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They do it to worn out tyres so why not to ideas in need of an upgrade?  Feedback has served management thinking well for decades.

Yet it’s now looking increasingly in need of the equivalent of a re-tread.

As a way of influencing performance, feedback has held a prominent place in motivational thinking, usually playing a leading role in any appraisal process. It is seldom questioned.

Most HR professionals and many line managers for example, take it for granted that it’s what everyone at work actually needs, even if they don’t necessarily want it.

The right of line managers to “tell it like it is” or to say face-to-face to someone what they think of their performance is well-integrated into the perceived role of executives. After all, goes the argument, if you cannot call someone on their performance how can you expect to see any improvements?

Several factors though are rocking the comfortable berth that feedback has made for itself in management practice.

The first disruptive element lies in the challenge to the strongly held view that feedback is what you “do” to someone.

This assumes that you impose feedback and as a result of new information people change their behaviour or attitudes. Here feedback is a forced experience for recipients, whether they like it or not.

The second factor causing waves is the changing nature of organisations. Increasingly to succeed, these need fully engaged people willing to give discretionary effort that contributes to innovation, creativity and delivers their knowledge and expertise.

For these employees, enforced or unrequested feedback may simply breed resentment and even cause alienation, the exact opposite of what the organisation is trying to achieve.

Overwhelming evidence that engagement can beneficially affect performance, from profitability to attrition rates, means there is a perceptible managerial shift occurring towards encouraging people becoming self-directed, rather than “managed.”

In this situation feedback works best when people request it. That is, they view it as an important way of helping them reach their own previously self-selected performance goals.

In the self-directed approach to feedback, it is a more adult relationship. To succeed in such an environment, managers may need to hone their skills at inviting and receiving feedback, rather than only how to give it.

Phil Peacock, a senior Maynard Leigh consultant comments:” the most important question to ask oneself before opening one’s mouth or putting finger to keyboard is:” what am I seeking to feed.”

“The answer of course can be the other person’s desire to grow, develop and learn. It might be their capability, confidence and self belief. As with most things in relationships and performance, it’s down to knowing your purpose!”

More from less

According to an Ipsos Mori poll earlier this year, leaders of the biggest UK companies, are fully aware they need more from their staff right now.  Attracting, motivating and retaining the best employees is therefore the number one priority for business, ahead of greater efficiency or having the right strategy.

To get more from employees though, some things may have to change and one of these is almost certainly the approach to feedback. Up till now the best form of feedback is said to be based on the old adage of “find someone doing something right and tell them”. The resulting re-enforcement is likely to lead to them to do more of it.

Critics of this approach argue that while positive feedback is nice to have, it actually does not affect performance at all, because we are already internally driven to do the best we can. However, this perhaps ignores the fact that people still like to hear they are doing well and if you fail to tell them for long enough they may well end up discouraged. Even so, there must now be a question mark over the tyranny of positive feedback and the relentless expectation that managers must keep giving it.

In contrast, negative feedback is claimed to be almost entirely useless. You can see this actually occurring in one of our regular workshop exercises. Someone attempts to blindly throw a ball over their shoulder so that it lands in an empty waste bin a few yards behind them, where they cannot see it.

But in response to their efforts all they receive is negative feedback: “that was terrible,” “you were miles away”, “can’t you do better than that?” Naturally this does not lead to any improvements in the accuracy of their performance.

In amusing contrast, factual feedback that is neither positive nor negative but merely informative seems to work wonders. “You were three feet to right of the target,” “that was about a foot too long”, “that fell short by about two feet.” With the extra information most people rapidly improve their blind aim. Many even succeed in dropping the ball neatly into the unseen target.

Companies wanting engagement may therefore need to re-think the managerial role including the use of feedback. If all you expect is for people to do exactly as you want, and how you want them to do it, then certainly just keep giving them the tough feedback. What you get from this though is likely to be mere obedience or as the psychologists might label it, compliance.

There is nothing wrong with compliance, except that following the rules may merely encourage people to find ways around them. Instead, the aim must be to win hearts and minds which requires a rather different approach. In this case feedback may be far more useful when it taps into people’s innate motivation to succeed.

People do not come to work to screw up, they want to succeed. In that case there will be key moments when they thirst for feedback. You just have to make sure you are around when they want it and be willing to hear their feedback too.

People also want to find meaning in their work and want to know they make a difference. If someone finds meaning in what they do they are likely to be heavily self-directed and wish to do better. Feedback becomes not something imposed but available on demand, not an annual appraisal or a quarterly “here’s what we think of you.” 

Giving feedback a re-tread is likely to involve some changes in managerial behaviour, especially since a third of employees report that their manager never discusses their training or development needs:

10 Ways to Give Your Feedback A Re-Tread

1)    Review the extent to which you offer unsolicited feedback

2)    Treat the demand for feedback as the other person’s right, not a privilege

3)    Make sure each person has a personal development plan they have helped to create

4)    Encourage people to chose their own performance goals rather than imposing these unilaterally

5)    Invite people to say when and how they would value feedback

6)    Prior to any review of performance suggest people do their own appraisal of it

7)    Ask people to identify shortfalls in their own performance and to suggest ways to address these

8)    When giving feedback place it in the context of the person’s chosen career aims

9)    Before plunging into giving feedback  be willing to ask questions to discover how the other person sees the situation

10) Make your feedback is specific and informative rather than judgemental or critical