How to Use Feedback to Improve Performance

Another article in TRG’s series of How-To Articles
for Trainers, Facilitators, and Group Leaders

Copyright 1992
Training Resources Group, Inc. (TRG)
909 N. Washington Street, Suite 305
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All rights reserved.
Reproduction by any means is
prohibited without TRG’s written permission.

“You know, you have to take the bones with the gravy,” said the manager.

“Ah, I’m not sure... ah... the bones with the gravy?” stammered the assistant in the simulated feedback situation, during a management training workshop.

“Oh yes,” said the manager with finality. “You just have to take the bones with the gravy.”

The assistant, with furrowed brow and puzzled look, said “Ah, okay.”

The scene above is from a management training workshop the author facilitated. At first, when asked what the feedback meant, workshop participants watching the role play said that if this were a real situation, the “assistant” would have “gotten the message.” When pressed, however, they couldn’t define the meaning of the feedback and decided that maybe it wasn’t that effective after all. The “assistant” admitted that he had no idea about what action to take as a result of the conversation.

Although the words were interesting because of their somewhat mystical tone, the “feedback” had little practical value. Our experience working with managers in our workshops and in their workplace suggests that this is not an unusual situation. We find managers are often not very effective at telling their people on a continuing basis how well or poorly they are doing.

This paucity of effective feedback has serious negative results. People often don’t know how others in their organization regard their work. People unknowingly perform their tasks in ways that colleagues regard as “bad.” Staff development suffers, positive performance and negative habits are not identified, and the motivational power of positive feedback is lost.

When feedback is provided, it’s often done under stress, in a crisis, or after a mistake, and is sometimes delivered in abrasive and less than helpful ways. In a worst case scenario, an employee is demoted or even fired for something that no one ever discussed seriously. And s/he quite legitimately asks, “Why wasn’t I ever told this before?” These are important results that affect every corner of organizational life. They seriously inhibit production, and they have a powerful--if sometimes indirect--impact on morale and turnover.

Defining Feedback

Before looking in depth at feedback as a management tool, we need to be clear about the way we use the term feedback in this article. Feedback means letting someone know on a timely and ongoing basis how they are performing, and it includes both positive and negative observations. This feedback should be given independent of any formal performance review process.

A manager who limits feedback to performance appraisal time is seriously underutilizing this management tool. The premise of this article is that managers should be skillful enough to make feedback a normal, natural, non-threatening part of everyday organizational life. And, the climate should be such that the feedback isn’t just between managers and subordinates, but between peers on a work team, or between people who must work together even though they work for different divisions.

Feedback--An Unnatural Act

When managers are asked about the lack of effective feedback, they provide typical responses: there’s not enough time to do it right; the organization’s culture doesn’t support people using feedback as a management tool; good people know how they’re doing, they don’t need to be told by others; and positive feedback “will be seen as insincere.”

Comments like these are interesting, but they don’t fully explain why many managers choose not to give feedback. We think there are two general reasons for this tendency. First, giving feedback is almost an unnatural act. Second, and related closely to the first reason, most people lack the skills to give feedback effectively.

Feedback is unnatural because (at least in the U.S.) our culture teaches us some rather ineffective ways to give feedback. When people don’t perform up to our expectations, we learn to either yell at them or scold them, or we learn to suffer in silence and complain behind their backs to others. When someone does something good, we often don’t tell them because “they might get a big head,” or because it would embarrass them. These cultural patterns, learned in childhood, stick with us as adults, and form the basis for ineffective feedback patterns in organizations.

As a corollary to this “unnaturalness,” most people don’t have the skills to give effective feedback to others. Effective feedback skills aren’t taught in college or business school, and although many management training events include some feedback training, it appears to be insufficient to change behavior.

It’s also clear that most people aren’t good at receiving feedback. They get defensive and try to “explain away” their behavior by stating the reasons behind their actions; they don’t listen well; or they attack the messenger. All of these responses are likely to result in the giver being less willing to give them feedback in the future.

This situation can be changed by modifying the company’s cultural climate around feedback. We have adapted and developed some guidelines for giving and receiving feedback that are simple and practical, and what’s more, they work.

Guidelines for Giving Feedback

1.        Make specific statements, and support general statements with specific examples.

Precise and specific statements are valuable to the receiver for both positive behavior (“Exactly what did I do right?” or “What should I be sure to continue doing?”) and negative behavior (“What precisely should I change?”). To be told that “you did well on that project” may be satisfying to both parties, but it’s not nearly as effective as saying “you came in on time and under budget on that project.” The latter statement clearly describes exactly what the person giving feedback sees as positive in the receiver’s performance. To be told that “you dominate meetings” won’t be useful unless it’s followed up by specifics, like “For example, in yesterday’s meeting, you talked so much I stopped listening; you may have said some good things toward the end, but I didn’t hear them.”

