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Five Most Common Myths about Employee Feedback

The last few years have seen a dramatic shift in how people talk and think about employee feedback. Traditionally, feedback has been discussed and researched through the lens of the annual or semi-annual performance review. A manager might only be expected to formally evaluate the performance of each individual employee once or twice a year, and offer feedback based on this evaluation. You don’t have to search very hard to find complaints about the value of these annual and semi-annual feedback sessions.  Fortunately, and due in part to technological advances, we’ve seen a dramatic shift toward more continuous performance management, which includes delivering real-time feedback throughout the year, month, week, or even workday.

New performance management technology helps managers, coworkers, and employees give and receive high quality feedback on an ongoing basis, thereby enhancing individual, team, and organizational performance. While having access to these tools may be an important first step, great feedback only happens when feedback providers and receivers are equipped with an understanding of the right and wrong ways to give and seek out feedback. As an industrial-organizational psychologist with special interest in feedback, I have spent a considerable amount of time combing through the vast amount of information on this topic, both from scientific journals, and the popular press. During my investigation I have made an uncomfortable, but unsurprising, discovery. That is, much of what has been written about feedback in the popular press does not align with the scientific record. Simply put, a lot of what you’re reading about employee feedback is wrong.

Based on reviewing a huge scientific body of work dedicated to understanding the topic, here are the 5 most common myths about employee feedback.

Myth #1 – Any feedback is better than no feedback

I know my parents weren’t the only people on the planet to say “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This isn’t always true for feedback, but what definitely is true is “if you don’t know how to provide quality feedback, don’t say anything until you do.” Poorly delivered feedback not only doesn’t work most of the time, it can actually cause harm. One meta-analysis of feedback research showed that over one third of organizational feedback efforts actually led to performance decreases. Blindly betting on an action that hurts performance 33% of the time is not a good way to run a workforce. The good news is that nearly two thirds of the time, feedback initiatives that are done well work to enhance learning and increase performance, and you can vastly improve the odds of success with a bit of training on how to deliver effective feedback.

Lesson learned: if you plan to make feedback a part of your performance management practices, take the time to learn to do it well. The effort will pay off.

Myth #2 – Employees don’t really want feedback

Based on how many people respond to feedback, one might be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that most people don’t actually want to receive feedback. It’s possible that this misconception is rooted in the previously cited study showing that a lot of feedback is not useful and can actually be damaging, and people want this kind of feedback about as badly as they want another Rocky movie (i.e., we don’t want either). It’s not that people don’t want feedback, it’s that they don’t want poor quality feedback. Research has shown that people crave feedback as long as the feedback helps them accomplish their goals. What’s more, this research has uncovered three primary reasons people seek feedback.

  1. Instrumental – employees seek feedback because they want to improve their performance and they know feedback is critical to learning.
  2. Ego enhancement – employees seek feedback because they want to know they are doing a good job and making a meaningful contribution. Feedback can be a form of recognition that makes us feel good about ourselves.
  3. Image enhancement – employees seek feedback because they believe it will make them look better in some way to others. This is about cultivating a professional image.

Lesson learned: If you’re in a position to provide feedback, remember that people really do want feedback as long as your feedback provides clear guidance to support performance improvements and/or recognizes employee contributions in a concrete and meaningful way.

Myth #3 – Negative feedback is best served as the meat of a “positive feedback sandwich”

The “feedback sandwich” theory claims that if you must deliver negative feedback it’s best to start the feedback session by telling someone something they did well, then tell them something they could improve, and then close the conversation by telling them something else they did well. It’s an attractive idea because it makes a complex problem seem simple to do. In truth, doing feedback well is a little more involved than that, especially when you have to be critical. Research has shown that when the sandwich tactic is used, employees see right through it, tending to focus on the bad news, and paying little attention to the positive comments. When the supervisor makes a positive comment after the negative feedback, this signals that the punishment is over. A lot of research has been dedicated to figuring out the best ways to deliver critical feedback, but none of them involve a sandwich.

Lesson learned: Delivering negative feedback between two positive comments does not make feedback more effective and could make things worse. Critical feedback is an integral component to feedback process, and should be delivered thoughtfully, carefully, and only as necessary.

Myth #4 – Managers are solely responsible for delivering feedback

As an employee, it is easy to place the burden of providing quality feedback on your supervisor or manager. After all, managers are supposed to manage aren’t they? While managers have tremendous influence of the quality of feedback employees receive, employees should not assume that their manager is the only person qualified and responsible for giving them feedback. Research has demonstrated repeatedly that quality feedback must come from someone possessing expertise related to the feedback. In many cases, this person is not the manager. In a modern work environment, projects can change rapidly, involve the integration of team work, and cut across disciplines. Instead of sticking with the notion that a manager is the only person qualified to provide feedback, feedback systems should be built around social networks that develop over time as projects come and go. In these environments, a manager may be more apt at connecting employees with the right people and facilitating feedback interactions, rather than actually providing the feedback. Often managers also have the difficult task of managing several people while still completing their own work tasks, sometimes leading them losing sight of important feedback opportunities. Because of this, employees are frequently in the best position to know precisely when they need feedback. While it is the job of the manager to create an environment that promotes feedback seeking, employees should also actively seek out feedback from the appropriate channels. On the flip side, employees should not be expected to seek feedback from a manager who has consistently failed to provide quality feedback.

Lesson learned: Managers are responsible for creating the feedback environment, but quality feedback can and often should come from coworkers or others with relevant expertise. Feedback should be considered a partnership where managers and coworkers actively provide feedback, and employees actively seek it.

Myth #5 – Feedback happens in a vacuum

While this may not be an actual “myth” per se, many people talk and write about feedback without ever mentioning how it is connected to the larger performance management system. This is a huge mistake. Refusing to acknowledge the systems built around feedback automatically put you in a position to fail. Performance management is like a guitar; it takes all 6 strings to play a tune. Guitar players will understand the frustration of having a single string break while playing a song (no matter how simple the melody). Now imagine trying to play “Stairway to Heaven” with only one string. Attempting to provide employee feedback without linking it to other performance management processes is like a trying to play a one-stringed guitar. Quality feedback requires thoughtful planning, goal setting, social networking, flexibility, and is often connected to performance evaluation, employee learning and development, and decisions like pay, promotions, and layoffs that have a very tangible impact on people’s careers.

Lesson learned: When considering initiating feedback processes, consider how feedback is connected to other performance enhancing processes, and plan accordingly.

This blog represents the first installment of a three-part series on how to deliver quality feedback. While this blog focused on what not to do, the upcoming two blogs will highlight and condense the science on what to do. Look for the upcoming blogs “Mastering Continuous Employee Feedback: A Research-Based Approach” and “The Art of Critical Feedback: A Research-Based Approach” to learn practical, research-based solutions for how to deliver quality feedback. To learn more about technology solutions that foster continuous feedback, click here.

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