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Take the Fear out of Feedback

Two men sitting at a table talking to each other.

​The ability to give feedback is a superpower. Little nuggets of feedback can change lives. But the word "feedback" has a negative connotation, perhaps because not many people are comfortable giving it.

One mistake many managers make when giving feedback is to focus only on poor performance instead of also speaking to successful performance.

That's according to Tamra Chandler, partner at EY, and Laura Grealish, senior manager at EY, both in Washington state, who co-authored the book Feedback and Other Dirty Words: Why We Fear It, How to Fix It (Berrett-Koehler, 2019). They provided a new outlook on one of the more dreaded duties of HR and managers during their session "Redeeming Feedback for Good" during the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021.

"We need to redeem feedback and start over, because feedback is good for your company," the presenters shared. "You have to lean in and listen in your feedback. If you do, you will outperform those companies who don't."

Chandler and Grealish said teams should allow frank and positive thoughts in their feedback because teams that encourage this will stay together longer. Employees who receive specific praise in the form of feedback performed better at future tasks than their counterparts, they said.

For example, two-thirds of employees whose managers focus on their strengths are "fully engaged." When managers focus on their weaknesses, employee engagement drops to 31 percent.

"Research shows that focusing people on their shortcomings doesn't enable learning. It impairs it," Chandler said. "Our words have the power to inspire, to unlock potential, to lift us up instead of knocking us down. If that doesn't get you on board with fixing feedback ... nothing will."

Most importantly, when supervisors focus on fixing a performance problem through negative feedback, "It's a huge turnoff in the employees' minds," they said. "When we exert control over someone, their performance will actually go down, outcomes suffer, and learning is limited. As a supervisor, remember it's about their future and not your agenda."

Trust and Positivity Are Key

When giving feedback, managers shouldn't be judgmental. Feedback should be intended to help individuals or teams thrive and grow. "If not, then don't fool yourself into thinking it's feedback," they said.

Once a manager and employee develop trust, more valuable and more effective discussions over feedback can be had, they said.

"When there's a trusting relationship, so many good things happen. There's 74 percent less stress, 106 percent more energy, 50 percent more productivity, 60 percent more joy, 70 percent more purpose and 50 percent more retention," Chandler said.

Chandler and Grealish said negativity will kill the process. They recommended that supervisors tie necessary negative feedback to the future: They recommended conveying the message "It's not that you did it wrong. It's that you can do it even better."

Don't Make Feedback Scary

Supervisors should aim to lower employees' fear of receiving feedback. "The last thing an employee wants to hear is, 'Let's set up some time tomorrow for you to visit with me in my office,' " Grealish said. "That is something that will surely lead to a restless night's sleep."

Instead, give small bits of feedback more often, not just annually or biannually. A quick observation, delivered without pomp and circumstance, will have more impact than tedious, formal conversations.

Some do's for delivering feedback that will deepen bonds between the employee and the manager, and expand their relationship:

  • Be clear about the situation the feedback is based on.
  • Focus on the most important thing about the situation.
  • Avoid gossip, rumor and innuendo.
  • Describe what you observed using only facts, not guesses.
  • Share the resulting impact.
  • Explore and plan with the employee what the next step should be.

"Imagine a world where we let go of the fear and embrace the help others offer us, and where our energy, time and momentum are always oriented toward the future," Chandler said.

Receiving Feedback

When receiving feedback, don't rush to respond, Chandler and Grealish recommended. Instead, take time to reflect on the feedback that was given; don't just hear it and move on. Encourage employees to do the same.

Other tips for feedback seekers include asking, "How do my actions impact our team's performance?" and "What's one thing that could make me more effective in my role?" 

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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