Communicating Feedback Effectively

Declan Mulkeen

9 May 2011

Why is it that, next to losing your job, a performance review is probably the least eagerly anticipated event in the office, both for managers and employees. Nobody enjoys giving or receiving difficult feedback but these conversations don’t need to be as stressful as they so often are.

The New York Times recently reported on research conducted by Google in a quest to find the characteristics of good managers. They analysed performance reviews, feedback surveys and other reports which led to a list of eight good behaviours for successful managers.

The first of these good behaviours is the ability to deliver constructive, balanced feedback.

Why feedback alone doesn’t work

Studies have shown that performance reviews rarely result in improved performance. While positive feedback is enjoyable, it doesn’t necessarily improve performance. Negative feedback also has little affect on performance or can make things worse.

It has been suggested that this is because rather than record our objective experience of the world, our minds create a subjective version of events. So, managers tend to see things one way and employees another, particularly when it comes to shortfalls in performance and the feedback we use to address these gaps. A positive self-image is crucial to our own well-being and so feedback in conflict with this creates an uncomfortable phenomena that psychologists call cognitive dissonance. We are then motivated to do everything we can to reduce the dissonance and we take the path of least resistance.

We could admit we’re just not as good as we thought we were but it’s much easier to rationalise or discount the feedback instead. So we either blame the shortfall in performance on factors beyond our control, like defective customers, or we discount the source of the feedback and blame our problems on our managers.

Let the employee drive the discussion

As a manager you can overcome these perceptual conflicts by reversing the traditional roles.

1. Let the employee drive the discussion by asking, rather than telling, when it comes to both performance feedback and goal setting.

2. Have your employees complete their own appraisal prior to the review meeting. Then start the discussion not with your evaluation of their performance, but with the question, “How did you do last year?” The right questions enable people to come to terms with the message and avoids potential misinterpretation.

3. Where there are performance shortfalls, ask your employees to suggest ways to address them. Not only will they have interesting ideas, they will also be far more willing to own them and take responsibility for their success. The same psychological dynamic holds true when employees generate their own objectives.

This isn’t turning the asylum over to the inmates. It is still your prerogative to decide if performance evaluation, development plans or objectives are appropriate. When you make your decision, however, it only makes sense to incorporate the employee’s view.

Not only does this leverage the way the mind works, it is a much easier and less stressful way to manage. The responsibility for managing performance is placed where it belongs — on the employee. The manager is no longer the driver, but is the facilitator or coach. This doesn’t mean that you don’t hold people rigorously accountable for results. In fact, it’s much easier when they’re the ones setting the objectives and evaluating performance.

 



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