How managers can improve the quality of feedback they offer

I know the answer even before I ask a group this question:

“Does anyone here get too much feedback at work?”

The reply, amid snickers and eye rolls, is “No.”

No matter who is in my audience, from employees to supervisors, there’s a shared belief that feedback is in short supply.

Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” report confirms that sentiment. In its surveys on workplace engagement, Gallup asked employees if they’ve received positive feedback for good work in the last seven days or had a conversation about their progress in the last six months. Again, the answer often comes up as “No.”

Gallup found that 70 percent of U.S. employees are disengaged. Many simply go through the motions, while others actively undermine the operation. That’s a huge problem.

Some workplace problems are expensive to fix — technology upgrades, understaffing, massive retraining. But providing feedback is FREE!

I don’t apologize for that all-caps shout. I’m a raving evangelist for feedback because I know the power it can have to improve the quality of work, the workplace and the lives of people on the job. Gallup even offers data that connects feedback to employee engagement and engagement to a better bottom line.

In my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” I outline strategies for effective feedback of all kinds and help managers build a feedback tool kit. Feedback for effective performance management has become one of the most requested topics that I teach and write about. I take that as a very good sign that supervisors are aware they’re responsible for closing the feedback gap.

In fact, an organization I visited recently declared this the Year of Feedback and brought me in to help managers perfect the art. We had a great time building that toolkit of feedback and customizing it for individual people and situations. Then, one of the leaders in the room raised a question. If managers suddenly deliver copious doses of feedback, how will employees react?  Isn’t it possible they’ll be skeptical or scared?

It’s a darn good question. When it comes to feedback, three factors converge: the source, the content and the recipient.

That convergence has maximum impact when:

1. The source of feedback is credible and respected.

2. The content of the feedback is fair, understandable and useful.

3. The recipient of the feedback hears it as the speaker intends, then acts on it.

All of us, managers and co-workers alike, deliver and receive feedback, so it falls to all of us to work on each of those three dynamics.  Even as I teach, coach, and encourage managers to become great bosses and deliver first-class feedback, it won’t matter if people choose not to listen, or if they do, don’t take the information to heart.

It’s easy for any of us to miss or to misread the feedback we receive. We may view an interaction with the boss as just passing conversation while she’s presuming she’s delivered a memorable message.

We may wonder if the positive stuff we hear really matters, while the negative stuff may rock our world. Because we tend to remember situations that trigger our emotions, it’s possible that the pain we feel from criticism takes up much more space on our mental “feedback ledger” than the little lift we get from everyday praise. It can lead us to focus on the negative and forget the positive, as in, “The only time I hear anything around here is when something goes wrong.”

Perhaps that’s why a recent study found that the among members of high-performing teams, feedback had a positive to negative ratio of 5.6 to 1. People on those teams make sure the positive stuff is delivered early and often — and it sticks.

I also believe that if we consider it our responsibility as employees to seek out and be open to feedback, we’ll be better for it. New research about happiness underscores the point. In an experiment, employees at a number of Fortune 500 companies were sent a daily email inquiring about their level of happiness. Some received the question worded this way: “How happy were you today?” Others got this version: “Did you do your best to be happy today?” Over time, the latter group reported a significantly higher level of happiness, because they came to see it as a goal for which they were personally responsible.

What would happen if you ask yourself each day: “Did I make a point to give and receive some valuable feedback today?” You’d be upgrading all three facets of high impact feedback — the source, the content and the recipient.

Here’s my deal: I’ll keep nagging bosses about raising their leadership chops along with the quality and quantity of their feedback. At the same time, let’s all make it a goal to keep an open mind — and ears — to feedback from others. Recognize it, process it, and put it to good use.

We just might close some gaps.


High-impact feedback is on the agenda for the 2013 Poynter Leadership Academy, October 20-25. 

Join Jill Geisler, Butch Ward, a terrific faculty and leaders from around the world for a career-changing week. Information and applications here.

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