When I first began my career, feedback practices were unidirectional. Performance goals were typically established by managers and communicated down to staff. Likewise, performance feedback was pushed down by managers to individual contributors. Employee suggestion boxes provided one of the only means for employees to speak up, give feedback to managers, and be heard in their organizations.
Since then, organizations have experienced many changes. Organizational structures have become flatter and more matrixed, and multiple, multidirectional communication strategies and methods co-exist. Bottom line: Companies have been striving to reinvent the performance review, instill feedback-rich cultures that are characterized by more of a bidirectional flow of feedback between managers and line staff, and link feedback to development and coaching.
Enter Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman.
Zenger and Folkman are leaders in the field of organizational leadership, performance, effectiveness, and development. They shared some of their latest research and expertise about feedback practices during a recent ATD Forum ConnectSpark.
To set the context, Jack Zenger shared a personal story. He told us that after attending an event led by a chief learning officer, the CLO approached him. He told Zenger that he was giving the same talk to another audience and asked if there was one thing he could do to improve his presentation. The point of the story was that upon reflection, this one, simple request for feedback left Zenger curious about the power of a single person asking another for feedback. He’s been studying the topic ever since.
1. Feedback has some negative baggage. Once you’ve heard it, it’s hard not to carry some feedback around with us. As the years go by, the extra weight of feedback that we didn’t necessarily understand, agree with, or were unsure what to do with can weigh down our performance on the job.
2. Feedback is most often presumed to be negative. Why do we tend to dread feedback? Could it be because sometimes feedback feels like a crushing blow? If you’ve ever felt like feedback was a hammer pounding away at you, then it’s not hard to understand why feedback is often perceived as negative and corrective.
3. Employees want more feedback. One constant that exists in organizational settings is that most employees desire feedback. They want it, they seek it out in a variety of ways, and they can thrive from it when it is offered to them in a plentiful and helpful way.
4. Boss’s feedback can trigger emotions. Whenever a person of power is delivering feedback, the message triggers emotions. Something about the inherent imbalance of power can activate defense and self-protecting mechanisms—even in the most humble and genuine learners and feedback seekers.
5. The boss is equally (if not more) uncomfortable. Zenger and Folkman’s research reveals that managers have as hard of a time delivering feedback to their employees as their employees have hearing it. That finding alone could explain why feedback-rich cultures can be so hard to cultivate and sustain.
Figure 1: What We Know About Feedback
What if managers and employees would both act as providers and recipients of feedback, equally engaging in feedback exchanges with one another throughout the performance period? According to Zenger and Folkman, when this is the approach to feedback, the organization will see:
Clearly, leaders who ask for and provide honest, effective feedback in a helpful way not only impact the performance of others, they also impact overall organization performance outcomes and are viewed as some of most effective leaders inside their companies.
Zenger and Folkman’s research also explores feedback style differences. They examine the extent to which managers prefer or avoid giving positive and negative feedback and the impact those preferences have on the feedback’s recipients.
Consider this question: Why would well-meaning, high-performing managers in any company avoid giving positive feedback or prefer to give negative feedback? Zenger and Folkman explained that some managers simply think part of their job is to critique. Others confuse constructive with critical; they believe that the main way to help people improve performance is by delivering critical (think: negative) feedback. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t always win. As Abraham Maslow pointed out: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
But there are inherent dangers in giving predominantly negative feedback. It can damage relationships; lower morale, which in turn reduces effort on the job; and trigger threat/danger responses.
Data from Zenger and Folkman further reveals:
Now, consider the adage, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” To achieve higher levels of talent effectiveness and strong performance results, perhaps we need more honey than hammers to fuel effective feedback practices.
Start promoting feedback skills that are fueled more by honey than hammers. Not only will employees thank you for the more frequent, helpful, and growth-oriented feedback, your organization’s bottom-line performance will benefit, too. Finally, take a cue from the question that launched Zenger and Folkman’s research, “What is one thing I might do to make this better?”
Maria Garrett is an experienced talent developer, learning leader, and leadership coach. Her three decades of experience working successfully with corporate teams, front-line managers, and high-potential leaders, including those preparing for C-suite roles, have given her a business-based perspective from which to help individuals confront common performance challenges, identify and modify disruptive behaviors, and achieve their greatest potential as they are navigating through their own personal leadership journeys. She is a recognized thought leader in the field of corporate learning and a regular contributor to ATD.