Feedback makes a significant contribution to workplace performance. It can equip individuals and groups with a valuable source of insights into their effectiveness, how they are perceived by others and how others are impacted by them. Done well, feedback fuels people’s motivation, helps them develop professionally and provides impetus for continuous improvement by individuals and the organisation as a whole.
Without adequate feedback, people’s performance easily gets out of step with what is needed and frustrations grow both for managers and their staff. Wide-ranging adverse effects usually ensue.
Having a rigorous formal performance review cycle in place and in use is an important vehicle for feedback at work. Crucial too, is the informal feedback that acknowledges a job well done or provides constructive advice about needed improvement. But feedback is only truly effective when managers take the lead in ensuring that sufficient time is devoted to it. There are two aspects of feedback that tend to receive less attention than they deserve, yet performance can only be optimal when managers make sure they invest sufficient time in:
1. inviting feedback about their own performance and
2. giving enough attention to their feedback preparation.
A manager’s performance is as much dependent on feedback as anybody else’s. Furthermore managers are much better-placed to help others lift their work performance when they themselves have experienced feedback processes that work. Constructive feedback from your boss is part of the equation but you can also benefit greatly by obtaining feedback from the people who report to you and from people external to the organisation.
Soliciting as well as receiving feedback that is offered to you enables you to enquire about aspects of your performance that others might find difficult to raise. It also signals to others your interest in better understanding aspects of yourself that they might have assumed you already know well enough. The ability to invite feedback has a particularly important place in settings where feedback processes are not part of the culture.
The keys to being in a strong position to invite feedback from anyone with whom you are associated at work are:
1. Trusting respectful relationships. Trust and respect between colleagues including when it is the boss you are asking for feedback allows feedback to be provided without fear of adverse consequences.
2. Asking open targeted questions. This means asking questions in a way that invites more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer and being specific about the sort of information that would be helpful. For example; a response to “What did you understand to be the key messages in my presentation yesterday?” is likely to yield far more helpful feedback than a simple “How did I go yesterday?”
3. Acknowledging feedback. Inviting feedback does not mean that you are obliged to act on it but people are far more likely to respond to a future request if they feel they have been helpful. A simple “thank you – that’s given me a new perspective on things” acknowledges the response without making a commitment to do anything. It also paves the way for soliciting more feedback further down the track.
4. Avoiding a defensive reaction. When you’ve asked for feedback and it’s less positive than you hoped for or openly critical it’s important to resist any urge to defend your position. Another’s perspective can cast light on your own blind spots and be a basis for valuable learning if you are open to it. For a widely used instrument (questionnaire) that allows you to check you own receptiveness to feedback look up ‘Johari Window’ online.
When managers are skilled in soliciting feedback about their own performance people around them at work are more likely to see feedback for what it is – a valuable source of learning and an aid to professional development – and to solicit feedback themselves.
Feedback is far more likely to be helpful to individuals and beneficial to the organisation as a whole when you have devoted enough attention to your preparation. Where formal feedback is concerned this should include:
v Ensuring that the people who report to you are aware of the organisation’s performance management processes in general and the role of feedback in particular. They should understand the potential for them to contribute. For example best practice in formal performance review provides ample opportunity for staff members to assess their own performance as well as be assessed by their manager.
v Making sure that YOU are thoroughly familiar with the process including how to deal with a situation in which a staff member’s self-assessment is significantly at odds with your own.
v Careful preparation before the meeting to ensure that you are clear in your own mind about your assessment of the person’s performance and that you have specific examples to help substantiate your feedback.
v Setting aside sufficient time for the formal review meeting and making sure that you will be free of interruptions. Your investment in feedback is diminished when staff are left with the impression that you consider it less important than other aspects of your role.
v When you have a number of performance reviews to complete making sure that you create a manageable workload for yourself. Trying to undertake back-to-back reviews with no allowance for one or more to run over and without planned breaks to help you give each person the attention they deserve is likely to produce disappointing results.
v Creating an environment that is conducive to conversation between you and each staff member. This means being in a frame of mind for listening to what they have to say and being ready to participate in a constructive conversation that is helpful to them and to you whatever the nature of the feedback under discussion.
Informal feedback also merits preparation if it is to be as effective as it can be. Informal feedback works best when you:
v Provide the feedback in a timely way. For example if you want to offer feedback about changed behavior offer it as soon as possible after you observe an incidence. Doing this well means investing time in being a keen observer of people at work.
v Have at your disposal a repertoire of expressions from which to compose an affirming feedback statement including when you are feeding back about needed performance improvement. For example; “I noticed that …” and I’m impressed by …” followed by something specific about what you have observed.
v Provide informal feedback regularly and with genuine intent. Most people have a finely-tuned insincerity detector.
v Use unambiguous language. For example if you want to point out an area needing improvement avoid the old ‘sandwich’ method of prefacing constructive criticism with a complement and following it up with another complement. It might feel easier to be offering twice as many compliments but the risk is that only the compliments are heard!
Checking the return on your investment
The questions in this section have been designed to help you think about your own approach to giving receiving and inviting feedback. Answer them honestly and then give some thought to whether there is scope for improvement. A supportive colleague or external coach can provide a good sounding board for your ideas.
1. Thinking about the performance of people reporting to you to what extent are they meeting or exceeding the expectations you have set?
2. How do they know whether or not they are meeting your expectations?
3. When was the last time you asked for feedback on your own performance at work? From peers? From your manager? From the people who report to you?
4. (Depending on your response to question 3) what did you learn from that feedback?
5. Thinking about the people who report to you when was the last time you informally acknowledged something they had done well? And what did you say or do?
6. What did you observe about their reactions? Immediate? And later?
7. With the benefit of hindsight would you have said or done anything differently?
8. Bring to mind recent feedback you offered to a colleague or staff member reporting to you about an aspect of their performance that you felt needed improvement. How did they react? Immediately? Once they had chance to reflect on your feedback?
9. With the benefit of hindsight would you have done or said anything differently?
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational and management development through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to be sustainable.