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The feedback myth: Everybody hates it

March 8, 2017

What helps an employee do a better job? In a word: feedback. The US government’s Office of Personnel Management compares feedback to the childhood game where the hider shouts out ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ as the seeker grows closer to, or further from, the hidden object. Whether the hider tells you you’re hot or cold, it’s helpful. Without that advice, you’re flying blind.

What’s true in our childhood is also true in the workplace. Feedback makes for better performance. The issue is: how to deliver it effectively?

The feedback myth

It’s a common myth about feedback that people will do anything rather than face it. In fact, according to Zenger and Folkman’s paper Feedback: The Powerful Paradox, 94% of 2,700 people surveyed said that corrective feedback improves their performance when it is presented well.

It’s those final five words that are the kicker: when it is presented well.

Anyone who has given or received feedback during a performance review knows the difficulty of putting over corrective feedback – feedback which points out where an employee can make an improvement.

The problem is that while managers know giving feedback is a crucial part of their role, they are seldom helped to do it well. When feedback plays such an important part in improving performance daily, doing it well is the lifeblood of continual organizational improvement.

Timing is everything

One problem with mainstream models of feedback is a still common belief that it should be confined to the annual performance review. I have blogged previously about the failings of the annual review. One issue is that the performance review typically becomes a ritual where the form of what is done (the preparation, the meeting, the subsequent entry of data into a system) is more important and useful than the content of those meetings.

Another problem: annual performance reviews are not fit for purpose because they usually provide feedback far too late for it to be useful. Regular feedback, at more frequent intervals, is far more useful in altering behavior.

But more frequent feedback can also turn into an empty ritual without two things. One is adequate processes and systems, including an agreed understanding of how good work is defined. The other is more fundamental: Good feedback need managers capable of delivering it.

Improving feedback with transparency

Not everyone feels equally about delivering feedback. As Zenger and Folkman’s research shows, a manager’s confidence is a strong predictor of a willingness to provide corrective feedback. However, while self-confident managers may be willing to provide feedback, they may not necessarily be doing it well. The stereotype of the unconsciously incompetent manager dishing out well-meant, but useless, feedback is not confined to the fictional world of TV’s The Office.

How can managers be enabled to provide better feedback and so improve the performance management they provide? There are many ways that an organization can make it easier for managers to present feedback well, from training to having a supportive culture, but there is one that underpins the rest: a transparent, shared sense of what good work looks like.

Being clear about ‘what good looks like’ has several advantages. It provides a way of keeping the overly confident manager on track, but it also allows the under-confident manager a way of being sure they are focusing on the right things (and, as Zenger and Folkman point out, introverted managers are inclined to avoid giving feedback altogether).

Most of all, though, clarity of what defines good performance makes feedback less stressful for the employee, for two reasons. First, it removes much of the subjectivity from a conversation about performance, dialing back the emotion in what can be a difficult conversation. Second, it improves feedback by making it specific, focused on the detail of performance, not generalized.

Defining expectations

In a small organization this clarity can be achieved by ensuring good communication between all employees and managers. In larger organizations, while this is important, it is not sufficient. Sharing goals across an enterprise requires the right system.

Using Infor Performance Management, enterprises can define performance expectations with clearly established evaluation criteria. Those criteria are essential. They are how we defined what ‘good’ looks like, providing that all-important clarity that good feedback requires.

But such a system would be a strait jacket without the ability to also create new goals on-the-spot, as business conditions demand. Infor Performance Management allows that. It also allows goals and criteria to be re-appraised over time, to ensure they stay relevant.

Doing the right thing the right way

One of the key findings in Zenger and Folkman’s paper is that “Virtually every employee in the organization wants more feedback.” And two thirds of the 2,700 people surveyed agreed with the statement that “my performance and possibilities for success in my career would have been substantially increased if I had been given more feedback.”

This is an overwhelming mandate for organizations to provide feedback more often and better targeted. If organizations want to enhance their employees’ immediate performance and longer term career success, they must take a systematic approach to providing transparent, specific feedback.

Marcus Mossberger, Infor Industry Strategy Director, Healthcare

  • Talent Management
  • North America
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