continue good performance, correct poor performance or improve on mediocre performance. Feedback also provides you with clues about how you are aiding or hindering your subordinates' work. When you actively solicit feedback from your subordinates and discover obstacles to their success, you'll be able to remove them in a timely fashion. The best way to find solutions to common problems is to collaborate, and this collaboration requires conversation.
Feedback also builds relationships because when major challenges are presented, the environment of dialogue—and hopefully trust—is already established. This makes it easier to discuss and deal with real issues when they occur. Periodic feedback sessions give the manager and employee multiple opportunities to calibrate and recalibrate their joint efforts. Like two paths diverging, the longer it takes between the time the manager and employee speak about a performance problem, the greater the distance will be between planned and actual performance improvement. That's why continuous feedback is required for increased productivity and successful partnerships.
While most feedback should be informal, impromptu, on-the-spot and close to the time of the actual performance, planned feedback also is important. When difficult information needs to be shared, managers may delay or avoid giving feedback.
Managers who rely on performance appraisals as their primary management tool are known to save up a year's worth of criticism and give it to the employee in one big dose at the annual performance evaluation, which may be catastrophic for some employees. Employees may leave—or be terminated—upon finding out that they have been unaware of poor performance for 10 months.
While negative feedback is unavoidable, it can be a positive element in helping employees grow and improve—just don't give it all in one sitting. Supervisors can manage negative feedback by giving it in small, manageable doses. And when you give negative feedback during a feedback session vs. at an annual appraisal, the employee has the opportunity and time to digest the information and make corrections.
Feedback With Purpose
Employees want feedback delivered with clear improvement plans. When you remove judgment from feedback, they're more likely to receive information in the spirit in which it was intended. That's why coaching supports peak performance. It helps to build and maintain a relationship with the employee that is closer to a partnership instead of one that is adversarial. Judgment can be reserved for annual performance reviews, although some would argue that effective supervision and frequent feedback would negate the need to have formal evaluations as a tool to manage performance.
Constructive feedback given in the form of ratings is often counterproductive because ratings in their purest form are simply judgments. Many people react to ratings rather than hearing the important information behind the ratings. Performance interventions must give the employee enough information about improvement points and the right amount of support to change them. Improved performance only occurs through proper coaching, guidance, training and employee support. The requirement for improved performance is open and honest dialogue-performance conversations.
Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR, is an HR practitioner, lecturer, researcher and author. His new book, Performance Conversations: An Alternative to Appraisal
(Fenestra Books, 2006), outlines a structured feedback and supervision system that uses continuous dialogue and adjustments to manage work efforts, outcomes and behaviors. He can be reached at
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