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Feedback Done Right: Tips from Behavioral Science

By Joe Sherwood

I know my parents weren’t the only people on the planet to say, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” And while this cliché doesn’t quite capture the delicate nature of performance-based feedback, there is some wisdom in it. In fact, poorly delivered feedback not only doesn’t work most of the time, it can actually cause harm. One meta-analysis of feedback research showed that over one third of organizational feedback efforts led to performance decreases. The good news is that nearly two thirds of the time, feedback initiatives done well work to enhance learning and increase performance, and you can vastly improve the odds of success with a bit of training on how to deliver effective feedback. The following tips from behavioral science may help guide feedback training efforts.

Feedback should mostly be in the form of praise

The purpose of regular feedback is to help employees and teams convey the appropriate behaviors, allowing them to perform at their best, and adapt in the precise moment it’s necessary. Behavioral and psychological research has consistently shown that the best way to cultivate effective work behaviors (or any desired behavior) is through positive reinforcement or praise. In fact, research shows that praise needs to far outweigh any form of negative feedback – a ratio of about 6:1. It makes sense. You want your employees to have a positive self-view because it impacts engagement and performance in just about every way, and praise is one of the best ways to cultivate a positive self-view. Conversely, if a manager is being more critical than positive toward an employee, that employee is likely not trust that manager, get really down in the dumps, and/or withdraw, rather than engage in work.

Unfortunately, providing consistent positive reinforcement is not how many people naturally work. There’s a reason the old saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” is so widely known and repeated. The truth is that many, perhaps most, people must be trained or mindfully train themselves to always look for and comment on the good they see around them. The most effective managers do this. Managers who find it difficult to find things to praise for a given employee should reconsider the kinds of tasks that are assigned to that person. Managers should assign tasks they’re confident the employee can carry out, praise them for doing so, and develop them via strategic goal setting and positive reinforcement into a person who can accomplish more difficult tasks.

“Constructive criticism” is an oxymoron

One thing should be clear; “criticism” is never constructive. To criticize someone is to point out something that is wrong with the person. This doesn’t help anyone. Criticism is more likely to result in defensiveness, shame, and a reduced sense of self-efficacy and performance, not positive behavior change. When an employee exhibits a behavior that harms the team or the organization, managers should be having constructive dialogue. Constructive dialogue is a brainstorming session focused on behavior, and how a range of different behaviors could strengthen the team, relationship, or individual, or how a specific behavior may threaten the functioning of any of these things.

Constructive dialogue helps everyone. It helps employees because it does not threaten their self-esteem, and it helps them acquire new skills and ways of approaching problems, which makes them more valuable both within the organization and outside it. Constructive dialogue helps managers because as their employees learn new skills, behaviors, and strategies, managing gets easier. It’s nice when all you have to do is go around patting people on the back for a consistent job well done. Squeaky wheels do need grease; it just needs to be the right kind of grease; and more importantly, all wheels need grease. There’s a reason you’d want to refer to your team as a “well-oiled machine.”

Ditch the sandwich

But what if I give some “positive reinforcement,” then some constructive criticism, then follow it up with more “positive reinforcement?” The short answer is, don’t do that. This oft used approach, nicknamed “the feedback sandwich,” doesn’t work because people aren’t dumb. If you don’t typically approach your employee to give them feedback, and suddenly you show up to give them a piece of “constructive criticism” sandwiched between two compliments, trust me, they see what you just did there. Research shows that when this tactic has been used, employees tend to focus on the bad news, and pay little attention to the positive comments. When the manager makes a positive comment after the negative feedback, this signals that the punishment is over. This approach leads to defensiveness, lower self-esteem, a negative attitude toward the feedback process, and lower performance.

Feedback should be timely

Feedback works most effectively when it happens in quick response to the target behavior. To continue with the analogy of the squeaky wheel, this doesn’t mean just when you hear the wheel squeaking. You must train yourself or your managers to be mindful of when the wheel is silent, running smoothly, and/or when it turns quickly and efficiently to avoid obstructions or take a better path in the precise moment it’s needed, and then give that wheel a good squirt of “maintenance grease” (aka, a good pat on the back for doing its job in a way that helps the whole system run better). Keep doing this. Make this a part of your regular managerial routine. This should be a good majority of the “manager” role.

When there is something that is negatively impacting the smooth and agile ride of the “cart” or team, managers should address it the moment they notice it, pointing out, in very helpful ways, to the employee how the specific behavior(s) negatively impacts you, the team, or the team’s performance or functioning. By catching this in the moment, employees have an easier time grasping the cause (behavior) and effect (consequence) relationships. Managers must also be open to hearing the employee’s perspective, be ready to offer suggestions for how the employee can display the correct behavior, and if possible, provide them with an appropriate model or example of what this could look like.

Feedback should be clear and direct

Being clear and direct means communicating the specific consequences of behavior. It also means providing clear examples of what the appropriate or desired behavior looks like. While managers should actively try to act as proper role models, and provide clear examples, they should also remember to allow the employee autonomy to interpret their suggestions, and make their own recommendations. Managers should allow them a voice to provide an alternate way to approach the “problem.” Managers should also encourage the employee to bring their own ideas to the table, reward them for having and sharing ideas by highlighting what they like about their ideas, and how they can be applied to their work. Managers should look for and point out how these ideas benefit the team. This doesn’t mean they must apply every idea, but they should be able to communicate why another way of doing something is more effective. Ultimately, as a manager, you’re responsible for your team’s performance. When something’s just got to be done a certain way (as is the case with many jobs where safety and threat of loss of life is real), be ready to show concrete and compelling reasons why it just has to be that way.

Feedback sessions should convey empathy

Good feedback represents an effective exchange of information between two people. The effectiveness of this exchange depends on a relationship of trust, and one of the best ways to build trust is to actively seek to understand the perspective of the other person. Managers and employees should sincerely listen to one another’s point of view, their ideas, their feelings, and validate their experiences. Sometimes, sincere empathy involves more listening and validation than problem solving. In precise terms, this means momentarily shutting down your internal problem solver, deeply listening to the employee’s concerns, repeating back to the employee those concerns to display you’ve understood them or to gain clarity, visualizing yourself in their shoes, and then validating their feelings (e.g., “that experience must have been devastating”). Once the employee feels understood and validated, only then can you engage in constructive dialogue and problem solving.

Feedback needs to come from a place of expertise

In most cases, managers are expected to be experts in the subject matter most germane to their team’s performance and functioning. And if managers are expected to give feedback to employees about their task performance, they really better possess this expertise. Research shows that employees are far less likely to use feedback if they don’t trust the level of expertise or competence behind it. In situations where managers are assigned to supervise people who have expertise in a domain that is foreign to them, they should be able to connect and facilitate a relationship with the appropriate expert.