Getting the news that your performance is inadequate can be harsh and even alienating. Most managers know that they need to be thoughtful and even careful when delivering critical input to an employee. Indeed, there are numerous processes that enhance the critical feedback situation. Yet, few employees know how to accept and use feedback to their advantage. Often, the internal consequences for employees are not at all pretty.
Truly effective feedback is fundamentally developmental. In other words, the manager focuses on the future far more than on the past. It’s also highly descriptive. What specific behaviors did you observe? Stay away from inferences and interpretations of motives. Boston University has an especially useful summary on the subject entitled, Giving Constructive Feedback.
What goes on
inside the recipient?
Managers always hope that recipients know how to accept and use feedback. But for many all feedback, especially when unsolicited, is toxic. The internal responses vary. Some allow anger and defensiveness to cloud their understanding. Some allow their emotions to escalate. A minority of employees will respond with guilt and fear, reacting internally with shame. Some provide explanations which the manager usually dismisses as excuses. And if the feedback is negatively exaggerated, some will focus on all the feedback rather than just the information that can be helpful.
What happens next all depends on the recipient. But the research reveals three responses. First, many will avoid their manager—often for up to two weeks. But even if the avoidance is limited, it’s also typical for the feedback recipient to be very cautious in passing on information to his manager. He filters the information and arranges it in such a way to make certain that the manager knows he heard the feedback and is doing something about it. That takes place in spite of the fact that often the recipient didn’t understand the feedback. So after feedback it’s not unusual for creativity, productivity and information flow to go south for a few days or weeks.
Furthermore, for all but the simplest of tasks, learning the correct actions typically requires some active search and processing about what will achieve the desired outcomes. And if the task is fairly complex, that increases the need for the person to explore the different impacts of actions. That’s a double bind. If the manager’s feedback amounts to handholding (highly specific, concrete and timely input) throughout the performance, you’ll get what you want—yet inhibit the learning. Alternatively, if you provide less frequent and specific feedback—no handholding—the result is often poorer practice, but better learning. That’s the result of the employees searching for action impacts.
What’s a manager
In one word: reconnect. And go about it starting the next day. Look for some definite behaviors on which to give positive feedback. If she asks tough questions during a meeting, commend her for them. And use your smiley face on the person occasionally. Yeah, I know. You think she’ll view you as fake, but guess what? That rarely happens.
In your wandering about the office, you can also check in on personal matters. “How was your son’s basketball game?” “Did your daughter hear back from her college application, yet?”
After giving tough feedback, the key issue is to be sure to connect with the employee and rebuild the relationship. Take action until you’re certain the employee is comfortable continuing the relationship with you.
Flickr photo: by Daniel Bachhuber