Feedback is information that we provide to our people about their job performance and their work-related behaviour in order to help them meet their goals and/or to reinforce desired behaviours.
It's important not to wait until scheduled appraisal conversations to provide the feedback that your people need – research shows that the more effective feedback they receive (the more often you give it) the better able they are to respond to their immediate supervisors' / managers' needs and the needs of UWA.
Providing regular feedback also ensures there are no surprises for employees during the formal Staff Appraisal process.
Frequently asked questions
- What’s the difference between ‘feedback’ and ‘criticism’ or ‘praise’?
Feedback in this context is information that someone can practically use to maintain or improve their effectiveness. Crucially, it focuses on the specifics of what someone did, doesn’t talk about whether the person himself or herself is good or bad and is uniquely focused on the future: how things can be better.
Criticism differs in that (a) it always focuses on what’s wrong, and (b) it’s always focused on the past, passing judgment on what’s been and gone. Praise also addresses the past only, saying that something was good. Both criticism and praise tend to be personal, since they often imply a judgment on the person themselves, not just on what that person did.
When managing people, feedback is the ‘gold standard’. Praise is fine, just not as good as feedback. And criticism is rarely, if ever, an appropriate option.
- I say ‘thank you’ to my employees all the time. Isn’t that enough?
Gratitude, like praise, is great – there should be more of it around! And still, feedback is the most effective way of maintaining or improving performance. This is because:
- Saying ‘thank you’ is non-specific – it doesn’t say what in particular was helpful.
- It’s very quick to say, and is a very common phrase. That means it can sound a little throw-away.
- It’s clearly not appropriate for addressing things that need to change!
- Is constructive feedback the same as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’?
- These terms are used here because all feedback should be positive in the sense that it is designed to encourage improvement. And feedback should never be negative for the same reason. Also, the word ‘constructive’ emphasises the fact that feedback will normally be about building small changes in behaviour, not imposing massive shifts.
- Being so structured doesn’t feel right, it sounds a bit stiff.
Using a model to deliver feedback definitely won’t feel natural, but this is the same for anything that you do for the first time. We should not rule out doing things because they feel a little uncomfortable or awkward at first; managers get paid to deliver results through the engagement of other people, and that may involve doing things that we wouldn’t choose to do normally.
People may argue that giving feedback in this way is formulaic and will therefore be less effective. But, above all, direct reports dislike:
- not getting enough feedback
- getting feedback that isn’t specific or constructive
- getting feedback that is insincere (and you can deliver feedback using a structure and be absolutely sincere – just think about the different ways people say ‘thank you’)
If you can avoid all these pitfalls without using a structure, that’s great. The danger of not using a structure is that you will end up not giving enough quality feedback.
Some managers feel awkward because using a structured approach to feedback makes them sound like a manager. And they don’t want to sound like a manager because that threatens their status as a friend and colleague. This is a whole other issue that is quite separate from giving feedback!
- What happens if my employees work out that I’m using a model to give feedback?
Great! All effective management tools are completely transparent, and the feedback model is no different. There should be absolutely no sense in which you are tricking your employees, or playing mind games: tell them exactly what you’re doing.
You might consider introducing the model by telling your employees that you are intending to give more, better feedback, and that you’re going to try using a structured approach to do so. There will be some laughs and scepticism at first, but people’s thirst for good feedback will soon get beyond all of that.
- How often should a manager give feedback to their employees?
As often as possible. Situations differ widely (number of direct reports, working patterns, differences in location), but a good general rule is to give feedback to at least one direct report at least once a day (like the proverbial apple) and always in any one-to-one meeting that you have.
Great people managers are continually focused on performance, and giving feedback is their day-to-day tool of choice. The great thing about giving feedback regularly is that everyone gets used to it – it’s no longer a big deal, either for the manager or the direct report. And that means that you are far less likely to have ‘crunch’ conversations (where nothing is said for ages and one day it all boils over).
- Isn’t that very time consuming?
- Delivering a piece of feedback takes about 20 seconds…
- I work in an open plan office. How can I give feedback in this environment?
It can be awkward to give feedback to someone in front of other people. At the same time, having to take people to one side or asking them to come into your office before you give feedback makes it highly likely that you just won’t give feedback at all – it’s just too much effort. So how do you deal with that?
Firstly, make sure that, as an absolute bare minimum, you give one piece of well-considered feedback in every one-to-one meeting that you have with each direct report. Doing that alone would probably place you in the top five per cent of managers in this respect.
Secondly, even in an open plan office, there are plenty of occasions when you can deliver feedback. People cross in the corridor, meet each other in the kitchen, leave a meeting together, get up to use the photocopier; all these occasions are where you can deliver a piece of feedback out of earshot of others.
Thirdly, it’s fine to deliver feedback to someone in an open plan office provided it’s done in a low voice and in a way that makes it clear that the feedback is intended for that person alone to hear. The fact that other people may overhear is much less of a problem since it is also clear that your intention is not to embarrass the recipient or their colleagues.
Lastly, there is an argument that we’re much too precious about this stuff! In many professions, it’s completely normal for people to get feedback within earshot of others, and this normality dispels the discomfort people may have. We have to be careful not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good: it’s better to give quality feedback in less-than-ideal conditions than not give feedback at all.
- I’m concerned that giving affirming feedback is a bit cheesy. Any thoughts?
- It’s only cheesy if you’re insincere, if you don’t really believe what you’re saying. If it’s sincere, then it will almost always be well received, such is the enthusiasm that people have to hear their contribution recognised, and so rare is it for someone to take the time to tell them specifically what it is about their work that is effective and why.
- I’ve heard about the ‘feedback sandwich’. Isn’t that a better model?
