It’s a rare person who wants to be completely ignored by their boss. It’s only natural to want to know how you are perceived. Yet getting feedback at work can be fraught. It’s widely accepted that regular feedback can help staff to build on their strengths and improve weaknesses, but the process can feel awkward for managers and demotivating for employees. This all begs the questions: How much feedback is effective? Can you get too much?
Few would argue that feedback is a waste of time. In many cases, it is the quickest and most direct way to correct mistakes, to prevent problems from festering, and to set employees on the right path. At its best, feedback can be transformational. “It can completely change an individual’s life,” says Sue Ingram, a human resource consultant and coach at management training provider Converse Well, in the UK. She says that an external opinion can help bridge the gap between what staff are aiming to achieve and how they are perceived by others. “It gives staff members information they don’t know about themselves about what to improve,” she says.
It took manager Alex Mastin, the chief executive of Home Grounds in Portland Oregon, a long time to get comfortable giving negative feedback to employees. “However, in the long run, it’s preferable to be honest with someone. It gives them the opportunity to improve and it’s far better than me bottling up frustration and allowing problems to potentially escalate,” says Mastin.
What negative feedback can do
Yet, as Mastin says, the act of giving and receiving negative feedback can feel awkward for both managers and employees. And criticism can be demotivating. A 2019 Gallup study found that receiving negative feedback had pushed almost 30% of respondents to start actively looking for a new job.
Much depends on how well the staffer thinks they are doing. Harvard Business School found that feedback that is more negative than the employee’s self-assessment can be detrimental to workplace performance and rarely leads to improvement.
Yes, delivery matters too
How feedback is delivered, and how often, can have an impact too. A formal feedback session, such as a performance review, can feel like nothing more than a performative exercise in which the manager is under obligation to prove they are managing their staff by delivering arbitrary critiques. On the other hand, it can be stressful working with a manager who constantly gives feedback on the fly. Leaders who do this are often under stress themselves, according to Ingram. “They’re anxious about work getting done and they’re anxious about it being done right,” she says. This can lead to micromanaging: a situation where the boss feels there is only one correct way to complete tasks and can’t stand to see workers deviate from it. “Then the boss has a tendency to be hanging over people and be over-critical,” she adds.
Striving to get the balance right
But what about managers who are somewhere in the middle, trying to strike the right balance of critiquing without overwhelming workers? They deserve our sympathy.
Getting this right is no easy task, because there is no one rule that will work with everyone, says Kimberley Tyler-Smith, a New York-based manager and vice-president at Resume Worded. “I’ve found that every person is different and that everyone has different needs,” she says. “What works for one employee may not work for another.”
Research bears this out. The same Gallup study that found criticism could push some workers to want to leave a company also found that 20% of employees wouldn’t look for another job after receiving negative feedback, and just over 10% still felt engaged in their jobs despite receiving criticism.
Know what works for you
According to Ingram, there are three types of employee: those who find it hard to deal with authority figures and feel threatened by feedback; those who take feedback to heart and feel crushed by criticism; and those who “have skin like a rhino, so you can just give feedback to them straight and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Thanks very much.’ ”
Each type has a different threshold for criticism and will respond to some forms of feedback better than others. For the most sensitive, Ingram advises managers to leave time for them to process what they have heard before discussing next steps. “Sometimes it can be a bit much to take in, so I’ll say ‘I want you to think about this and let’s have another conversation tomorrow’, she says. For those on the receiving end, it’s worth asking yourself how you respond to comments, what kind of feedback you would like to get from your manager, and how you would like it to be delivered. Perhaps you would like to have time to think over any criticism before discussing any changes you can make.
Tyler-Smith and Mastin use different techniques. Tyler-Smith says, “If you [as a manager] can frame your thoughts in a way that helps your employee to understand where they are on their journey or what they need to do next, it can go a long way toward making them feel like they aren’t being attacked or criticised.”
Mastin makes it a two-way process. “I like to invite employees to give me feedback on their own performance before I contribute mine,” he says. “I often find they are far harsher critics of themselves than I am. Then I’m in the fortunate position of alleviating any anxieties they have about their performance and giving additional praise.”
The power of genuine praise
Not all feedback is negative and praise is a powerful workplace motivator. The 2019 Gallup study found that more than half of employees felt engaged at work after receiving praise from a manager. Other studies have found that groups as a whole can improve their performance if they receive a higher rate of praise than criticism.
Like criticism, praise can be delivered in all sorts of ways whether it’s in front of colleagues or individually, formally or informally, in writing or in conversation. But is there such a thing as too much feedback?
Teachers are often encouraged to give praise and criticism using a 5:1 ratio in order to improve their relationships with students and motivate them. In the workplace, researchers have said using a specific ratio is not a magic formula, but giving a higher rate of praise than criticism in general will have a positive impact. This is because it taps into the main driving forces galvanising employees in the workplace. “It’s not about money,” Ingram says. “The three main motivators are being recognized and valued, contributing, and being appreciated.”
There is one caveat: studies have found that the best kind of praise is “honest, authentic and individualised.” For managers, taking time to give a genuine compliment, rather than something generic can make all the difference, especially as praise has been found to be most meaningful when it is from a direct manager, as opposed to the chief executive or one’s peers.
If that doesn’t happen in your workplace, be assured that you are not alone. In a 2016 study, just one in three workers in the US said they had received recognition or praise at work in the previous week, and it was not uncommon for employees to “feel that their efforts were routinely ignored.”
Far from feedback fatigue, it seems there is room for managers to give much more feedback – particularly of the positive kind.
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