John is having a terrible day. The clocks changed last night, his alarm didn’t go off, and he’s woken up late for his morning meeting. Again. Adrenaline floods his system as he rummages through the week old washing pile on the floor, picks up a shirt that looks clean…ish, and loads up his laptop to join the sales team meeting.
His boss is fuming and calls John out in front of everyone. Usually John enjoys the discussion at weekly meetings but this time he feels embarrassed and doesn’t contribute anything.
The meeting comes to a close and everyone logs off. John was half expecting his manager to have a chat with him about his tardiness but yet again, he’s dodged a bullet. His annual review is next week so he’s guessing he’ll get an earful then.
During his end-of year review, John indeed received an ear bashing. Not only did his manager tell him that his time-management is unacceptable, but he tells him that he’s not hitting target, that his forecasts aren’t up to scratch and that team members have complained that he often dominates meetings. John leaves the review feeling dejected, disengaged, and demotivated – and begins to scroll through job postings.
Don't ever give negative feedback
Giving negative or critical feedback is something that many manager’s actively avoid. When I speak to managers on training days, many say it’s one of the most difficult parts of their job. Indeed, feedback can be tough to give – and tough to hear – but it shouldn’t ever leave an employee feeling criticised, disappointed, or demotivated.
In the opening example, John’s manager failed to give him feedback that motivated him to do better. In fact, the feedback made John feel so demotivated that he started looking for a new job. So what exactly were the mistakes?
Public: John’s manager called him out in a public setting which can be humiliating, unnecessarily harsh and can disrupt team dynamics.
Late: Addressing the behavior long after the fact diminished its impact.
Overwhelming: John’s manager saved up all feedback and delivered it in one hit. Providing a large amount of feedback, especially when it focuses on weaknesses, can be overwhelming and demotivating.
Imbalanced: John’s manager only gave negative feedback and did not acknowledge or reinforce any of John’s positive behaviours or strengths.
Negative and non-specific: John’s manager simply provided him with a laundry list of his weaknesses but said nothing that would help him improve – or make him want to.
Second-hand: John’s manager mentioned that team members had complained about him. Such feedback can create a sense of isolation, as he may perceive it as a collective criticism from his colleagues.
Essentially, John’s manager gave John a barrage of negative feedback that focussed on problems and offered no solutions. It’s no surprise that John left his review unmotivated and seeking another job opportunity. The scenario illustrates why managers should never give negative or critical feedback but rather, they should be seeking to provide developmental feedback.
How to give effective developmental feedback
While sometimes feedback can be tough to hear, the whole point is to motivate people to do better and set them up for future success. So, even when you’re addressing people’s weaknesses, remember why you’re doing it. Even unwelcome feedback can be delivered in a way that helps, rather than hinders.
Frequently & Timely:One problem, as experienced by John, is that feedback is often delivered long after the fact. Feedback is most beneficial when it's immediate and constructive. Providing feedback as close as possible to the event, rather than saving it for annual reviews, is crucial. If one-on-one meetings are already part of your schedule, working feedback into these sessions is an excellent way to maintain ongoing conversations that support your employees' development.
Face to Face: Written feedback is not nearly as effective as having face-to-face conversations. In one research study, it was found that continuous performance feedback delivered by a person, rather than by computer, resulted in higher levels of performance, motivation and task engagement. Plus, emails lack nuance and context required for clear understanding, leaving room for misunderstanding. Face-to-face feedback not only helps build better working relationships, but it shows a genuine commitment to their growth. It's all about having an open, honest conversation rather than just one-way information flow.
Be clear and specific: Don’t give stealth feedback! Be clear and let the person know you’re going to give them some feedback. This can be as simple as starting with: “I’m going to give you some feedback”. You could even ask them whether they’re in the right headspace to receive some feedback. Surprising someone with feedback, or trying to subtly work it into conversations creates opportunity for misunderstanding and can leave people feeling confused.
Equally important is to be specific. Generic feedback doesn't offer employees much guidance. For instance, when John’s manager tells him his forecasts aren’t acceptable without specifying what a good forecast looks like – or how to produce one – the feedback lacked any practical value. Had his manager encouraged a discussion on why his forecasts were substandard, they could have found solutions together.
Focus on behaviours: Being accusatory doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it can be counterproductive and cause people to be defensive. Instead, focus on behaviours. For example, rather than saying “you are always late for meetings”, you could try: “I’d like to talk to you about the impact of the late start to today’s meeting. Other people who were on the call had to repeat what was discussed when you joined, which meant we didn’t cover everything. Is there any reason you’re regularly late?”
Strength centred conversations: One of the biggest mistakes John’s manager made was focussing on his weaknesses instead of noticing his strengths. John’s dominant behaviour in meetings could be seen as enthusiasm that just needs a little toning down. Had the conversation started with this positive, his manager could have motivated him to keep contributing, but also started a conversation about the importance of good communication and active listening.
Make feedback personal: John’s manager missed the mark when he brought up the opinions of his team members. It suggested that John’s dominant behaviour in meetings was an opinion that was universally agreed upon and rightly made him feel isolated from the team and embarrassed. However, feedback is merely your opinion and unless other people are present, should stay as that. Use the pronoun “I” rather than “they” when having feedback conversations so that you emphasise that it's your perspective and not a collective judgement.
Quick to criticise, slow to praise
It's obvious why many managers hesitate to provide developmental feedback; it can be uncomfortable, stressful, and challenging. But what's surprising is that many managers admit to actively avoiding giving positive feedback.
Employees typically place a significant emphasis on receiving positive feedback. Offering positive feedback demonstrates to your team that you are on their side and committed to their success. Once your team knows that you're their advocate, it will make developmental feedback conversations much more comfortable and effective.
You can follow the same advice for giving developmental feedback: provide it frequently, in a timely manner, face-to-face, and on a personal level. Importantly, be specific! Instead of a general remark like 'good job,' outline when and how they excelled, as well as the positive impact it had.
A little more conversation please
Sorry, Elvis, but this time we'd like to engage in a bit more conversation. The traditional unidirectional feedback, where managers communicate with employees infrequently, in isolation, and primarily focused on mistakes, is outdated. Successful managers now engage in ongoing, open, honest, and two-way dialogues that revolve around employees' strengths and their future success. This is an integral part of the coaching aspect of being a manager, and it's something we invest a significant amount of time in for training.
If you're seeking to feel inspired and confident in providing both positive and developmental feedback on a daily basis, then have a look at our Sales Management and Leadership Open Program.
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