Doling out praise and criticism is an essential element of good leadership and management – but there's a knack to giving the sort of constructive, actionable feedback that will turn out to be genuinely useful in the long run.
Forward-thinking leaders and managers are well aware of the potentially transformative impact that thoughtful, constructive feedback can have, especially when provided to staff in the right way and at the right time.
Naturally, formal training sessions play a key role in helping workers to develop new skills and improve their overall level of aptitude, but there are few better ways for them to learn than by being given the opportunity to regularly review their own progress and examine the areas in which they still have room for improvement.
This is the ideal that bosses strive towards when conducting feedback sessions, but the savviest managers will realise there's a specific art to providing an ideal balance of praise and criticism that will help their staff make tangible strides forward, while avoiding the pitfalls that can undermine those objectives.
One of the most important issues when developing a feedback policy is learning how to get the right mix of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism.
A recent survey of nearly 8,000 managers conducted by the US leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman indicated that around 40% of those polled admitted to have never given positive feedback, despite research showing that it's this kind of encouragement that gives workers a sense that they are learning, growing and developing in their roles, resulting in increased confidence and competence.
On the other hand, the Zenger/Folkman research also showed that 44% of managers found it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback, leading one-fifth of them to completely avoid doing so. This approach is also flawed, as it makes it difficult for workers to become aware of their weaknesses and learn from their mistakes; as such, the best bosses will work hard to find a way of finding a happy medium between these two extremes.
When looking to find that ideal balance, it's vital to remember that this is not a question with a one-size-fits-all solution. Every staff member is different, and so it will make sense to come up with a system of reviewing their work on an individual basis to extract the best out of each of them.
By paying attention to how workers interact, it should be possible to get an idea of how sensitive they are to criticism, and which of them respond better to the carrot or the stick. Some staff members will be highly motivated by the kind of frank, direct feedback that spurs them on to do better; others will require a more diplomatic approach, with criticisms balanced out by words of encouragement. Above all else, it's essential to make sure that feedback is delivered respectfully – there's a difference between a blunt but useful assessment and a comment that might be taken as a demoralising insult, especially when delivered in front of peers.
By creating a feedback approach that is individually tailored and delivered with tact, organisations will be able to increase their chances of delivering a positive outcome.
By this stage, the importance of getting the format of feedback sessions right should be clear – but it's worth remembering that timing also plays an important role in determining success.
Ideally, staff should be able to receive feedback on their work while it is still fresh in the memory, as this will make it easier for them to remember and understand all of the details that are being addressed. This is particularly essential when it comes to critical feedback, so bosses should resist the temptation to avoid potentially difficult conversations, and deal with these issues as soon as possible.
It's also vital to ensure that feedback and review sessions are conducted frequently, giving managers and workers an opportunity to discuss progress and development-related matters on a regular basis. Most companies now realise that the once popular system of annual performance reviews is antiquated, as it limits the ability to deliver timely, actionable feedback, and turns the review process into an intimidating commitment, rather than a useful learning opportunity.
Feedback sessions are important tools for managers to inform workers about how they are performing, but at the same time, it should be borne in mind that talented, professional staff members are unlikely to respond well to being talked at, with no opportunity to put their own feelings across.
That's why top-performing companies have come to realise that these review sessions work best when framed as a two-way conversation; instead of feeling like they are being lectured, staff will instead welcome the opportunity to share their own thoughts, ideas and concerns, giving them a greater sense of ownership of their personal development, and fostering greater engagement.
This also makes it easier for bosses to get an idea of what their workers need from them in terms of training and learning resources, and to work alongside their staff to provide them with personalised career goals that reflect their strengths and give them scope to shore up their weaknesses. In this way, a well-devised approach to feedback can provide just as many constructive insights to managers as they do for workers.
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