Dr. Shantha Mohan
"Withholding feedback is choosing comfort over growth. Staying silent deprives people of the opportunity to learn"
- Adam Grant
In the Harvard Business Review article, Your Employees Want the Negative Feedback You Hate to Give, Zenger and Folkman cited a survey that included 899 participants. Over 90% of the respondents said they would like to get feedback, even if it was negative. The authors concluded that the majority of leaders were uncomfortable giving feedback.
Giving feedback has a negative connotation and makes employees apprehensive. Outstanding leaders know feedback includes recognition and praise for a job well done. The time to do it is in the moment—when you observe the act—and not only in a yearly performance review.
Delivering effective feedback requires mastery of communication and empathy for the receiver, and active listening.
Anatomy of Effective Feedback
Feedback should be timely. Provide your input as close to the event that triggered the feedback, when the details are fresh in your mind and the recipient’s. Over time, the event might become distorted, and the input becomes unreliable. In addition to giving feedback, note it for the semi-annual or annual review.
Make the feedback specific. Feedback such as, “Your task did not meet the requirement,” doesn’t help the person hearing it. When you deliver the feedback from the position of helping the person do a better job, and not from judging or placing blame, the details will help the person hearing it to improve the performance. Sometimes, you may need to tell the recipient to seek training. If you are the direct supervisor, it is your responsibility to find that training and make it possible for the person to attend it.
Feedback should be constructive. Your input needs to be about the job, not the person.
Focus on behavior and specific action. Asking questions such as, “Do you care about what you are doing?” is not helpful.
Some questions you should ask yourself:
- What would be your response, irrespective of the person involved?
- Is your feedback commiserate with the event? Are you keeping your emotions in check?
- Do you have enough information, or should there be a conversation about the event?
Be respectful of the person involved.
Be consistent. In addition to providing feedback when an event occurs, make the conversation about ongoing performance. It could be part of your weekly one-to-one meeting.
Make it a conversation. Instead of basing your feedback on what you observed, initiate a chat to find out more about the event. You could start with what you observed and invite an explanation. Perhaps there are underlying reasons for the occurrence. Conversation can help clarify the situation so you can base your input on facts. It is essential to listen carefully to what is being said and non-verbal reactions to modulate your feedback accordingly.
Set expectations upfront to avoid surprises. Sometimes, you might be surprised to know that the performance expectation was totally misunderstood. As a leader, you must set expectations so that there is no misunderstanding when it is time to evaluate performance.
Feedback has a coaching aspect. Every event that triggers feedback to do better is a coaching moment. Take the opportunity to build the receiver’s skill. There are situations where this may not always be possible, in which case you should take follow-up actions, such as helping the person enroll in training.
Show the big picture. Tie your feedback to the bigger picture. For example, if you are calling out a quality issue and how to correct it, talk about how quality is vital for the reputation of the team or the department. The definition of the bigger picture is relative.
Follow up. All input should be followed up regarding whether training was provided and performance improved. This follow-up should include further conversation with the receiver of the feedback, as well as stakeholders’ input.
Feedback is Not Limited to Improvement-seeking
Ken Blanchard, a best-selling author, said if he were to hold on to one thing, it would be to “catch people doing something right.”
When the word “feedback” is heard, the immediate reaction is you will be criticized. It doesn’t have to be. There are times when feedback can be positive. Leaders must learn to give positive feedback or praise as much or more than negative ones. Heartfelt, personal, timely, and specific compliments tremendously impact the receiver.
Empowering Workplace Culture Through Recognition, a report from Gallup, says:
- Employees who strongly agree that recognition is an important part of their organization are 3.8 times as likely to strongly agree that they feel connected to their culture.
- Employees who receive great recognition are 20 times as likely to be engaged as employees who receive poor recognition.
- Among employees who have great recognition experiences, 72% say that performance on “little things” is commonly recognized at their organization.
Praises work well when they are timely. For example, if you catch a team member doing something well, that is when you should praise them instead of waiting for a half-yearly written review. On the other hand, I remember being pleasantly surprised when my manager remembered one of my accomplishments earlier in the year.
When praising, be sure to make it personal—how did the action impact you, your team, or your organization? For example, if a team member stayed back to work on a report, mention how having timely information made your points in a presentation shine.
Specificity is important when you give praise. It is not enough to say, “You did a great job.” What is it about the job that impressed you? For example, a developer fixed a thorny bug holding up a customer from implementing the release of your software. Saying that the Bugfix created goodwill with that specific customer evokes a positive emotion, rather than a bland thank you.
Finally, all praises should be genuine and should come from the heart. Your team members can spot authenticity, and it makes a big difference.
“Coaching is a profession of love. You can’t coach people unless you love them.”
- Eddie Robison, American Football Coach
In his TED Talk, Want to get great at something? Get a Coach, American surgeon, writer, and public health researcher Atul Gawande describes his conversation with violin maestro Itzhak Perlman:
And I asked him, I said, “Why don’t violinists have coaches?”
And he said, “I don’t know, but I always had a coach.” “You always had a coach?”
“Oh yeah, my wife, Toby.”
They had graduated together from Juilliard, and she had given up her job as a concert violinist to be his coach, sitting in the audience, observing him and giving him feedback. “Itzhak, in that middle section, you know you sounded a little bit mechanical. What can you do differently next time?” It was crucial to everything he became, he said.
In Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, the authors highlight what made Bill Campbell outstanding:
“What keeps you up at night?” is a traditional question asked of executives. For Bill, the answer was always the same: the well-being and success of his people.
Everyone needs a coach. Your employees are no exception. When you give feedback to make the team members better in what they do, it is the ideal moment to coach. When someone doesn’t perform well, take the time to discover why, identify knowledge gaps, explain what is expected, and teach or train how to meet the expectation. Allow time to demonstrate better performance, depending on the complexity of the task.
Yearly Performance Review is Not Going Away
“Abair ach beagan is abair gu math e.” [“Say but little and say it well.”] – Gaelic Proverb
Many organizations talk about doing away with yearly performance reviews altogether. However, I hear otherwise.
When you give feedback frequently, the yearly performance review becomes a recording event, and there is no surprise. Preparing for such a review requires maintaining a good log of essential emails and periodic feedback you provide throughout the year.
I had always required my reports to give me a weekly summary of their performance against the plan for that week, unexpected roadblocks that prevented them from completing the project, and the plan for the next week. It doesn’t have to be weekly, but the goal is to be in touch with the team members, even if you missed meeting them in person over the week. Reflect on the information you have gathered and create a strategy for delivering it.
Feedback and Coaching are Integral to a Healthy Workplace
Leaders are responsible for their team’s performance. Giving feedback is essential to help team members improve themselves, be recognized for their accomplishments, grow in their careers, and achieve their goals. Coaching goes hand-in-hand with feedback when improvement is necessary.
Outstanding leaders are expert communicators and use their prowess to drive their teams’ growth and help them thrive.
Dr. Shantha Mohan
Software Engineering Leader, Author, Mentor
Dr. Shantha Mohan is a mentor, project guide, and an Executive in Residence at the iLab, Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Before that, she was a global technical leader and entrepreneur, co-founding Retail Solutions Inc., a retail analytics company. She also has over 20 years of experience focused on mission-critical systems to support semiconductor and other high-value-added manufacturing.
Dr. Shantha is a three-time author, has authored Roots and Wings – Inspiring Stories of Indian Women in Engineering, and has co-authored Demystifying AI for The Enterprise – A Playbook for Business Value and Digital Transformation. Her newest book, Leadership Lessons with The Beatles: Tips and Tools for Becoming Better at Leading, was published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis in May 2022.