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Five Common Myths about Employee Feedback

By Joe Sherwood

In recent times, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in how people discuss and think about the employee feedback process. Traditionally, feedback has been discussed and researched through the lens of the annual or semi-annual performance appraisal or review. Within this framework, a manager might evaluate the performance of each individual employee throughout the year, and offer feedback based on this evaluation. You don’t have to search very hard to find people willing to complain about the utility of this practice, and due to technological advances, we’ve seen a dramatic shift toward continuous performance management, which includes delivering real-time feedback throughout the year, month, week, or even workday.

By capitalizing on these tools, managers, coworkers, and employees can more easily navigate the feedback process, and both give and receive high quality feedback, thereby enhancing individual, team, and organizational performance. And while having access to these tools may be an important first step, great feedback only happens when providers and seekers are equipped with an understanding of the right and wrong ways to give and seek out feedback [engage in the feedback process]. As an industrial-organizational psychologist with special interest in feedback, I have spent a considerable amount of time combing through the vast amount of content published on the topic. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that there is a gap between what we’ve learned from psychological research and science, and the multitude of opinions dedicated to helping you solve the feedback problem. Simply put, a lot of what has been written about feedback is wrong.

By relying on the huge scientific body of work dedicated to feedback, I will cut though the sea of opinions, and highlight the 5 most common myths about feedback.

Myth #1 – Any feedback is better than no feedback

I know my parents weren’t the only people on the planet to utter the platitude “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While this isn’t always true for feedback, I might offer up the phrase “if you don’t understand how to provide quality feedback, don’t bother until you do.” This is because poorly delivered feedback not only doesn’t work much of the time, it can actually cause harm. In fact, one meta-analysis showed that just over one third of organizational feedback efforts don’t work, and actually lead to performance decreases. The good news is that nearly two thirds of the time, feedback initiatives that are done well work to enhance learning and increase performance.

Lesson learned: if you plan to make feedback a part of your performance management practices, take the time to learn to do it well. The effort will pay off.

Myth #2 – Employees don’t really want feedback

It’s easy to see how some people could arrive at the conclusion that as a whole, most people don’t actually want to receive feedback. It’s entirely possible that this misconception is rooted in the aforementioned finding that a lot of feedback actually does suck, and it’s likely true that people want bad feedback about as much as they want a root canal. Thus, it would be more accurate to say that employees don’t want poor quality feedback. In truth, research has shown that employees frequently report a desire for feedback. What’s more, this body of research has uncovered three primary feedback seeking motives:

1. Instrumental – we seek feedback because we actually desire to improve, and we believe that feedback will help.

2. Ego enhancement – we seek feedback because it makes us feel good and have a better self-image when others pat us on the back for a job well-done

3. Image enhancement – we seek feedback because we believe it will make us look better in some way

Lesson learned: If you’re in a position to provide feedback, remember that those in a position to receive it actually do want it, as long as your feedback leads to performance improvements (instrumental), ego enhancement, and/or image enhancement.

Myth #3 – Negative feedback is best served as the meat of a “positive feedback sandwich”

I’ve seen the feedback sandwich idea quite a bit. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s quite simple, it supposes that if you must deliver negative feedback, it’s best to deliver positive feedback before and after. It’s an attractive idea because it makes a complex problem seem simple to do. In truth, doing feedback well is a little more involved than that, especially when you have to be critical. Research [double check citation] has shown that when the sandwich tactic is used, employees see right through it, and tend to focus on the bad news, paying little attention to the positive comments. When the supervisor makes a positive comment after the negative feedback, this signals that the punishment is over. As my grandma used to say, “A shit sandwich on the best bread is still a shit sandwich.” A lot of research has been dedicated to figuring out the best ways to deliver critical feedback, but none of them involve a sandwich.

Lesson learned: critical feedback is an integral component to feedback process, and should be delivered thoughtfully, carefully, and only as necessary.

Myth #4 – Managers are solely responsible for delivering feedback

As a subordinate employee, it may be easy to place the burden of feedback interactions on your supervisor or manager, and honestly, it’s not a completely erroneous assumption. This is because managers are in a unique position to create environments where employee crave feedback. On the flip side, employees cannot, and should not, be expected to seek feedback from a manager or supervisor who has consistently failed to provide quality feedback. However, research [add citation] has demonstrated repeatedly that feedback must come from someone possessing expertise related to the feedback. In many cases, this person is not the manager. In a modern work environment, projects can change rapidly, involve the integration of team work, and cut across disciplines. Instead of sticking with the notion that a manager is the only person qualified to provide feedback, feedback systems should be built around social networks that develop over time as projects come and go. Further, managers often have the difficult task of managing several people while still completing their own work tasks. Moreover, employees are often in the best position to know precisely when they need feedback. While it is the job of the manager to create an environment that promotes feedback seeking, employees should also actively seek out feedback from the appropriate channels.

Lesson learned: Managers are responsible for creating the feedback environment, but quality feedback can, and often should, come from coworkers or others with relevant expertise. Feedback should be considered a partnership where managers actively provide feedback, and employees actively seek it.

Myth #5 – Feedback happens in a vacuum

Ok, so maybe no one actually believes this, but many people talk and write about feedback without ever mentioning how it is connected to the larger performance management system. Quality feedback requires thoughtful planning, goal setting, social networking, flexibility, and is often connected to performance evaluation, employee learning and development, and decision making.

Lesson learned: When considering initiating feedback processes, consider how feedback is connected to other performance enhancing processes, and plan accordingly.