Unsplash / Pixabay

Employees who receive helpful, continuous feedback from managers not only perform better, they’re also much more engaged.

Why Giving Feedback Is So Important

A survey conducted by leadership trainers Zenger Folkman looked into the feedback practices of 22,000 leaders around the world and found that leaders who scored in the top 10 percent on giving feedback had employees who were three times more engaged than employees with leaders scoring in the bottom 10 percent. The study also revealed that the bottom 10 percent of leaders had employees who were three times more likely to think about quitting

What Else?

Positive feedback is best. Reinforcing the behaviors you want from an employee has the biggest positive impact on engagement. The biggest problem is when there’s no feedback at all.

Gallup examined the impact of positive, negative and no feedback on engagement. Specifically, they looked at engagement levels between employees who received feedback focusing on:

  • Positive strengths;
  • Weaknesses; and
  • No job feedback at all

The survey found that the biggest engagement gap was between workers who received praise or congratulatory feedback and those who were ignored with no feedback.

Only one percent of employees who received positive feedback were actively disengaged compared to a whopping 40 percent of those who didn’t receive feedback.

What about negative feedback?

Not all feedback has to be positive. Gallup also discovered that only 22 percent of employees receiving negative feedback were disengaged. And while that’s far from ideal, it is half the disengagement level of those who received no feedback at all.

How to Give Good Feedback

We’re huge proponents of the radical candor framework created by Kim Scott, co-founder of Candor. She has built her career around a simple goal: creating bullshit-free zones where people love their work and working together.

To get the good stuff directly, check out:

One thing Kim is quick to call out is the negative connotation feedback has. For that reason, she prefers to call it guidance.

The single most important thing a boss can do is focus on guidance: giving it, receiving it, and encouraging it. Guidance, which is fundamentally just praise and criticism, is usually called “feedback,” but feedback is screechy and makes us want to put our hands over our ears. Guidance is something most of us long for.

In order to provide that guidance, there are two important considerations. The first is caring personally about the person you’re giving feedback to. It’s what Kim calls the “give a damn” axis. The second is the ability to be clear and direct. She calls this the “willing to piss people off” axis. When you have both, you have radical candor and it’s what you need to strive for.

To help further, the team at Candor created an acronym to describe what radical candor looks like: HHIPP. Radical candor is:

  • Humble;
  • Helpful;
  • Immediate;
  • In Person (in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise); and
  • Doesn’t personalize

How to avoid giving the wrong type of feedback

If you don’t personally care about the person you’re giving feedback to, or you aren’t direct, you’re likely doing more harm than good.

If you’re direct, but don’t care, you fall into the quadrant that Scott calls obnoxious aggression. While it’s not great, it’s still better than not providing any feedback.

If you don’t care, and you’re indirect, you’re being passive aggressive and fall into the worst quadrant: manipulative insincerity.

For most managers though, the vast majority of feedback mistakes happen in the quadrant called ruinous empathy.

“It sounds so simple to say that bosses need to tell employees when they’re screwing up. But it very rarely happens.”

We’ve been conditioned to believe that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. In an attempt to be nice, difficult feedback is avoided. Ultimately, this is a huge disservice.

Kim provides an example of how this personally lead to the worst moment in her career. “There was this guy who was working for me. We’ll call him Bob. I really liked Bob. The problem was that Bob was absolutely terrible at his job,” she says. Whenever Bob would express worries about his performance, Scott would try to reassure him. But after nearly a year, she realized that Bob’s weak performance was impacting her whole team — and she was in danger of losing several top performers as a result. Trying to be “nice” to Bob, she’d been unfair to the people who were doing great work. And things didn’t work out so well for Bob, either. “Having never criticized Bob for 10 months because I was trying to spare his feelings, I was now sitting in front of Bob firing him. Not so nice after all,” says Scott. “When I told him, Bob pushed his chair back, looked at me, and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?’”

What Else?

Be Fair. A German study focused on the link between fairness of feedback and levels of engagement. Not surprisingly, feedback that was seen as unfair led to disengagement. The researchers went on to break down feedback fairness into the following:

  • Fair means properly reflecting the employee’s effort, performance, and results of work as a non-negotiable component of giving feedback.
  • Fair relies on accurate information, is free from bias, and is based on adequate procedures. Consider your starting-point for the feedback and whether it originates with another person or yourself.
  • Fair is delivered with politeness and respectfulness. No need for elaboration.
  • And fair should be sincere and given with adequate explanation. Take the time to go through the reasoning behind your feedback.

Show That You Value Feedback

One of the best ways to become a better manager is to actively solicit feedback from your employees. While reading and mentorship are valuable, our best lessons come from experience. Giving and receiving feedback is a muscle that can be developed like any other skill. And while you’re improving your ability to lead and manage people through feedback, you’re also demonstrating that you value feedback within the team. It demonstrates that you “give a shit” and it makes it easier to be “willing to piss people off”.

Summary of Key Takeaways

  • Giving employees regular feedback is the most important thing you can do as a manager to improve performance and engagement.
  • Positive feedback does the most to improve engagement levels, but even negative feedback is much better than no feedback at all.
  • Good feedback = Radical candor. Radical candor is humble, it’s helpful, it’s immediate, it’s in person — in private if it’s criticism and in public if it’s praise — and it doesn’t personalize. HHIPP.
  • Make feedback a habit by showing you value feedback. Not just giving it, but receiving it, as well.