How to improve giving feedback to employees

Tips on giving feedback to employees

Of all the skills amazing Team Leader possess, providing effective feedback is the most important because it is critical to improving the skills of team members through coaching, conducting effective performance reviews, and extremely helpful in inspiring and motivating team members to deliver their best.

I came across a really interesting white paper from Dr Jack Zenger and Dr Joe Folkman called Feedback: The Powerful Paradox that provides the conclusions of a study from a Harvard Business Review blog they published in early 2019.

I’ve pulled out the key findings from this incredible study that all people responsible for running call centres should know about providing effective feedback.

After reading this article you’ll have a better understand the importance of giving feedback, what types of feedback are most effective, barriers to providing feedback, and how to give both positive and corrective feedback to team members.

After analysing the research that they and others conduct­ed about preferences for giving and receiving feedback, Dr. Jack Zenger and Dr Joe Folkman discovered some fascinating conclusions from 2,700 respondents who participated in an online survey answering questions about both positive and negative feedback, and attitudes about feedback experiences.

From these responses, they found 3 interesting insights about providing feedback.

The first was that the great majority of leaders are twice as likely to give positive feedback as they are to give corrective or negative feedback.

Secondly, virtually every employee in an organisation wants more feedback, as almost two-thirds agreed that “my performance and possibilities for success in my career would have increased substantially if I had been given more feedback.”

And the third insight was that 64 per cent of respondents said: “they are not praised or rec­ognised too much.”

So these findings tell us that not only do most team members want to get feedback because they see it helping them grow and being more successful in their careers, but most feel they aren’t getting enough feedback.

What Type of Feedback is Most Effective?

The study found that when giving feedback to employees:

  • About half of leaders tend to avoid giving positive feedback.
  • People getting feedback said they much prefer receiving cor­rective feedback, but they are evenly split on whether pos­itive or negative feedback has been more helpful in their career.
  • Virtually all (94 per­ cent) of recipients of feedback stated corrective feedback improves their perfor­mance when it is pre­sented well.
  • 63 per cent of people getting feedback felt that they get substantially more positive feedback than negative feedback.
  • While 62 per cent of leaders rated themselves as highly effective at providing others with honest, straightforward feedback, and…
  • Other research reports that 60 per cent of employ­ees say they have not received any useful feedback in the past six months… which is absolutely disgraceful.

The Top Barriers to Providing Feedback

When they looked at the barriers to providing feedback they found a seemly endless list of barriers that get in the way of providing feedback, with the major ones being:

  • That a manager’s personality can make it easier or harder. Those who are introverted find feedback a difficult behaviour to practice.
  • A manager’s level of self-con­fidence is a strong predictor of a willingness to provide cor­rective feedback to a subordinate.
  • Managers are afraid of making things worse. They are aware that feedback is very powerful with enormous power to make things better or worst depends on how carefully feedback is given, and…
  • Employees, especially those who are not performing well, often resist any opportunity for their manager to give them corrective feedback.

Giving effective feedback is a learned skill, not an inborn gift, and what these findings show is that managers often lack the skill to provide effective feedback.

Team Leaders, in particular need to be trained and coached to provide the effective feedback their team members really want because giving feedback is a powerful way to increase a team member’s productivity, engagement and level of commitment.

It’s the most important skill team leaders will use when giving per­formance reviews and the most critical ingredient of good coaching, and extremely helpful in inspiring and motivating high performance in their team members.

A fascinating insight they found about how to give positive feedback was that not all praise and positive reinforcement is helpful and can do more harm than good.

To illustrate this point, the authors mentioned the work of Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, who noted peo­ple basically have one of two different mindsets that she labels as “proving” or “improving”.

Professor Dweck explains that if some­one has been told that they are extremely intelligent, highly cre­ative, or an exceptional athlete, then much of their effort will be focused on preserving that image and self-concept.

The person who possesses a proving mindset is less likely to take on a more difficult challenge that may bring about failure.

Instead, they will repeat the behaviours and practices that they found worked for them in the past.

On the other hand, someone with an improving mindset believes that intelligence, creativity, athletic ability, and virtually any skill can be acquired.

And, with this “improving” mindset they are far more likely to take on challenging tasks and seek out opportunities to continually learn and develop.

