Better-boss.com 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. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.
This blog uses the "feedback" tag than any other label. There is a reason for that. After one-on-ones, routine feedback to your employees will impart more benefits than any other action you can take as a manager. Forget about being a "servant leader" or "transformative" or being the boss with brilliant strategic ideas. Clear, specific feedback to all of your employees every single week will have far more impact than any of these.
We have made similar claims in previous posts. Simply saying it doesn't make it true, however. Let's give a proper argument to convince those who haven't begun integrating feedback into their everyday management.
Feedback motivates behavioral change
The feedback formula we advocate tells people a specific behavior they engaged in and a specific outcome or outcomes. Compare the two comments: "Please make sure to get your project report in on time." versus "When you get your project report in late, it prevents [coworker] from being able to complete their part of the job." When we hear an impact attached to our actions, it resonates. It helps us see the action in context. The first one communicates that the boss is mad at me. The second one communicates that my actions have real-world consequences that I need to consider.
Feedback works in a way that praise does not. A sentiment like "great job" is nice, but it does not tell someone what they need to know to keep doing a thing well. Feedback works in a way that reprimands do not. A sentiment like "this was bad" let's people know they messed up, but doesn't give any meaningful reason why we should try to fix it. ("The boss is mad" doesn't count. The boss is an idiot who doesn't understand which parts of my job are important.)
Feedback makes people more secure
Imagine being in a relationship with someone who never told you whether they liked you one way or the other. You make them dinner—they eat it but don't comment on it. You buy them a birthday present—they use it but don't say whether they like it. You plan a date—they go with you but don't indicate whether they are having any fun.
Feedback is necessary for human social interaction. Virtually everyone who read the above scenario thought, "Well they probably don't like you." Consider that. No feedback equals "things are wrong." Yet the above scenario is a perfect analogue to how most of us experience our work.
Do you want people doing great work, or do you want them constantly wondering if they are messing up? Most of us have an enormous amount of anxiety about our jobs because we simply have no indication whether the boss (and by proxy the organization) likes our work. This is even true of your top performers. Top performers think they are doing great work. But they still need to know whether you think they are doing great work. Almost no one is so egotistical that they are immune this kind of worry.
Feedback makes later work easier
Bosses are mandated by the company to comment on employees' work in at least occasionally: annual performance appraisals and disciplinary issues. A bad (or average) boss can get away with never saying anything about how you are doing except in these two cases.
Most bosses dread these two parts of their job. Appraisals and disciplinary procedures are a lot of work no matter how you slice it. But without routine feedback, they are like taking a calculus test without ever having practiced any examples.
Feedback is the "doing your homework" of performance management. For good reason, HR demands proof that the employee knows about issues and has been given opportunities to improve. Without feedback, it is impossible to take any disciplinary steps. It doesn't matter if the problem has been going on for years. It doesn't matter if the problem is causing major breakdowns on your team. You might be ready to fire an employee. HR doesn't care. If you haven't been giving feedback, you must start at square one and pretend like this is a brand new issue.
It is a similar story with performance appraisals. The only difference is that they have to be done—you can't just skip an appraisal because you don't have enough information. Without having documented feedback throughout the year, appraisals are a massive workload. You have to dig through emails, projects, whatever you can get your hands on, to come up with things to comment on about each employee's work. When you give routine feedback, though, appraisals are easy.
It is impossible overstate how valuable it is to have documentation of feedback when you tackle these big performance tasks. I have had HR staff tell me they are "blown away" by how prepared I am, both when dealing with performance issues and with justifying top appraisal scores for my top performers.
The three reasons we have laid out above are not the only reasons that feedback is important. And they all amount to the same thing: better long-term performance. Frequent, casual feedback gives you a team that is continuously changing their work behaviors for the better, is not wasting time worrying about where they stand in the eyes of their boss, and can sail through the big, infrequent performance conversations. A team like that is going to significantly outperform the average team.
I believe that average bosses are trying. Talking about performance is hard, and nobody is handing out prizes for giving feedback to your employees. The path of least resistance is to avoid those discussions until they can't be avoided. Better bosses recognize that feedback is important.