3 Misleading Myths About Giving Feedback

Continuing my September theme of keeping people motivated and productive, this week I bust a few myths about giving feedback. The research I conducted three years ago revealed a number of myths some leaders still believe about giving feedback to employees. It’s understandable how these myths are perpetuated, and -- let’s bust those myths wide open. No matter how many “experts” tell you to do these, please DON’T! There’s no reason for you to suboptimize how your team works together to improve their collective effectiveness.

So here they are: three common myths, why you should definitely NOT do these things, and what you should do instead.

1. Sandwich Feedback

In case you’ve somehow missed this one, the advice is when you offer someone corrective feedback (to help them improve some aspect of their work), you should “sandwich” the constructive (aka “negative”) message between two positives (as if these aren’t also constructive).

So you’d say, “I thought your Zoom presentation today was well-received by the team, based on the questions they asked.” Then you’d point to the problem, “However, the section where you explained the budget was confusing, and several people had questions in the ‘chat’ which you missed -- you should have paused more often for questions. And reviewed that part with me in advance.” Then you’d wind up your advice with another affirming statement, “That said, I really appreciated the way you clarified the difference between the fixed and variable costs.”

What's wrong with this?

First, when you bury the corrective point in the middle -- what didn’t work -- you de-emphasize its significance. They will remember what you closed with. And not the important middle part.

Starting with a positive IS a very good idea -- because it puts your recipient in a more open-minded state, and they can hear you better. But wrapping up with another positive usually backfires.

And second, you are giving a speech, not inviting a conversation.

Instead, say something like, “I have some observations about your Zoom presentation today. You engaged the audience well, and answered their questions directly and briefly, keeping good control of the agenda. And I appreciated how you clarified the difference between the fixed and variable costs. There was one area where I saw you lose the audience, and that was when you presented the budget analysis. Showing last year’s actuals, last year’s year-to-date alongside this year’s budget vs actual, and this year’s year-to-date seemed to confuse people, based on all the questions they asked.’ Did you notice this? [Pause for their answer.] Perhaps those two points might have been more clear if you’d used two separate graphics. Would it help if we preview your next presentation in our 1:1 before we meet with the team?”

Now, that’s a conversation that can motivate improvement (and learning).

2. 'Attaboys/'Attagirls

By this, I mean brief ‘drive-by’ comments intending to express appreciation and encouragement. There are so many articles (some even research-based) on the importance of praising people for a job well done, and appreciating their efforts regularly, that I’m sure, as a talented leader, you make a point to do this. And I agree, when someone has done great work or put in an especially significant amount of effort (especially if it’s less visible) offering encouragement helps boost morale.

But DON’T limit yourself to “Great job!” Or “I really appreciate that extra effort you put in.” Why in the world not, you ask?

Because your positive feedback should be just as helpful as your corrective feedback. And should be just as detailed.

Take the extra 15 or 30 seconds, and describe specifically what was so effective, so that the recipient understands what it is you appreciate, and the positive results their work generated.

Need an example? Here’s a simple one: “Thanks so much, Molly, for taking extra time to double-check the email addresses for that 360 report. Besides showing our clients that we deliver attentive support, you also saved the client embarrassment over his poor spelling, and you helped us get the report done faster. You really made us look professional!”

One minute, well spent! Molly knows that her attention to detail and follow-through were appreciated, and yielded important benefits to our company. And she’s more productive and motivated than she was a minute ago.

3. Anonymous Feedback is More Honest

This one is a bit more complex. There are times when this may be true, for example when gathering 360 feedback for a senior executive. And, yes, we use an anonymized process to gather and deliver 360 feedback to the execs we coach. We do this because, with enough participants, we can (like Olympic judges) exclude the extreme responses, and draw our conclusions from the rest.

But there are many times when this is not true, and at least one common situation where anonymous feedback does more harm than good. Most executives have done this, in an effort to be “helpful,” so don’t feel badly if you see yourself in this example.

That’s when you (as a leader, a colleague, or an advisor) pass along feedback based on what you’ve been told second-, or third-, hand. E.G., “I’ve heard that several people aren’t happy with how you’re leading the product development process.” Unless you share this opinion yourself (and can describe the specifics, and how they impact the group) this leaves the recipient no opportunity to understand what is problematic, nor discover what to do differently. While you may have some details, you usually won’t reveal the sources (to encourage people to tell you about problems in the organization).

Your well-meaning intervention runs the risk of creating a culture where people use the hierarchy to solve problems -- building silos and passing responsibility up the chain. You may even be passing along gossip, without knowing.

The anonymity you protect by intervening allows the unhappy individuals to avoid hard conversations that they should be having. This is especially true when the individuals you’re protecting are other leaders in the company. You should instead be building a culture where people can comfortably have such conversations.

What should you do instead? When you hear the concerns initially, ask whether they’ve approached the person directly to talk about the issue. If they’re reluctant, you could offer to meet jointly if they aren’t sure how to raise the issue. You could help them practice what they might say. But avoid taking on that message as yours to deliver. Unless, of course, you want to be the eternal ombudsperson. NB: This assumes that a) you prioritize direct conversation between your team members, b) you “role model” this yourself, and c) that you’ve set this as an explicit expectation. (If you want to build such a “feedback positive” culture and aren’t sure how, send me a message -- let's talk!)

Of course, there are situations where anonymous feedback is called for -- when identities need to be protected, to avoid retaliation, or when sensitive personnel matters (or health conditions) are involved. And sometimes when an internal problem has gotten out of hand, or when direct conversations have been tried and haven’t been effective. As always, YMMV (your mileage may vary).

Notice what these myths have in common: a general discomfort with having conversations where one feels vulnerable, especially giving feedback. The healthiest organizations cultivate a psychologically safe environment and encourage employees to be kind, yet direct, for the greater good of the organization. Yes, it takes a bit of training and reinforcement. AND… gives great results. When your organization is full of people who will speak up, be thoughtful and respectful of one another, but don’t pull their punches when it’s important, concerns will get raised, and solved, without you ever needing to get involved.

Doesn’t that sound productive?

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