Good Feedback Is Crucial to a Productive Organization

By Bill Leonard Nov 20, 2008
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Good feedback from managers and accurate appraisals of employee performance can pay huge dividends to employers—especially in these troubled economic times.

The problem, however, is that most people tend to believe that managers provide lousy feedback. Nearly 80 percent of respondents to an informal poll given during a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webcast, “Giving Performance Feedback So People Get It,” emphasized this point by reporting that their managers did not provide good feedback on their job performance.

While this informal poll was far from scientific, both webcast presenters said that other research and more formal surveys have revealed similar results. The problem might lie in the fact that many managers don’t know what good feedback is and how to provide it to employees, said webcast presenter Leila Bulling Towne.

“You really need to think about what good feedback is,” said Bulling Towne, the president and CEO of The Bulling Towne Group. “Good feedback helps people understand how they are performing and will help improve their productivity.”

And in today’s shaky economy, improving productivity has taken on a renewed importance among employers, she said. The problem with most feedback provided by managers is that it’s the wrong type given at the wrong time.

“Good feedback reinforces good behavior; the goal is to improve performance,” Bulling Towne said.

But too often the only feedback employees receive is when they do something wrong. Employers and managers tend to miss opportunities to offer praise when an employee does a good job, according to Bulling Towne.

“Praise can increase productivity and boost motivation,” she said. “Constructive criticism is also useful and can help in improving performance.”

But good feedback must be more than just reactions to job performance, according to webcast presenter David Goldman. Feedback includes providing direction and setting goals and objectives for employees.

“Surveys have shown that when employees are asked why they failed, they usually respond: ‘No one told me what to do,’” said Goldman, who is an attorney and shareholder with the law firm Littler Mendelson P.C.

Goldman said some might view that response as an excuse but added that evidence has demonstrated many employers often don’t provide appropriate direction. He acknowledged, however, that several management challenges that employers face make providing accurate and fair feedback a much tougher job than it appears.

One of the challenges, he said, is that business leaders believe most of their employees are above average. He called it the 80-20 rule because employers tend to categorize their workforces the following way:

  • 30 percent superstars
  • 50 percent middle stars
  • 20 percent falling stars.

In that breakdown, 80 percent of workers are categorized as average and above. Goldman said all three categories present unique challenges to managers. For example, Goldman said the superstars cite a lack of feedback as problematic. The lack of feedback can leave top performers feeling neglected, which can hamper their motivation severely, he said. Keeping top performers happy is especially crucial when there is a strong demand for highly skilled workers.

“Top performers can easily vote with their feet, so motivating and retaining these workers is a top goal and challenge for all employers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the middle category of workers offers employers an opportunity to make a significant impact on the productivity of the organization, because they represent the largest segment of the workforce, according to Goldman and Bulling Towne.

“If an employer, by using proper motivation with good feedback, can get 5 to 10 percent of middle stars on board and improve their performance, it can have a huge impact on an organization,” Goldman said.

Most employees in the bottom category have lost their motivation and have become disengaged, Bulling Towne said. Active coaching of these employees and efforts to restore their motivation and improve their work behaviors can work wonders, she added.

“Coaching new hires and providing feedback from the moment they start a new job can keep many employees from falling into this trap and being categorized as a falling star,” she said.

When a person is hired, the employer should prepare for their arrival by establishing a buddy or network of contacts for the new employee and have their work area ready when they arrive for the first day, Bulling Towne suggested.

“I know many employees who get off on the wrong foot because no one knows where they’re supposed to sit or don’t have a workstation ready for them when they arrive for the first day of work,” Bulling Towne said. “What kind of impression is that going to make on a new hire? Not a very favorable one, and most likely employees treated this way will be coming to work just to sharpen up their resumes.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

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