What did you say? Feedback? What’s that?

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

One of my least pleasant experiences as a consultant is to begin work with a company, do an assessment and discover that a manager or key employee is functioning in the “3” range on a scale where superior performance is “9.”

Bringing someone such as this up to a satisfactory level, say “7,” is going to take a lot of work, and the odds of her being able to do it are not good. One reason is the person truly believes she is doing a good job. Has this person suddenly somehow become infected with the incompetence virus? Probably not. The answer is simpler, throughout her career no one has given her frank, direct feedback about her performance and she slides along without self-awareness.

Two summers ago, the Gallup Group released a study based on the Q12 showing that 67 percent of employees surveyed stated they had not received any type of feedback in the past 60 days. Gallup also has data that show employees who do not receive timely feedback are not engaged in their work. Employee engagement is a key predictor of productivity and job satisfaction. OMG!

It is impossible to give timely, explicit feedback if you are not comfortable being candid. Candor is an essential ingredient in creating a transparent work-place and is in short supply. Jack Welch, in his book Winning, notes that candor has three major effects in companies:

–It gets people into the conversation, and with more ideas and frank discussions, better decisions are the potent outcome.

–Candor generates speed, and speed in our competitive economy is a powerful competitive advantage.

–Candor cuts costs by eliminating meaningless, non-contributing functions such as pointless meetings and lack of follow-through.

Why then is candor so hard, even for those of us who know its value and have had success using it? Suzy Welch in Winning says we are trained to be nice and this is the reason for our lack of candor. Another compelling explanation is that candor often elicits a negative emotional response from the receiver and most of us don’t care much for conflict in our lives. The easiest way to limit conflict is escape and avoidance

Another factor that limits the power of feedback is the mistaken idea that all feedback must be positive. I grant this is the case in training dogs, but people can think. Consider this thought experiment. You carry out an important piece of work successfully and receive prompt, thoughtful positive feedback from a respected colleague. Now imagine the obverse situation, doing a rather poor piece of work and either getting no feedback or some carefully drafted, sensitive negative feedback from the same respected colleague. Which situation is more likely to catalyze self-examination and behavior change?

Reflecting upon these situations, mistakes are a more information-rich source for behavior change. When I make blunders it’s more likely I will replay the memory tape, studying, analyzing and strategizing about how to do it better next time. The second key point is the use of the term mistake rather than a synonym with a more negative connotation such as blame or failure. This leads us to the unquestionable importance of how and by whom the message is delivered. Coaching and mentoring usually involves negative as well as positive messages. The impact of such messages is in the telling and in the reaction elicited.

An effective feedback process has five major elements:

• Choose the time and place with care. Most employees prefer private one-on-one interactions, be they positive or negative. Never give negative feedback in front of peers or in public, this is a major morale killer.

• Describe as succinctly as you can the behavior, situation or event; make it clear what you are talking about. Vagueness is a trust killer. Make sure you are prepared and be economical and focused in your comments.

• When giving feedback to improve performance, perhaps the major omission by managers is a failure to concretely connect the event in question to its results. People need to understand that what they do or don’t do has effects in the workplace. Make the connection explicitly.

• Probably the most important element is the tone you use in carrying out the conversation. It’s a general rule of human interaction that in most cases emotion trumps reason. Thus, it is essential that the interaction not be perceived as being punitive. Managers who are best at feedback are low key, even casual in their approach. They see it as an everyday occurrence and maintain a consistently neutral or positive emotional tone.

• The final ingredient of good feedback is the understanding that you are trying to build an effective working relationship with this person. The core principle is that respectful behavior builds trust.

Unfortunately, evidence exists that reading this article is not very likely to change behavior. Although the above process appears elementary, its skilled practice requires a good deal of tacit knowledge that can only be learned through experience.

Start using frequent feedback and watch people improve.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.