2.         Use descriptive rather than judgmental language.

By avoiding judgmental language, you reduce the need for a defensive response. For example, regardless of merit, saying that some action was “terrible” or “stupid” or “utterly inappropriate” generally evokes anger, return accusations, or passive-aggressive behavior in the listener. The feedback message rarely gets through this kind of verbal clutter.

On the other hand, describing the impact of the receiver’s behavior on the performance of another makes it easier for the receiver to understand the meaning and importance of the feedback. Also, it tends to focus the discussion on behavior and not personal characteristics.

People are more open to listening about the results of their behavior than they are about the worth of their person. A good example of a results-oriented statement is the following: “When you get angry and use abrasive language, I’m afraid to tell you the truth--so I just tell you what I think you want to hear.” In this example, the results of the person’s behavior are made explicitly clear.

3.         Be direct, clear, and to the point.

No matter how well motivated one might be, certain actions (“beating around the bush,” using lots of modifiers, talking in general terms in hopes that the person will “get the message”) create misunderstanding and discomfort. The objective is to communicate directly, not leave someone guessing.

4.         Direct feedback toward behavior that the receiver can control.

A person’s frustration is only increased when s/he is reminded of shortcomings over which s/he has no control.

5.         Encourage others to solicit feedback, rather than imposing it on them.

Feedback is most useful when the receiver has asked for it. If someone’s performance is having a negative impact, others are responsible for providing that person with feedback. The ideal is for the organization to create an environment in which people feel comfortable soliciting feedback--since that clearly increases its effectiveness.

6.         Consider the timing of feedback.

In general, feedback is most useful when communicated at the earliest opportunity after the given behavior (depending, of course, on the person’s readiness to hear it, the support available from others, etc.). We are talking here about reasonable time periods--the same day, a day later, within a week, or maybe even within a month.

However, when longer than a month goes by, people generally end up arguing about history, about what really happened. Moreover, badly-timed feedback also lends itself to the comment, “Well, if that was so important, then why did you wait all this time to tell me?”

Feedback that’s given in small pieces, and in a timely manner, is much easier and more effective than saving things up for the “right time.” The more natural and ongoing the process, the better it will be for all.

7.         Make sure feedback takes into account the needs of both the receiver and giver.

Feedback can be destructive when it serves only one’s own needs and fails to consider the needs of the person on the receiving end. This is especially true when the giver is angry and wants to “unload” on the receiver. There may be a certain psychological satisfaction for one of the parties in this instance, but it generally results in ineffective feedback and a strained relationship.

8.         Make sure feedback is well planned.

It takes time to plan for a feedback conference. What to say, in what order, how much--all these need careful thought. If, however, feedback is given on a more regular basis, then feedback conferences will become much easier.

Helping Others Give You Feedback

Feedback from another person is important information about how your actions are affecting others. Even if you disagree with the feedback, it’s important to hear it clearly and understand it.

Feedback tells you how another person sees your actions and gives you the choice of trying to change behavior. People act on their perceptions of your actions; you may be coming across in unintended ways and not know it--there is probably nothing worse than being ineffective in ways that are clear to others but not clear or apparent to you. Feedback gives you information about your impact on others. Such knowledge is invaluable for individual performance in organizations. People who are interested in enhancing their performance should do everything possible to make it easier for others to give them feedback.

Getting the feedback is sometimes difficult; it’s especially difficult if you are trying to get feedback from a subordinate. The following guidelines make it easier for others to give you useful feedback. Keep in mind that these guidelines are meant to be used for both positive and negative feedback. It’s often as hard (or harder) for people to hear positive feedback as it is for them to hear negative feedback.

Guidelines for Receiving Feedback

1.         Solicit feedback in clear and specific areas.

It’s always easier to give feedback if one is asked. It’s even easier when a specific question is asked, such as “Could you let me know what you think of my current speed and quality of turning out widgets?”

2.         Make it a point to understand the feedback; paraphrase major points; ask clarifying questions.

Active listening helps insure that real understanding has happened. Ask clarifying questions in order to understand the feedback. Doing so helps the giver know that you are indeed interested and trying hard to understand.

3.         Help the giver use the criteria for giving useful feedback.

For example, if the feedback is too general, ask “Could you give me a specific example of what you mean?”

4.         Avoid making it more difficult for the giver of feedback than it already is.

Reacting defensively or angrily, or arguing with negative feedback, or saying, “Oh, it was nothing, anyone could have done as well,” in response to positive feedback are all ways of turning off the feedback spigot.

5.         Don’t ask for explanations.

This particular guideline is perhaps the most important, yet it’s the one that most people have trouble following. It’s natural to want an explanation for the immediate feedback you’re receiving. Unfortunately, in almost all cases, explanations can seem defensive and often end up in an argument. As a result, the giver backs off, thinking, “Hey, this is simply not worth the trouble,” and is discouraged from giving effective feedback in the future. The giver isn’t discouraged from seeing negative behavior or assessing your performance; the person simply becomes unwilling to provide the feedback. Focus instead on understanding the behavior and its impact.

