Monday, January 11, 2021

The Case for More Frequent Feedback

Actions to take: None at this time. Wait for future posts that describe a better way to give feedback before changing your managerial behavior. 

This is the first in a series of posts on how the better way to give performance feedback to your team. The bulk of this post explains why you should be giving more performance feedback. Future entries in the series get into the details of how. 

Assuming your boss did it in a polite, respectful way, would you want more feedback about your work performance?  

When I ask this question, about 70% of people give an unequivocal “yes.” Another 20% or so will say yes if reassured that their boss would indeed be respectful about it. Interestingly, these figures do not change when you specify negative (AKA corrective) feedback. People get more skeptical that their boss could do it well. Nevertheless, most people are very interested to hear what their boss thinks they need to change about their work. Consider yourself for a moment. Imagine I told you that your boss had two thoughts about your performance, one positive, one corrective. Neither is a particularly big deal. However, your boss would be happy if you kept doing the positive thing, and they’d be happy if you changed your approach regarding the corrective thing. First, do you want to know? Second, which would you choose if you only got to hear one?  

The vast majority of you just thought “yes, I would want to know." A significant majority of you would opt to hear the corrective feedback over the positive feedback. Here is an important truth: most of your employees feel exactly the same. Keep Management Rule #2 in mind while we are discussing feedback. It should come as no surprise that you are not special when it comes to wanting to know what your boss thinks of your work. Your employees are as mature as you are, as invested in their work, as interested in developing their skills, as committed to getting the job done. Think this to yourself: “My team wants more feedback than I am giving them. They crave a better understanding of how I view their work.”  

Some of you are not sold that your employees want more feedback from you because you are not sold that you want more feedback from your boss. We are accustomed to the way things are. Through years being minimally managed, we have inoculated ourselves against the idea that it is good and useful to have a full picture of what our boss thinks of us. Let me show you that you do indeed want more feedback from your boss using the following thought experiment. Think of one of your employees. Think of something they do that annoys you a little. It’s not a big deal, but they’d be more effective if they stopped doing that, or started doing it differently. Guess what, your boss has something like that for you. Do you want to know what it is?  

The last two paragraphs are an argument for why it would be nice to give your team more feedback. However, “nice” doesn’t drive our actions in the workplace, effectiveness does. Luckily, nice and effective happen to be on the same team when it comes to feedback.  

Benefits of more frequent feedback: 

  1. Better, more effective work: This one is obvious. We’re not giving feedback about nothing. We’re giving feedback about 1) the things we would like to see more of, or 2) the things we would like our employees to do differently. If you’re fixing more flaws and reinforcing more successful behaviors, you will see better results from your team. This is huge. It is a compelling enough reason all on its own.  
  2. Self-assured staff: People avoid doing things, even obviously beneficial things, out of uncertainty. For instance, how many of you have held back from sharing ideas or information because you were worried about how others might interpret it? If you are the type who doesn’t get self-conscious about that sort of thing, can you think of coworkers who are? Imagine instead, the very first time you shared an insightful thought or link to useful materials, your manager says, “When you share relevant information about our topics, it helps us make more informed decisions. Keep it up.” After such feedback, a person knows for certain that they should do more of that behavior in the future. 
  3. It is your job: Okay, this stretches the definition of “benefit.” It is just too important to leave off this list. As a manager, your first, most important priority, is to manage. It is a cliché that bosses don’t do any work themselves, they just sit around telling other people how to do their work. But that is how things are supposed to go (though I wouldn't phrase it so cynically). Our job, our work, is to make our employees more effective. Performance feedback is one of the best tools you have to accomplish this goal. 
  4. Easier (and better) year-end appraisals: If you start giving frequent performance feedback, and tracking it when you give it, year-end appraisals become very easy. It is as simple as gathering the feedback you gave an employee over the course of a year, sorting it into whatever categories your company has for rating performance, and using the feedback as your basis for judging employees’ work in those categories. This is also better, more accurate, and less biased than the way you currently write your appraisals. (A later blog entry will delve into more detail about the connection between feedback and year-end appraisals.) 

With so many reasons to do a thing, you would expect it to be a universal managerial behavior. Of course, it is not. There are enough incentives not to give feedback that we could fill half a dozen blog entries: it is awkward, it is uncomfortable, the employee might argue, it goes badly when I try, there is tension afterward, my manager doesn’t care if I do it (or, my manager sees it as micro-managing and is maybe a little threatened by my willingness to be an engaged boss). For these reasons and others, bosses tend to avoid feedback conversations except for big successes and big problems. Better bosses push through the awkwardness and do the job.

Finally, when I say “more frequent performance feedback,” I am likely talking about much more feedback than you currently give your staff. One distinct piece of performance feedback per employee per week is a good starting place. That may sound like a lot. It is actually very easy once you develop the knack. 

As with my previous post about one-on-ones, I do not recommend that you make any changes without a clear plan of action. You’ll likely startle and confuse your employees. A bad false start could spoil them and spoil you on consistently giving performance feedback ever again. Stay tuned to this blog for what will likely be dozens of entries on a better, more effective way to give performance feedback.  

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