Dweck’s research shows that parents and teachers make a mis­take telling a child that he or she is smart or talented. That only leads them to a “proving” mindset which limits their future per­formance.

Dweck’s research showed that a single sentence of feedback to young students who had just completed an exercise of answering 10 questions could set them off on a “proving” or “improving” path, and parents are much better off praising a child’s hard work, tenacity, and willingness to overcome hur­dles.

This reinforces that they may not be effective at some skill at this moment in time, but that it is clearly attainable. They just haven’t got there yet.

The same principle applies to team leaders telling a team member that she is highly creative or that he is extremely intelli­gent.

That message encourages these individuals to only take on assignments that will reinforce the way they are currently perceived.

And, they will look to prove that the image they have in the minds of others is right and avoid anything that jeopardises that image.

On the other hand, if the team leader had provided positive reinforcement about their hard work and willingness to explore differing approaches then that reinforces a continual desire to learn and develop.

This may sound like a small difference, but when you think about it, the different approaches have huge long-term consequences.

How to Give Corrective Feedback

Drs. Zenger and Folkman use an example of when a team leader has a message that would be helpful for a team member to understand.

Whether its observa­tions about how their team member is going about their work, or something they are not doing that shouldn’t be overlooked, or simply some observations about why something they’re doing isn’t working out so well.

Because of their prior experience, the team leader can see what’s wrong, which the team member doesn’t understand as yet. These can all be extremely different conversations.

They suggest some things that can be done to make sure each of these conversations has a positive outcome, while at the same time minimising the amount of stress or needless anxiety felt by the person on the receiving end.

Here are some of the suggestions they provide that may help the process:

Immediately play the background music.

In a movie, you invariably know how serious something is or is about to become by the background music.

The person giving feedback can instantly signal whether this discussion is trivial or huge, career-threatening or merely casual observations.

The background music is the smile or grimace on their face, the tone of their voice and the words of their quick introduction.

All these behaviours calibrate the discussion for the person receiving feedback.

In no way are they suggesting that the person giving this feedback should minimise the seriousness of a discussion, if it is intended to and deserves to be serious.

What they are suggesting is that on those occasions when it is not something that the person getting the feedback needs wor­ry about, that you instantly make that clear.

Our brains are pro­grammed to respond one way to perceived threats and a totally different way to something that promises to be positive.

Make and follow a plan.

Like everything else in life, things go better when there is a plan.

In the case of corrective feedback, the plan could include you calmly and objective­ly describing what’s happened or the person’s behaviour that concerns you.

Make it short. Then ask them for their perspective.

  • Describe how you’d like things to be going forward, or the changes you’d like to see in behaviour.
  • Don’t tackle multiple topics in one discussion. Stick with one or two topics, and save the others for another day.
  • Rehearse any serious discussion.

If a feedback session involves a potentially delicate emotional issue then all the more reason to rehearse what you’re going to say.

That rehearsal could be with someone from HR, or it could be just you sitting at your desk going through it mentally. Even mental rehearsal lets you “listen” to the words you intend to say.

Often when you do this, as the good Drs say, you’ll immediately know, “There’s a better way to say that,” or “That won’t go down very well.”

Treat the receiver with an extra measure of respect.

One of the most basic principles of all good leadership is to treat others with respect.

And, of all times when that is especially important is when you provide someone with corrective feedback.

Asking rather than telling is a mark of respect.

Being calm and factual is showing respect.

Not insisting that the issue be resolved this minute, and giving the other person time to digest the message and decide what to do is also another way of showing respect.

So, to sum up the findings of their study, and echo their thoughts… feedback can truly be a gift.

But the gifts we enjoy the most are the ones chosen by the giver because they will benefit us and make us better.

In order for feedback to have positive outcomes, it must meet that standard.

The person receiving the feedback needs to believe that it was done to be helpful and with their own best interests in mind.

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Marc Carriere
About Marc Carriere 8 Articles
With 34 years of worldwide executive experience managing Call Centre teams that have won 3 Silver and 3 Gold ‘Ardy’ awards, consulting with businesses mentoring and coaching their Call Centre Managers and Team Leaders and having owned a call centre himself Marc is well aware of the difficulties Call Centres face in consistently meeting their targets and KPIs.