Feedback is critical but why is it broken in companies?
Updated: Aug 23
In a recent workshop, I asked the participants to share how often they received feedback. Before I even finished my question, I saw the expressions on their faces transform into those of agony, sadness, and confusion. The war stories about the feedback they received ensued. “Feedback,” clearly, had negative connotations driven by past experiences of frustration and confusion. For some, thinking about giving feedback to their employees was also cringeworthy.
Gallup's 2020 survey found that engagement of remote workers varied a lot with the frequency of feedback they received. It increased from 10% for employees who received feedback once a year to 63% for those who received feedback on a weekly basis. Moreover, 47% of respondents reported that they receive feedback a few times a year or less. In line with this data, only about 35% of U.S. employees feel engaged at work.
Feedback is a critical and seemingly simple tool to boost engagement and performance, why
is it then so challenging for managers and employees alike?
Employees want to receive constructive feedback but dread badly delivered feedback
On the receiving end, many employees really want to receive input on how they are doing but they don’t get any direct feedback or get only negative feedback when they mess up while their positive contributions do not get acknowledged. Others get vague feedback (”You should do better”, “The quality isn’t there”, “You’re not quite ready for that promotion”) without specific examples of performance gaps or concrete suggestions for improvement.
Alternatively, especially in big companies, managers (sometimes under the pressure of the human resources department) give nit-picky feedback aimed at lowering and average performance score to fit within corporate ranking criteria (”We cannot promote you because you did well on these 5 metrics but scored lower than average on this 6 metric”).
Finally, especially women and minorities (or folks working outside of their home culture), report receiving judgmental feedback. It relies on perceptions of personal characteristics and doesn’t discuss the merit of one’s work (”You’re too aggressive/emotional/sensitive/extraverted/ introverted/ ambitious/ passive etc.,”).
In all the above examples, feedback is either not applied or is applied incorrectly to punish employees instead of helping them grow and achieve better results. In fact, only 26% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they get helps them do better work, according to Gallup research. The negative relationship individuals develop with giving and receiving feedback often gets replicated when they themselves become managers.
Managers are afraid of negative reactions or don’t know how to structure their feedback
There are many reasons why managers avoid giving feedback. One study showed that 69% of managers felt uncomfortable communicating with employees.
Some managers worry about ruining the relationship, fearing an emotional reaction or even retaliation in response to negative feedback.
Others may be overloaded with other priorities or not see giving feedback as an important part of their role, expecting the employee to sink or swim.
A third group feels insecure because it may not have the proper strategies for giving feedback in a structured way. Alternatively, it may lack the domain expertise (i.e. a non-technical person managing a technical team) to know how to properly evaluate the employee’s performance.
A small subset thinks that giving positive feedback may spoil employees and make them entitled.
All these groups are not mutually exclusive.
Organizational cultures and structures can make feedback challenging
On an organizational level, in some companies, the formal feedback process killed the real purpose of feedback by making it into an annual performance evaluation, compensation and weeding out exercise. This leads to internal competitions and political games.
Managers dread this bureaucracy.
Performance management systems require regular input (quarterly or annual). Managers then end up devising superficial scripts with anecdotal examples that help rationalize the (sometimes arbitrary) the assigned scores.
Once scores are agreed upon and bonuses are allocated, managers are then left to tell the story to the employee who may find her or himself trying to decipher why he or she is a 3 and not a 5. It’s so awkward for both sides.
Thankfully, many companies, following the steps of giants such as Deloitte, Microsoft, GE, and Amazon, are ditching stack-ranking, having realized it creates unhealthy competition and reduces morale, annual performance reviews are also coming out of fashion, to be replaced with just-in-time feedback.
In startups, feedback may be challenging for different reasons. Everything changes so fast and individuals are often thrust into leadership positions without proper training, resources or coaching from their own managers.
When young and ambitious individuals are given a lot of responsibility without proper training, bad things can happen. Uber, Away, Revolut, and SoFi were just a few cases in point. Inexperienced leaders often avoid giving any feedback or give feedback that is superficial (“I’ll write/say anything to get this out of my way”) or retaliatory (“I don’t like this person, so let me give them a piece of my mind” or “this person is smarter than me, so let me make sure they don’t get too far”). In many startups, there is no one to get coaching or training from nor the time to stop to think about why feedback is important.
So, what’s next?
While big companies need to revise their feedback and performance evaluation processes to be more agile and streamlined, startups can benefit from more structure via a formal process to incentivize and train employees to give and receive feedback regularly. There are also many different tools in the market that can help with integrating feedback into the company’s day-to-day operations. Make sure, though, that before you go and spend money on systems and consultants, make sure that you have the right foundations.
A culture of feedback needs to start from the top. Company’s C-level team (and then subsequent leadership levels) must mirror and reinforce the following behaviors if they want to energize their employees and build more effective organizations:
1. Prepare to give feedback
As feedback can be an emotional ordeal for both sides, as previously discussed, it’s important to prepare to help flush out some of these feelings. Make sure to write down the key points and examples you’d like to share. This will help you focus on the most important issues and communicate them more clearly.
2. Make feedback timely
It doesn’t make sense to give employees feedback once a year and expect them to improve when they don’t even remember what it was that they did wrong in the first place (and let’s admit it, often neither does the manager remember properly and must rely on perceptions instead). Regardless of your company’s formal feedback process, you should give timely feedback, both positive and constructive, close to the action to reinforce or correct behaviors.
