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It Pays To Be Candid: Feedback In Business

Apr 23, 2008
The ability to both give and receive candid performance feedback is critical in highly dynamic, fast-moving organizations. "Too-nice bosses often make workplace worse" is the title of Jared Sandberg's recent Wall Street Journal article. "By avoiding confrontation, not giving unpleasant feedback, a hands-off manager can allow problems to ferment."

Lowrie Beacham, manager of a fitness company, disliked confronting people or making decisions that favored one staffer over another, especially when two employees were vying to be in charge of the new fitness center.

"Instead of having one bad day and getting over it, it went on for literally years." What resulted was a dysfunctional workplace, so he gave up his management role. Instead of avoiding confrontations and decisions or giving up your position altogether, here are some simple guidelines for giving and receiving feedback effectively.

1) Focus on actions, not attitude. When you say to an employee, "Your attitude is not very professional," it's like saying, "I don't like your height." Don't be personal. An attitude is more like a personality trait. You're on much safer ground if you focus on actions instead. People are much less likely to resist the critique or defend themselves.

1) Be specific. Prepare your feedback with the journalist's formula: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Who was involved, what happened, where did it happen, when did it happen, how did it affect others? You might not know the Why until the feedback; in fact, you might not ever know, so you need to be as specific as possible with the facts you have.

3) Be accurate and have documentation. When you're giving feedback, be sure your facts are right. Write them down. All those dates and numbers, what people said, it all needs to be accurately noted. "The palest ink is better than the best memory," according to the ancient Chinese, so document your feedback and have on hand any documentation relevant to the critique.

4) Be inquiring. Before giving feedback, you need to learn everything you can about the situation. During the feedback, keep asking questions. Questions asked, both ways, during the critique help to develop plans for future action.

5) Deliver in a timely manner. Be sure you give feedback before both your memories have faded. Doug Larson, an English racer, said, "A lot of people mistake a short memory for a clear conscience." You lose impact if you delay.

6) Have future expectations. It's not enough to say, "You were shouting at me." You also need to spell out your future expectations: "I want you to speak calmly to me in the future." Don't belabor past behaviors. Bring them up, but remember that one of the purposes of feedback is to influence the future in a positive way.

7) Give employee goals. How will they know if they're there if they don't know where they're going? Personal or company goals - both need to be discussed and set to give the feedback more meaning. Instead of saying: "It's important that you deliver your code on January 30," say instead, "It's important that you deliver your code on January 30 so we can meet our launch date, deliver on our promise to our customers and then celebrate during our launch party." Goals are also values. What are the values of your company?

8) Give multidirectional feedback. Feedback must flow in all directions. Down from managers to front-line performers, but also up from front-line performers to managers. Even laterally to co-workers. Everyone needs to give and to receive in order to know how they're doing for the company to function at its maximum effectiveness. For example, if your team is being compensated based on the performance of the entire team, do you think it's wise to wait for management to speak about a problem? Often management isn't aware of a problem until it's brought to their attention by a colleague, a botched project or a missed deadline. The last two instances are too late. If you think, "It's not my problem," guess what?! Yes, it is; you're part of the problem.

9) Be supportive. What's the reason for feedback? To show how smart you are by noticing someone else's foibles? To take revenge for some slight the employee cast upon you in the past? Or is it to keep improving relationships, and thus the company. Strive to offer feedback to support your colleagues and help them reach their potential.

10) Continue to give feedback. Don't do it just once. Regular feedback is the most effective way to let the employee know how they're doing. And how satisfied you are with their work. If no feedback is given, or given rarely, it could be that the employee may feel over-confident while performing shoddy work, or that they might be waiting for the other shoe to fall.

Remember that we all need feedback to help us see ourselves through others' eyes. The compass of feedback lets us know if we're on course or if we need our GPS tuned up.
About the Author
Terry Gault trains and coaches business professionals in the art of communication and presentation through our experiential methodology. Since 1990, The Henderson Group has helped Fortune 500 companies worldwide improve employee productivity and business results through the development of communication skills. You can find us online at SpeakFearlessly.net and HendersonGroup.com
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