There are not many words more dreaded at work than, “I have some feedback for you.” In fact, I’m guessing that just by reading this first sentence you’re brought back to a specific moment where you’ve heard this phrase directed at you. And, now your stomach is churning, your heart rate is increasing, and possibly your palms are starting to sweat.
If we’re honest, most of us have an immediate negative reaction when we hear, “I have some feedback for you.” This emotionally-charged reaction is largely due to being conditioned through our previous experiences to associate “feedback” with something negative. The power of this negative reaction comes from what happens when we learn something that conflicts with our self-image or perception; it impacts our self-worth and esteem and leaves a lasting emotional mark on us. This conditioned reaction also comes in part from the lack of regular, ongoing feedback which includes both positive and negative information. Instead, most of us would say that the only feedback we get at work is during a structured performance review, where the focus is largely on what needs to improve and less on what went well.
Making the situation worse is that most of us also hate giving feedback. We fear that it will cause conflict, hurt, and rejection, and often we just hope the employee or colleague will improve on their own or figure it out for themselves. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. This cycle of fear then ends up limiting both our personal and professional growth, as well as the organization’s ability to innovate and continuously improve performance.
So, how do we move out of this “cycle of fear”? One way is to think about feedback differently. To stop the cycle, we need to make regular, ongoing feedback a part of how we do business and move beyond thinking of feedback as the domain of the manager-employee relationship only. We also need to expand the definition of feedback. For example, many organizations that have developed a feedback-rich environment make a distinction between the types of feedback. Many define feedback as falling into three categories: corrective, reinforcing, and developmental (Knesek, 2015). Below is a brief description of each.
Corrective Feedback. Many of us may immediately connect corrective feedback to something that is part of a formal performance management system. But what is intended here is an ongoing feedback culture where everyone is involved in helping each other to do better. It might involve something as simple as asking, “Would you like me to show you an easier way to this?”. Or, where it’s welcomed and expected to ask, “I’m having trouble making this work, would you take a look at what I’m doing and let me know what you see?” How awesome would it be to participate on a team that functioned that way?
Reinforcing Feedback. A second category of natural, ongoing feedback is reinforcing or positive feedback. Receiving regular, authentic, and specific positive feedback helps us sustain our behavior and gives us the necessary motivation to keep going, as well as the desire to keep improving. I actually had a boss once tell me that he didn’t like giving positive feedback because he was afraid that the person would stop trying to get better. Today, most great managers and supervisors understand that this is not true. We actually work harder when we are recognized for what we have done. Imagine an environment where everyone looks for ways to express appreciation and acknowledge accomplishments large and small. Done well, you really can’t do too much of this. It builds trust and provides a built-in level of resiliency when things don’t go so well.
Developmental Feedback. A third type of feedback is developmental, which is more collaborative and focuses on how an individual can realize their potential and goals. This type of feedback is most effective when it’s done as part of an ongoing conversation that includes a wide range of people who can provide direction, advice, and suggestions. Based on my experience, this is best accomplished when it’s led by the employee, not the supervisor. This type of feedback should not be a passive process where the employee waits for their supervisor to initiate the conversation. The most effective development conversations take place when the individual makes it his or her responsibility to get feedback from a number of different sources, and recognizes that there are lots of people that he or she can learn from, not just their supervisor. Once again, imagine an organization where it is supported and expected that employees are responsible for their own development and are encouraged to seek out the resources that they need to grow.
Now, you might be thinking, “I wished I worked at a place like that” or “this sounds good in theory, but it wouldn’t work here”. I leave you with this thought. What is stopping you from making a commitment to start offering and asking for help; to regularly express appreciation or recognition; or to take responsibility for your own personal and professional development? Why not be the one to initiate change in your organization by leading the way and taking action to make this part of your personal development plan?
Knesek, G. (2015). Creating a feedback-rich workplace environment: Lessons learned over a 35+ year career in human resources. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 18(3-4), 109.