4 Steps HR Can Take to Improve Employee Feedback

Employees are hungry for clear feedback and they’re not getting it.

This was one of the major findings from a study conducted by the authors of The 2020 Workplace. When employees were surveyed on the abilities they wanted most in their manager, getting “straight feedback” was the capability rated as the most lacking in managers. It was also the capability that demonstrated the largest gap between its importance to employees and managers’ ability to deliver.

Boomers and traditionalist employees rated it as the most important factor, and Gen X and Gen Y employees rated it as their second most important factor. Unfortunately, HR managers rated it dead last among the eight capabilities in terms of managers’ demonstration of that capability.

What do employers need to do to help managers deliver on this critical driver of employee engagement and performance?

Reframe feedback as “just what we do here,” not as “telling someone they screwed up.” This not only takes away from the negative visceral response most people have to the thought of giving or receiving feedback, it also heightens managers’ sensitivity to opportunities to “catch employees doing things right” and therefore satisfy one of the most important human needs: the need for appreciation and recognition.

Making “catching people doing things right” a regular practice also enables managers to guide and reinforce the highest value-generating employee behaviors when they are displayed. So for instance, if Manager Mary says to Employee Erin, “Hey, I noticed how you handled Mrs. Glom’s aggressive husband when he kept insisting we weren’t giving her the proper treatment for her shingles. I loved how you kept your voice cordial and kind despite his really inappropriate comments. That totally reflects our guiding principle of warm, compassionate care at all times. Way to go!”

By recasting feedback as just a regular part of a manager’s conversations with employees, it also makes it easier for employees to receive corrective feedback. As I described in my article “What We Can Learn About Feedback From Managing Millennials (and Felons!)” when this happens, employees are much less likely to react negatively to negative feedback. Because they regularly get feedback on the good things they do, they don’t have the reflexive,  “Oh no, now what??” anxiety when their manager starts to give them feedback. Thus, they are more likely to be in a receptive state when their manager needs to give them feedback.

Because they get ongoing feedback on the things they are doing well, they don’t have the resentment-creating feeling many employees have when they wonder, “Why do I only hear about the bad things from my boss; never the good things?”

Invest in helping managers develop effective feedback skills so they are able to give useful feedback and handle the potential emotional fallout and complications from giving feedback.—Doing this creates a “virtuous cycle” of an increase in competence leading to an increase in the ability to give feedback successfully which in turn leads to greater confidence and a greater willingness to engage employees in feedback conversations, rather than avoid them due to lack of confidence.

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Invest in training for ALL employees on how to give and receive feedback.—If you really want to dial-up the performance of your organization and the quality of everything you do — whether the service you provide, the efficiency of your processes, or overall productivity per employee — make giving and receiving feedback a cultural norm. Make it an, “It’s just what we ALL do here” thing, whether it’s top-down, bottom-up, or side-to-side.

Just as managers are unlikely to give employees constructive feedback unless they believe they have the skills necessary to make these conversations work, giving and receiving feedback gracefully and graciously won’t happen unless employees have the skills and attitudes to make that giving and receiving feedback a positive, productive experience.

Start by giving feedback on the good things. — To get people to see that giving and receiving feedback can be a positive experience, start off with positive feedback. You can do this at the individual level, with managers adding short and simple positive feedback to their everyday interactions. At an organizational level, make “calling out” examples of compliment-worthy actions by employees a regular part of meetings. Share stories that illustrate employees exhibiting your organization’s core values, going above and beyond, and just play rocking it. Not only do these stories recognize and celebrate excellence, they also teach all employees “This is what we are looking for and what we really value,” thus increasing the odds you will get more of those behaviors.