The feedback sandwich encourages you to deliver feedback in three bits: one piece of positive, one piece of negative, then one piece of positive (hence the sandwich). The idea is that the negative feedback is cushioned by the two bits of positive feedback and that makes it more digestible for the recipient.
Despite being a much-repeated recommendation, this has to be one of the worst pieces of management advice ever issued. There are so many reasons why the feedback sandwich is ineffective:
- If you have to accumulate three pieces of feedback (two positive, one negative) before you can deliver feedback to someone, the feedback will rarely be timely, and that will make it much less effective.
- If you can’t wait for three genuine pieces of feedback, you have to start inventing stuff which necessarily makes the delivery insincere. This is an example of a model which does make you sound false and manipulative.
- Sandwiching negative feedback in no way mitigates the problem of poor delivery. If the sandwich filling tastes awful, wrapping it in tasty bread (positive feedback) doesn’t really help.
- It is possible to have so much tasty bread that the taste of the filling is overpowered. What happens here is that the recipient doesn’t hear the negative feedback, and goes away feeling they have done an excellent job. This makes the negative feedback easier to deliver, but at the cost of it being in any way effective! This exposes the sandwich model for what it is: something to make delivery more comfortable for the manager (not more effective for the recipient).
- Using the sandwich means that you have a completely different way of delivering positive and negative feedback. This will very quickly become obvious to your employees (see next point) and also means that delivering adjusting feedback becomes an event, something you have to give lots of thought to. Much better to use exactly the same structure for all feedback – everyone gets used to the idea that it’s the same thing: information designed to encourage effective behaviour.
- This is not a model that remains effective (if it ever was) once the direct report knows you’re using it. They will ignore both the positive pieces of feedback and despise you for patronising them.
People want to receive good quality, honest feedback, even if it’s uniquely ‘negative’. They may not like you in the moment, but over time you will win their respect.
- Isn’t it better to ask my employees for their explanation before passing judgment?
Yes and no. Remember that the first thing to do is ‘Ask’. You need to consider as a manager whether it is appropriate for you to give feedback or not. Sometimes you may feel that feedback is inappropriate because you simply aren’t sure enough about what happened, and in these cases, it’s entirely appropriate to engage in discussion to find out more.
But there is rarely a situation where you are 100 per cent certain that you have all the facts, where you are 100 per cent certain that the behaviour you have referred to is exactly and unambiguously what happened. And there are some employees who will always be able to explain away their behaviour.
The key is to deliver the feedback when you are sure enough in your own mind, even if you know there is a chance you’re wrong. If your standard is 100 per cent, you will never give adjusting feedback. (Interestingly, most managers don’t feel that they need to be 100 per cent certain before giving affirming feedback). If your standard is less than 100 per cent, you’ll be right a lot of the time, and your employees will become more effective because of the feedback you give. And if you’re wrong…
- What happens if it turns out that I’m mistaken?!
It can happen that you give feedback and then find out that somebody didn’t do what you thought they did. For example, you give feedback to someone about being late and they tell you that they were in fact at work early, and have just been outside helping a student. Oops!
In this case, you simply apologise unreservedly. And provided you are giving feedback regularly, your relationship with that person won’t suffer unduly. When feedback is a daily experience, most of it will be affirming and most of it will be accurate. In this context, your employees will forgive you for getting it wrong occasionally, provided you apologise unreservedly. It’s when you give feedback very infrequently that it becomes a big deal. In this case it is reasonable for them to assume that you think the worst of them since they do not have a huge bank of valid feedback against which to compare this one piece of misplaced feedback.
- What do I do if my direct report disagrees with my feedback?
You may give one of your direct reports some adjusting feedback along these lines: “when you agree to do something by a certain time and you don’t do it by that time, it can cause problems for the service and slow us down”.
The beauty of this formulation is that the feedback is true even if you are mistaken about it applying to them on this occasion. So if they disagree (“…but I did do it on time”; “...but you didn’t tell me to do it by 4pm”; “…but you told me later not to do it without Yvonne’s help”), all you have to do is apologise unreservedly and let it drop. The purpose of feedback is to encourage effective behaviour, not for you to win an argument and prove you’re right.
If they’re right and you’re wrong about their behaviour on this occasion, an apology is completely appropriate. But the feedback statement remains true.
If they did behave as you think they did (and are being defensive in their response), it doesn’t matter because they have already received the feedback. They know that you know, they know that you believe their behaviour was ineffective, and they know why you believe that. That’s all that’s needed for the feedback to be effective. Your goal as a manager is to get the best results through your employees, and if their behaviour changes as a result of your feedback, what do you care if you didn’t win the argument?
This is easier said than done, of course, since it is so tempting to get into an argument to prove that you were right, to get them to admit that they were wrong. But focusing on the aim of feedback – to encourage effective behaviour – should tell us that we just need to walk away and leave our employees to think about the feedback and how they will act in future.
- What happens if behaviour doesn’t change after I’ve given adjusting feedback?
Feedback is similar to the little turns of the steering wheel a driver makes as they drive normally along any road. These turns happen frequently and there’s no drama involved. A major change in direction only happens in the face of a really significant incident, and this happens rarely.
So if behaviour doesn’t change after giving a drama-free piece of feedback, you simply give another piece of drama-free feedback, and keep repeating until there’s an effect. It’s about being consistent, persistent and firm but also not making a big deal out of it.
- And what happens if it still doesn’t change?!
- This can happen, of course, even with the best managers who do all the right things. But it’s important to remember here that so many cases of poor performance arise because of a failure on the part of managers to manage effectively – or even at all. Having lots of drama-free conversations about performance makes dramatic conversations much less likely and much less difficult if and when they do arise.