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Constructive Criticism: Why Narrative Feedback Doesn't Have to Sting

Like most people who receive written feedback, Stephane Brutus, Ph.D., is not immune to hurtful comments.

But unlike most people, Brutus, an associate professor of management and chair of the department of management at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal, has studied how giving and receiving narrative comments in performance appraisals can impact individual performance.

“When I get evaluated [by peers] the feedback that I get is mostly numbers and is heavily quantitative in nature. Lots of data is provided,”he said, speaking to a group of HR practitioners at the World Human Resources Congress in Montreal in late September 2010.

Narrative feedback from students, however, can often sting. “Some said I didn’t do too much teaching. Some were very vague; some detailed,” he recalled. One person wrote, “I was a very good teacher; a little lazy, though, but good.”

Not only was it hurtful, he said, it wasn’t constructive in that he couldn’t act on it.

Brutus said that HR practitioners can insist managers and supervisors use detailed, constructive words instead of numbered rankings when doing performance evaluations. And learn how to encourage managers to use narrative feedback positively to impact employee performance.

Write It Out

“Numbers and words have a different flavor in performance evaluations,” said Brutus, who in addition to being an instructor is an industrial and organizational psychologist.

“The difference is significant and has implications for evaluators, evaluatees and other ‘users’ of evaluation systems.”

In his research, Brutus asserts that narrative comments convey more personal focus than ratings and, as a result, lead to stronger reactions from recipients. “There is something powerful about reading text that has been written about you.”

The richer and more nuanced the better. However, “this richness” can often be subjective and unclear and unrelated to performance, offering opportunities for abuse. Feedback, he said, can be a double-edged sword.

“Feedback if not done well can have a detrimental impact on performance,” he said. “If you’re going to do it, do it well.”

In studying the topic, Brutus said, “supervisors give the most clear comments; not so with subordinates”—likely because subordinates may fear retaliation from being more direct.

Citing several studies, including a white paper he wrote for Human Resource Management Review in 2009, Brutus added that training managers on how to write and evaluate comments has been shown to lead to an increase in the amount and specificity of comments.

Look at it this way: “Putting it on paper helps me validate the soundness of my thinking,” he said. Those evaluating employees should be forced to write out their assessments rather than grade them numerically because it will “make them better evaluators. It makes them better at how to define competencies and communicate” them, he said.

While many in the audience disagreed with him, Brutus said, “I believe there’s a spillover effect to informal feedback behavior. I think managers who do this will be better able to give feedback to their subordinates. By forcing them to write, they’ll be more comfortable with other informal feedback behaviors.”

Many evaluators in the audience said they agreed that evaluations done in a way in which the manager gives feedback after the employee has had a chance to look at the evaluation before sitting down for their annual performance review works well—even though it may be uncomfortable. But another participant said there should be no surprises or nervousness when sitting down to talk to an employee “you see every day.”

Brutus suggested, too, that managers be made to write a page about their employees’ performance each year. “I think they’ll pay [more] attention” to said employees “and get more details” about their performance.

Giving and receiving feedback is hard for anyone, Brutus said, noting that “the younger generation is more comfortable giving and receiving feedback.

“If you look at ‘American Idol,’ ‘The Apprentice,’ ‘Survivor,’ [the feedback given on those shows] is all done in a relatively brutal way.” Not that he’s in favor of the delivery, he quickly added.

The future of feedback will be fascinating because of this and other factors, he said.

“A lot of the younger generation—they write differently; the language they use is different. How will that translate into how they write comments? It’ll be interesting to see how that gets carried through in coming years.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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