Why is Giving Feedback so Hard?

I recently had a meeting with a manager that I had worked with and he asked me about a challenge he was facing in putting feedback into practice.

We had worked on helping him to use both affirming and adjusting feedback.

  • Affirming feedback is given when an employee exhibits a good behaviour at work and the manager wants to show that it has been noticed, recognised and appreciated in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will be used again.
  • Adjusting feedback is used when the work behaviour or product is not up to organisational standards and the manager wants the employee to consider ‘what they could differently next time’.  They are looking to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour re-occurring.

Providing more affirming feedback than adjusting feedback will build a culture that is open to feedback and builds relationships that means adjusting feedback, when given, is more likely to be accepted constructively and acted upon.

This manager was fine on spotting opportunities to give adjusting feedback but was finding it much harder to find opportunities to give affirming feedback.  He was rightly worried that if he did not keep a healthy balance then his feedback would become ineffective, and he would be seen to be seen as overly critical and negative, driving the organisational culture and the moral of staff in the wrong direction

There are several reasons why some managers struggle with affirming feedback:

Many, perhaps most, managers are ‘tuned’ to look for, and sort out, problems. Good performance is taken for granted (indeed barely noticed) while any performance issues are recognised and corrected. This ‘management by exception‘ can be effective and efficient in the short term. However in the long term it leads to an unhealthy focus on performance problems and a culture where employees feel under-valued and taken for granted.  Discipline yourself to recognise, value and feedback on good work – reject the philosophy of management by exception.

Managers who are very task oriented and dominant tend to undervalue the power of affirming feedback in building relationships.  Discipline yourself to recognise and celebrate employee success with affirming feedback. You may not feel that this is helping with the task at hand – but it will help, if done well, to build a better relationship.  And this will have a direct impact on achievement in the longer term.

Some managers find it hard to recognise the kind of behaviours that should trigger affirming feedback because they have lost touch with the values, vision and mission of the organisation and their role in supporting them in practice.   If the organisation ‘values’ innovation and risk taking then it is vital that managers give affirming feedback when employee behaviours support these values.   Using affirming feedback to recognise employees who are supporting mission, vision and values and letting them know that their work is recognised and valued is important in building a performance culture and ensuring that those desired behaviours are repeated and spread.  This style of ‘appreciative management’  is incredibly effective in engendering a positive culture of performance and ensuring that organisational mission, vision and values are brought to live in day to day work. Look out for behaviours that bring mission, vision or values to life and provide affirming feedback. 

Some managers have become detached from the people management aspects of their role.  They manage task lists and performance metrics – but they don’t invest the time in seeing what their employees and team members actually do.   Tom Peters popularised the term ‘Managing by Wandering About’ – or MBWA.  If you are struggling to find examples of employee behaviour to provide the foundation for affirming feedback perhaps a little more time out of the office and working with the team might help.

There are no rigid rules on this – but most managers give way too little feedback.  Many give none at all outside of the formal performance review process.   For each report that you have you should be aiming to give on average at least 4 pieces of feedback each and every day.  Affirming feedback should outnumber adjusting feedback  in a ratio of 3 or 4:1.  If you can develop the volume of feedback that you give to this sort of level I guarantee that team performance will develop rapidly.

If you would like to use feedback to improve morale, culture and performance in your workplace then please do get in touch.

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