How To Provide Feedback Your Employees Actually Want To Hear


October 16, 2019


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Studies of brain scans have shown that, when we are exposed to or perceive a social threat, we react in much the same way as we do to physical threats.

Woman sitting with employee providing timely feedback of her work. She gives regular recognition through Kudos, empowering her team.

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Studies of brain scans have shown that, when we are exposed to or perceive a social threat, we react in much the same way as we do to physical threats.

Interestingly, those same studies have been applied to the reactions we experience when confronted with negative messages like criticism, indicating that feedback can be perceived as a social threat.

When you hear the term ‘feedback,’ like many of us, you probably think of the feedback you receive at work. Feedback is scientific, habitual, and integral to survival; organisms across a range of lifeforms use feedback to learn from, adapt to, and avoid threats. Think of the type of feedback wild animals, plants, and other organisms use to interact and communicate.

In the workplace, feedback may not seem so critical to your survival. You’re unlikely to require feedback to survive in the same way animals use feedback to communicate threats from, say, predators in the wild! However, feedback is still given, requested, and used daily by companies to improve the health of their organizations and the development of their teams.  

Or is it?

A plethora of research has found that even top-performing employees perceived as open to feedback can be crushed by it and, further, when we receive feedback, we only apply it to our work about 30% of the time.

While organizations use feedback to improve performance and management, more evidence is surfacing that disproves the efficacy of feedback as a tool for motivating employees to do their best work. That may explain why only 26% of employees agree that the feedback they receive helps them do better work.

What’s the problem with feedback?

Feedback is a tricky thing.

Many organizations still disseminate feedback in outdated ways, but nothing (not even advanced notice) can truly prepare us for negative feedback.

There are many forms of feedback - some being effective and productive - and some are employed more regularly than others. While any feedback can be met with trepidation, the most common type is the ‘feedback sandwich,’ an approach that aims at softening the blow associated with constructive criticism.

The feedback sandwich refers to constructive feedback layered between positive compliments. A compliment about an employee's performance or work ethic is given, followed by criticism. Then another positive comment is delivered.

"59% of millennials feel their leaders are unprepared to give feedback during meetings like performance reviews, while 83% of millennials report the feedback they receive from their managers as being unhelpful."

The problem with this approach is two-fold; employees who receive this type of feedback often focus less on the positive and zero-in on the negative, while the feedback itself loses meaning. This type of feedback can also result in bias and inconsistencies in other feedback employees receive. 61% of an employee's performance 'rating' is a reflection of the review conductor (such as a manager) and not the employee.

It also points to why more organizations and their leaders skip performance reviews altogether. In the modern workplace, these types of evaluations are not only too infrequent but foster disengagement and discontent among employees.

For example:

What about the cost?

Studies from Gallup estimate that performance reviews can cost companies up to $35 million each year in lost productivity

Similar research from the University of Minnesota found that the costs associated with time and productivity-waste resulting from performance reviews are significant.

Human Resources teams and leadership have to consider whether these reviews or evaluations are worthy of their costs.

For example, 77% of HR professionals believe performance reviews don’t accurately reflect the performance of employees.

In comparison, 59% of millennials feel their leaders are unprepared to give feedback during meetings like performance reviews, while 83% of millennials report the feedback they receive from their managers as being unhelpful.

Other studies have also found that 87% of employees want to grow in their roles, but only one-third report receiving the feedback they need to do so.

If traditional feedback is ineffective, what can we do to learn and grow?

One approach organizations can take when it comes to delivering feedback is fostering it directly among teams first, as opposed to enforcing the traditional top-down approach.

Companies like Atlassian, for example, employ strategies like sparring, a structured approach to garnering feedback from fellow employees to take advantage of one another's knowledge and experience.

"61% of an employee’s performance ‘rating’ has been found to be a reflection of the review conductor (such as a manager) and not the employee."

Methods or approaches like these involve frequent and consistent conversations about feedback that nurture a safe space for discussing improvement, successes and ‘failures,’ and where/how employees can evolve.

Consider a few interesting stats:
  • Job Satisfaction: 72% of millennial employees who receive consistent and accurate feedback from leadership feel satisfied in their roles
  • Engagement: employees who receive regular feedback from their leaders are 2.7 times more likely to be engaged at work
  • Frequency: 42% of millennials want feedback from leadership every week
  • Structure: when managers or leaders focus on their employees’ strengths, they are 30 times more likely to be engaged

Engagement is inherently vital for the growth and success of any organization. However, engagement isn’t something you do, it’s something you achieve, and your feedback approach has to factor into your engagement strategy.

According to research, 43% of employees who are highly engaged receive frequent feedback weekly, but 98% of employees fail to become engaged when their leaders provide little to no feedback. Conversely, 65% of employees want more feedback, more consistently.

All of this points to the necessity for a strategic yet authentic model or method that leaders can use to provide feedback that their employees not only want to hear but benefit from.

So, how do you provide feedback employees want to hear?

Start with real-time feedback

Annual or semi-regular check-ins and performance reviews were once the norms for delivering feedback, but nowadays, people want more consistency and frequency. They also crave communication from those they’re meant to learn from and be mentored by, which is why leaders should consider practicing real-time feedback.

With this approach, feedback is provided regularly, offered up in a conversational tone and specific to what is happening in real-time as opposed to what happened last week, last month, or many moons ago! By using this approach, both leaders and employees can get on the same page and remain there. It's also a great way of fostering engagement and communicating with your teams directly.

Encourage both employees and managers to ask for feedback

We all know 'feedback' to be something that is freely given but rarely requested. In actuality, employees should feel comfortable asking for feedback rather than waiting for the other shoe to drop. Similarly, leaders and managers should ask their employees for feedback, as well.  You may discover whether your communication methods are effective!

Be direct

Remember that feedback sandwich we talked about earlier? Layering feedback in fluff is not only ineffective but can confuse employees. Consider being direct with your teams but in a way that is both transparent and respectful. Research from the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that employees are motivated to improve their performance based on negative or unfavourable feedback' when the "feedback source is perceived to be credible, the feedback is of high quality and the feedback is delivered in a considerate manner."

Create environments of confidence

The more confidence and trust employees have in their leadership, the less likely they are to push back against feedback or constructive wisdom. That’s because trust and mutual respect go a long way in creating environments of confidence where employees feel comfortable with their leaders and colleagues. Studies have found that pushback to feedback is reduced when employees feel there is a respectful leader-employee relationship!

"Only 26% of employees agree that the feedback they receive helps them do better work."

Don’t forget about your delivery

The language we use to deliver feedback, whether it's between leaders and employees, colleague-to-colleague, or interdepartmental, can significantly affect how others perceive, receive and respond to the feedback itself. It's essential always to consider whether the language you're using is effective in getting your message across without being disrespectful or alienating.

Those in positions of power or authority may consider learning more about their communication skills or even updating them! Research from Utah Valley University, for example, found that one-third of organizations fail to provide managers and executives with leadership and communication skills training.

In general, it’s important to start small and work towards a culture of feedback that encourages improvement instead of alienation and disengagement. We're more inclined to view feedback as a habitually negative thing rather than something that can help us grow. How we employ feedback is crucial to the success and health of any organization.

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About Kudos

Kudos is an employee engagement, culture, and analytics platform, that harnesses the power of peer-to-peer recognition, values reinforcement, and open communication to help organizations boost employee engagement, reduce turnover, improve culture, and drive productivity and performance. Kudos uses unique proprietary methodologies to deliver essential people analytics on culture, performance, equity, and inclusion, providing organizations with deep insights and a clear understanding of their workforce.

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