3. Reframe the relationship with feedback
Feedback should be an input for an employee's growth instead of a punishment. It therefore should be future-oriented. Instead of focusing on pointing out everything that’s wrong, think about how to help the employee not repeat the same mistakes in the future. Provide more context about why the behavior or skill is relevant, give examples of work well done and offer strategies and processes they could develop over time, especially if you have previously been in their shoes.
Adopting this approach turns you into a coach who is vested in the employee’s success, instead of a judge who rules on their innate ability to do something. This makes feedback less emotionally straining for both sides. The employee can see that you want their best, and you are also forced to think about how to ensure that he or she improves instead of worrying about their emotional reaction. This can be especially useful for conflict-avoidant individuals (you know who you are!).
Instead of: “Johnny, here are all the things you did wrong in the report you prepared”
Try: “Johnny, let’s draw some lessons from what happened and figure out how you could create more impactful reports in the future. Here are some examples of very well-structured reports. Use them as a model to help you structure the next one. We can review the next few versions together but then I’d expect you to run this on your own.”
Some employees may still get defensive regardless. Approaching feedback from a positive place gives them the chance and benefit of the doubt and lets you know whether they are coachable or not. You can also dig deeper to see if there’s another external problem that impacts their performance.
4. Be specific and concise
Anxiety about giving feedback may lead to the temptation of fluffing one’s message with compliments, stories and other details to help soften the blow.
Some training programs incorrectly emphasize the feedback sandwich (wrapping the actual negative feedback with a positive preface and conclusion). This approach can backfire because instead of making employees more receptive, it makes them more anxious. They quickly figure out what’s going on and then spend all their cognitive resources on trying to figure out what’s coming for them. The positive stuff will either get ignored or used to rationalize why the negative part can be ignored.
Instead of going around in circles, move straight to the point, provide clear examples of what didn’t work well and what you expect output to look like in the future.
Instead of: “Renata, you need to improve your presentation skills.”
Try: “Renata, I’d like to give you feedback about the strategic plan you presented in the management meeting. It was clear that you put an effort, but you were speaking very fast and missed several critical points about the market structure, competitor moves and key risks. This made the team’s decision about the next steps difficult. Moreover, you ignored the product director’s concerns and she ended up derailing the discussion. These issues led to further delays in approving and implementing the project. Next time, make sure to better organize your time and structure of your presentation and most importantly, align expectations with the different stakeholders ahead of the meeting, especially if their buy-in plays a critical role in the project’s success. You could also send materials ahead of the meeting, so we make sure that we have enough time to discuss.”
5. Don’t make feedback about people but about their actions
When an employee’s style or knowledge level is different from yours, it’s easy to become judgmental and attribute their performance to some innate characteristics. Judgmental feedback is easier to blurt out but it is confusing and alienating for employees and is unlikely to help them improve their performance.
Avoid: “You are too aggressive / sensitive / confusing / difficult”
Try: “When you did x, it had the following effect on the project outcomes or the people involved. Can we explore other ways of handling this kind of situation?"
Or: “It seems that we have different communication styles/understanding of the problem/approaches of doing things. Can you explain your approach better? Let me share how I would have handled this situation.”
6. Clarify understanding and next steps
Communication is not about what you said but about what the other party understood. Leaders who don’t internalize this message find themselves again and again surprised when employees end up doing something completely different from what they expected them to do. To make sure that feedback sticks and leads to positive growth results, double-check that the employee is on the same page.
Confirm their understanding by asking for feedback on your feedback: “Enzo, what do you think? Does it make sense? Am I missing something that I may not be aware of?” It gives them a chance to share any other factors that affect their performance and therefore approach). This is where they may ask for further clarifications and/or examples.
Ensure that you have their buy-in, that they know what they need to do next and that they come out of the meeting with at least a minimal plan: “Linda, please confirm your next steps to me. Is there anything I can do to support you with this?”
Sometimes the feedback is complex, unexpected, or requires very big adjustments from the employee. Give them the space to process instead of forcing immediate reaction and/or action. You can instead offer them time to reflect and schedule another meeting at a later time.
7. Don’t forget to give positive feedback and celebrate small (and big) wins
One manager shared that her worst boss always criticized the team’s work but never gave praise when something was well done. Leaders with high standards can become so focused on delivering flawless results that their modus operandi becomes pointing out everything that’s wrong until it gets corrected. Despite one’s best intentions, he or she can then become the negative element in the minds of employees - the bearer of bad news. Celebrating the positives shows employees that the effort and dedication they bring to work every day aren’t taken for granted. It also helps build their confidence and reinforce positive behaviors.
You do not need to wait for a major win of a million-dollar contract to celebrate. It can be as simple as pointing out something that the employee did really well, like coming up with a differentiated idea (”Wow Yin, you had such a great idea during the meeting. It really moved us forward”) or a special skill they have (”Dina, you are so good at articulating the issues at stake and focusing on the most strategic points. It made a big difference in the last few meetings. Keep doing this and raising your hand if you see us drifting in the wrong direction”).
All of the above are simple suggestions when put together can make a big difference in your work environment.
One final food for thought: there's a tendency to think that senior leaders may not need structured feedback because they can figure out on their own how they are doing. The reality is quite the opposite. As they are dealing with higher complexity and uncertainty, feedback is crucial for knowing if they are going in the right direction and how others perceive their actions. Giving more structured feedback may save you a lot of money and time by coaching them to succeed instead of replacing them once they failed.
What is the feedback culture like in your company?