6.         Show appreciation for the person’s effort to give you feedback.

Saying “thank you” or “I’m grateful for the effort you took to tell me” is a clear message that you appreciate receiving feedback, whether or not agreement is reached. This action invites feedback in the future. In some ways, feedback is like a gift, because one has to care enough to give it; if the signals are wrong, one simply will not give the “gift.”

7.         In response to key points in the feedback, you should say what you intend to do as a result.

A response may be “Thanks, I need to think about it,” or “Let me check it out with others,” or “That makes sense, I’ll try in the future to...” If you just listen--even politely-- and walk away, it may give a message that you don’t take what the giver said very seriously. (Of course, that may be the case in some instances!)

8.         Remember that feedback is based on one person’s perceptions of another’s actions, not universal truth.

Keeping this in mind helps one be less defensive about feedback. Check with others to determine the presence of behavior patterns. If two or three people provide similar feedback, there may be a pattern reflected that needs to be considered.

These guidelines for giving and receiving feedback work. If all people in a particular work setting understand and use the guidelines, feedback will be extremely useful and become an integral part of everyday activities. The more people who are skilled in giving feedback, the better. This, of course, is why we recommend that the guidelines be “installed” on a system-wide basis. If, however, even one person in a feedback situation uses the guidelines, the effectiveness of the feedback will still be very high.

It’s vital for general managers to understand that increasing the level of feedback skills within organizations enhances performance and produces better results. We aren’t stressing the importance of feedback because it’s “nice to do,” or because it will make the workplace more humane--although it may indeed have those effects. >Getting people to talk routinely about performance in a more acceptable, clear, and precise way simply increases work output.

If people learn how they are doing from different sources (including themselves), they will work to correct their deficiencies and capitalize on their strengths. Everyone will reduce the amount of unproductive time they spend complaining to others about the performance of a third party.

Individuals will feel that managers value high quality performance and communicate about it in ways that give everyone a chance to perform at their optimum levels.

This, of course, sounds easier than it is. Practically speaking, how can you as a manager increase feedback skills within your office?

Making Feedback a More Effective Tool in Your Organization

There are several specific actions that you can take.

You can publish the feedback guidelines throughout your organization or office at all levels so that everyone is aware of the “rules of the game.” This will also indicate that feedback is a two-way process, and that everybody bears responsibility for the success or failure of the feedback process. It establishes standards for everyday talk about performance to which all have access.

You can run (or arrange for) focused training sessions so people can get practice at both giving and receiving feedback. Everyone should be included in the sessions, which can be short (2 or 3 hours) and totally skill-focused. A trainer or skilled manager can explain the guidelines and perhaps model an effective feedback conversation. The people can break into groups of three. Two group members can practice giving and receiving feedback given typical situations that might exist in their workplace. The third person in the group can be an observer, who gives feedback about how well the guidelines are followed.

Once everyone is reasonably clear about the guidelines, you should then reinforce the act of giving feedback. People should be encouraged to try, even if they feel they will not get it “exactly right.” After all, if the feedback process isn’t exactly correct, the receiver can ask questions that will get the conversation back on target.

If you’re a manager, you’re very visible. You can serve as a role model for using feedback effectively by showing that you understand and use the guidelines.

Take some time to give unsolicited, clear, specific, positive feedback, with no strings attached. This will have a powerful impact on people. It will also help set a clear example of how to give feedback that people will hear.

In terms of receiving feedback, you can make a visible contribution by asking for it, and expressing appreciation when it’s received.

Each one of these suggestions for action is seemingly small, yet each creates incremental--but significant--change. When implemented, these actions will help change the norms about feedback in your organization. Since everybody “knows the rules,” they can help one another give effective feedback. This will make feedback more a part of everyday life.

As mentioned earlier, the impact of feedback is optimized when it is a normal, routine part of the work environment. If it’s rarely given, or only given at performance appraisal time, feedback becomes strained and imbued with a sense of trauma, which makes it almost impossible to do well. When given in small, “chewable chunks” in a timely fashion, it’s much easier to do and much more effective.

The Motivating Power of Authentic, Positive Feedback

There is one aspect of feedback that deserves a special note. Positive feedback by itself, when authentic, is a superb tool to motivate people. And, it’s a tool that is grossly underused. People don’t provide sufficient positive feedback; it’s often used to soften the blow of negative feedback as a way to pave the way for the “bad news.” Organizational life has conditioned us to see positive feedback that way. Yet, when you give positive feedback without any strings attached, the results are immediately clear.

There’s much that goes on every day that’s positive. We all should make it a point to give one or two people some positive feedback each day--without any negative feedback attached to it. That’s not to say we should ignore the negative; rather, it’s to point out that a great number of positive things don’t often get any verbal notice.

In an age when we’re trying to locate the magic formula for motivation, the power that communicating positive feedback has for motivating people is manifest. It’s simple to do, and it doesn’t cost anything. It’s a waste not to use it.

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