Advice

How to use feedback to improve performance

31 May 2001 By P. Swinburne

Feedback is arguably the most effective tool in any manager’s toolkit, as well as one of the cheapest

It can be used to encourage people to learn, to raise their morale and motivation, and to improve their performance. Feedback underpins almost everything that a good people manager is required to do.

To achieve these benefits, organisations need to develop a culture that values positive feedback. This is where the balance of positive to negative feedback is around 80 per cent to 20 per cent – reflecting the performance levels achieved by most people – and where giving and taking feedback is an accepted part of everyday working life. It is also a culture which assumes that feedback is given constructively. 

The observations that I have made in the course of running many performance management and personal development courses suggest that there are a few

people who still receive no feedback. Others are given it only once a year as part of an appraisal process, while an increasing number receive feedback two or three times a year in formal performance review meetings. But it is still uncommon for people to receive it informally on a regular basis.

It is still the case that feedback often means that you are given a rollicking for doing something wrong. Most managers I have talked to say that, to the extent that they receive any feedback at all, the balance is around 20 per cent positive to 80 per cent negative – a situation that does not accurately reflect their performance. They estimate that they do between 75 and 90 per cent of their job well, yet satisfactory performance tends to be covered swiftly in formal appraisal or review meetings. Instead, most of the discussion focuses on those aspects that need improving. 

Despite this strong negative bias, my observations suggest that most managers – though by no means all – are more comfortable giving positive, rather than negative, feedback. Similarly, most people feel more comfortable receiving positive feedback. Nearly everyone finds it difficult to take negative feedback. 

This anecdotal evidence suggests that we are a long way from using feedback well. We are reluctant to give it and poor at receiving it, and this often has damaging effects on performance. But things don’t have to be this way.

Constructive feedback, which the recipient can take on board and learn from, involves:

  • making your statement simple and to the point, focusing on specific examples of what the person did;
  • seeking a response;
  • leaving the choice of whether or not to change behaviour with the recipient;
  • speaking in an adult-to-adult way that shows respect.

A small investment in learning the basics listed here will pay off considerably for most organisations. 

1) Be respectful

The acceptability of any feedback depends on how it is given, rather than what is said. Tone of voice and body language are as important as the words used. A good guideline is to imagine – regardless of who you are actually talking to – that you are giving the feedback to your boss. Adopt the same respectful words, tone and body language, and you will create the right atmosphere. 

2) Get the balance right

It is important to strike the right balance between positive and negative feedback. Many people have been taught to sandwich negative comments between two pieces of positive feedback. Although this may be appropriate when feedback is a rare event, it can cause the recipient to discount the positive comments and see them as a sop to make “real”, negative feedback more palatable.

When feedback is given more regularly, it becomes possible to give whatever feedback is relevant at a particular moment, without worrying about whether it is positive, negative or mixed. What counts is the balance of positive to negative over time.

3) Invite a response

Whether the feedback is positive or negative, the receiver will learn more if they are given a chance to reply.

“What helped you do that so well?” or “what was happening here?” are examples of open questions that invite a response. These help the person to think through and learn from the feedback. 

4) Learn to receive

If feedback is to be of use, people need to learn not only how to give it but also how to take it.

We often “punish” feedback-givers by reacting defensively to negative feedback or discounting positive feedback, for example, by saying: “It’s just my job”. A good tip to remember is that, if you find a conversation getting into a defend/ attack spiral, you are going nowhere.

5) Accept no substitutes

Feedback is sometimes confused with other, related processes. For example, thanking someone for a job well done is a way of giving that person recognition, but it is not sufficiently specific or behavioural to be feedback.

Neither is it two-way. Recognition has morale benefits and, possibly, builds people’s confidence, but it does not help them to learn and improve their performance in the way that feedback does. 

Similarly, challenging or confronting individuals is a way of raising concerns about underperformance or unacceptable behaviour. But in this situation the recipient’s behaviour has to change, and the manager’s aim is to gain acceptance of this. In feedback, the choice of whether or not to change is left to the receiver.

6) Keep coaching for later

When feedback becomes two-way, it moves towards coaching, although coaching is more structured and usually goes beyond one session. There is also a difference in how the exchange starts. Feedback is usually initiated by a statement from the giver, while coaching is initiated by the receiver and starts with questions. Coaching often follows feedback, as it can be effective only once the receiver wants to accept, or has accepted, the need to change.

It is arguable that British managers have given little feedback to their staff and have rarely taken action over their behaviour until it becomes necessary to challenge them or even start disciplinary proceedings. Regular, constructive feedback reduces the need to challenge and discipline people in this way. Instead it puts the focus on helping them to learn from what they are good at, as well as from where they are going wrong. 

The dos and don’ts of giving constructive feedback

Do ensure that your comments are:

  • objective and based on facts or observations;
  • specific;
  • focused on behaviour, not personality (what people do, not what they are);
  • based on behaviour that can be controlled by the recipient of the feedback;
  • timely;
  • given in an adult-to-adult, respectful, non-judgmental way;
  • regular and informal, not only given as part of the appraisal process;
  • an appropriate balance of positive and negative;
  • non-prescriptive, leaving the recipient with the choice of whether or not to change;
  • in amounts from which the person can learn;
  • two-way.

Don’t:

  • start by asking questions – for example: “Guess what’s in my mind?”;
  • make a statement, and then soften it by going round the houses with ifs, buts and maybes;
  • go straight to suggestions of how things might be put right;
  • talk down to people, tell them off or adopt an “I know best” attitude.

Tips for receiving feedback

  • Listen to the message.
  • Do not defend or argue.
  • Clarify if you are unsure.
  • Accept praise; don’t write it off.
  • Focus on what is being said; don’t feel that you have to agree or disagree.
  • Ensure that you understand what is being said; show that you understand.
  • Consider asking what they would like to see done differently.
  • Thank the giver – they have just taken a risk for you.

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