Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Word "Feedback"

Actions to take: If you or one of your employees have a negative association with the word "feedback" that you cannot overcome, it is fine to stop using that word. Ensure that you are continuing to do all the things that word represents, however. advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. Shoot for a 5:1 positive-to-corrective feedback ratio. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

I had employee once request that I not use the word "feedback." She liked the comments on her work and agreed with the process. In fact, she proactively requested feedback on her performance more than any other employee. But the word "feedback" had unambiguously negative connotations for her. She saw "positive feedback" as an oxymoron. Whenever I asked "Can I give you some feedback?" her heart rate shot through the roof, even though she knew that it would be a positive comment 9 times out of 10. 

She screwed up her courage and explained this to me in a one-on-one. We discussed it. I never came around to the idea that "feedback" means something negative. She never quite came around to the idea that "feedback" is neutral. It didn't really matter that we agree with each other on that. What mattered was that we understood one another. I asked her to choose a different standard question that I would ask instead of "Can I give you some feedback?" She ultimately decided on "Can I comment on that?"

Some people, bosses and employees alike, are uncomfortable with the word feedback. The important thing is that you give frequent, actionable comments on your employees' work behaviors, helping them have a clear picture of how to be effective in the future. I summarize that concept with the word "feedback." Feel free to use whatever word or phrasing you like, however.

One caveat: if most of your employees claim to have a problem with the word feedback, that is a red flag. They are probably not scared of the word. They are probably scared of you, or at least scared of the things your position represents. Take a hard look at your organizational culture. Is there low trust? If so, your organization (and remember, you represent the organization) may be engaging in activities that punish frank and honest communication. Take a hard look at your own demeanor. Are your employees responding to your attempts at building a trusting relationship? If not, you may be doing something that leans too heavily on your power as "the boss," making them wary of you. 

Try your best to get away from the idea that "feedback" means something bad. Positive feedback is feedback. In a trusting work relationship, even negative feedback isn't bad. It just means there is something the employee could do a little better next time. If there is just no getting away from the negative connotation, though, then stay focused on what is important—the comments you provide to your employees, not the name you call those comments.

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