The Feedback Loop

Feedback is a sort of buzzword that has different meanings in various contexts. In electronics, it is undesirable sound distortion. In the workplace, it is one person giving another person a reaction or response — which sometimes sounds like the annoying whines and screeches we associate with electronic feedback. In communication, feedback all too often becomes synonymous with criticism. When a manager says, “I have some feedback for you,” employees often hear, “Let me tell you how you screwed up — again!”

Under ideal circumstances, feedback is a loop, a cycle of action and reaction. Neither component needs to be big or significant. In fact, when feedback becomes a communication loop, most people don't notice that it's even taking place. It's when feedback is absent, negative, or devastating that it garners any attention. Of course not all feedback is positive, and sometimes it is downright devastating. But on the feedback continuum, most should fall somewhere in the center.

The Manager's View

Employees always want to know how their managers view them and their work. It's human nature; we are creatures of response. We want to know what others think of us. It helps us to develop a sense of belonging (or not), accomplishment (or not), and confidence (or not). People constantly seek feedback from their managers. Some ask for it directly: “How did I do?” Others are less direct: “What did the client say?” Although conventional wisdom preaches that no news is good news, in the corporate world the reverse is more often the case. Or at least that's what employees think, as they fret and worry because they haven't heard anything from you.

Some feedback should take place in public, such as in a meeting. Take a few minutes to acknowledge an employee who has done an exceptional job. This makes the employee feel good; recognition in front of peers is the highest compliment. It also solidifies roles and responsibilities and shapes interaction within the group. People feel affirmed for their contributions.

Fairness and appropriateness are critical, of course; it's important that you avoid giving the impression of playing favorites. Public praise can backfire if it makes other employees feel less significant. Private feedback also has its place. Stop by an employee's workstation to offer congratulations on a report well written or a project completed ahead of schedule. This individual attention shows that you notice and care about individual effort.

To balance your limited time with an employee's high level of need for feedback, try breaking your comments into smaller bites. Instead of waiting until an assignment is completed to congratulate the employee on a job well done, offer compliments and suggestions along the way.

Feedback to Help Employees Grow

Feedback is a great way to regularly provide tips and suggestions to help employees improve and grow their skills. Given regularly and in small bits, such feedback quickly becomes a natural element of the work environment, and people come to expect it. Consistency and frequency of delivery removes any sense of discipline or heavy-handedness from the feedback process.

Comment on specific actions and behaviors. “Barb was very upset that you yelled at her about the delay at the print shop, and that you hung up on her” works better than “Johnson, you're an insensitive boor!” Whenever practical, give feedback that is specific yet offers choices. “In reading this report, I didn't get a sense of what the product actually is. Would you please restructure the introduction or add another section to part two?”

Look for ways to frame less-than-positive feedback in the context of realistic improvement. This is not about sugarcoating; most people resent attempts to cloak bad news in the trappings of compliments. “Customer complaints about delivery delays are up 35 percent this quarter. Let's take a look at the reasons for the delays and then brainstorm some solutions.”

As much as possible, praise the entire work group for its collective efforts. This reinforces the team's value and reminds people that teamwork is about performance, not about personalities or stroking egos.

Some managers want to be good guys so they give only positive feedback, and this at the drop of a hat. It doesn't take long for employees to figure out that praise is always forthcoming, which diminishes its value. And when feedback that was initially positive is followed by a contradictory message, then the feedback becomes even less valuable. If the news is bad, just deliver it. These people are adults; they know, even if you attempt to hide it from them, that they make mistakes and that life is not all roses and chocolate. When less-than-positive feedback involves just one or two people, deliver it individually and in private. When the message is for the entire group, be direct but compassionate. Don't single out individuals in the group setting; if you have additional specific comments, deliver them in private.

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