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Feedback at work: how HR can help managers drive action

Published 14th June 2017 by Investors in People
Feedback at work from managers

Feedback at work: why is it so important?

Let’s start with a simple definition of feedback: it is information provided regarding an aspect of one’s performance (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).

When feedback results in positive change, performance is improved. By giving regular feedback, therefore, managers help ensure employees are performing at a high level and contributing to organisational goals.

For this reason, feedback has always been valuable, but now it’s more important than ever. Technology is wiping out traditional competitive advantages, which means organisations increasingly compete on an even keel, aside from the makeup and productivity of their workforce.

Ensuring employees are performing at the highest level is therefore essential. But employees can only improve their performance if they know where they’re falling short. Feedback is the most effective method of telling them.

On an individual scale, feedback can dramatically raise performance. Used consistently across a business, it’s transformative, and is a key factor in turning the business into a learning organisation.

7 things HR can do to help managers use feedback effectively

Educate managers to help them understand resistance to feedback

When we expect or receive negative feedback, we feel parts of our identity are under threat, including our competence, social standing and respect given by our peers. That’s why people can become hostile.

By using feedback to improve performance, managers ensure employees consistently work on tasks that turn the dial on organisational performance.

If managers understand the biological reasoning behind this hostile response, they can refine their delivery methods. They can also respond more positively when faced with a negative reaction.

Use of language like “You always” or “You are” makes a hostile reaction more likely, because it feels like a character attack rather than a piece of performance-related feedback. Feedback should never target personality or character.

Reinforce the idea of timely feedback to improve outcomes

Bandura (1986) suggests that motivation and self-confidence may not suffer from negative feedback if the discrepancy between expected performance and actual performance is moderate. Since a performance shortfall is likely to be greater the longer a suboptimal behaviour goes on, it’s very important that feedback is delivered as quickly as possible.

When managers do not provide timely feedback, do not assume it’s because they don’t know why it’s important. Look for the root cause of their inaction. Some, for example, may be uncomfortable being honest, or have concerns over communicating negative messages. If this is the case, providing training may be as effective at improving the timeliness of feedback as educating managers on why timeliness is important.

Provide tools, resources and training to encourage clear goal-setting

Feedback on performance must be based on objective, transparent goals that have been agreed in advance at the organisational level and cascaded down to the team and individual level.

You can’t retrospectively say that someone’s performance is substandard if they’ve never been aware of what the organisation thinks good performance looks like.

As the performance guardians of the organisation, HR should provide support to managers so they can translate organisational goals into team goals and then into task-based goals for individuals.

SMART objectives are an easily-understandable method of setting goals, but managers need to ensure employees have a clear understanding of what tasks will help them meet these goals.

Help managers think in terms of simple tasks when it comes to feedback

When giving feedback, whether the outcome is positive or negative can depend on the complexity of the task you’re giving feedback on.

DeNisi and Kluger (1996) found that when people received feedback on more complex and difficult tasks, they were more likely to get defensive and self-protective, perhaps because they were unable to easily ascertain how they would be able to make positive changes to their performance. Managers should therefore look to provide feedback on the smallest unit of work to make it easier for staff to identify the change needed.

For complex tasks in a domain the employee is unfamiliar with, managers may get better results by focusing feedback on how well individuals have achieved learning goals rather than outcome-related goals. For example, how well has the individual applied themselves to picking up the skill? Do they have a decent understanding of the theory?

This type of feedback helps individuals develop confidence in learning new skills. If a manager chose to give performance-related feedback instead, they may be more likely to receive a hostile reaction, due to the employee’s perceived lack of self-ability and confidence in what is to them a new area.

Encourage managers to make feedback an ongoing conversation

Although feedback should be delivered quickly, Bardwell (1981) found that delayed feedback facilitates retention. Managers should not delay feedback for this reason, but should consider the importance of follow-up on creating long-term positive performance changes.

You can’t retrospectively say that someone’s performance is substandard if they’ve never been aware of what the organisation thinks good performance looks like.

Consistency in feedback delivery is therefore an important goal for managers: tying it to clear goals, as above, can make this much easier, because all actions and outcomes can be objectively and regularly compared with goals and so feedback delivered as a going concern, for example at regular time intervals.

Help boost line manager confidence and ability to connect with individuals

There’s a lot of research around how to give feedback effectively but a lot is dependent on the person receiving the feedback.

For example, Swann, Pelham, & Chidester (1988) found that positive feedback, given to those with low confidence, may confirm in their minds they have ‘deficiencies’ they need to address. However, the same feedback, given to those with high self-belief, may boost confidence and perceived ability to cope with future setbacks.

Freeing up time and space for managers to build stronger bonds with employees will help them develop the knowledge and insight necessary to personalise feedback plans for each employee.

Make managers aware of the negative impact of using feedback for the wrong reasons

When feedback is delivered to achieve an aim other than higher performance, such as raising confidence, managers should be aware it can backfire.

Horn (1985) found that sports coaches that gave frequent positive feedback to lower-skilled players resulted in these players developing a reduced perception of competence in their abilities.

Horn hypothesised that this feedback was not performance-driven - and was in fact designed to raise confidence - and so communicated the wrong message to these players, perhaps that the coaches felt they needed ‘softer handling’ than their higher-skilled team mates.

How else can HR drive a feedback culture and help managers achieve better results from giving feedback?