5 Surefire Ways to Make Feedback Useless and Painful

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5 Surefire Ways to Make Feedback Useless and Painful

The topic of feedback is all the rage right now. Just last week I found  this article from the NY Times and this podast from HBR.  And there’s plenty of great content written prior to these posts, so you really don’t need me to regurgitate it to you.  In fact, the topic of feedback has been so hot lately I’m going to take a small leap and presume you don’t need to be convinced that it’s a necessity. I’ll even go so far as to say you are a feedback advocate! If not, review the material linked above, search for more if you need more convincing, and return to this post when you’ve come to your senses.

Back to you advocates. I’m so glad you support the practice of feedback, your employees will be glad to hear it. However, if you want feedback to go well, you can’t just throw it out there and wait for the magic to happen. To make feedback useful, there are some standards that need to be met. If not, feedback is likely to be useless and potentially damaging.

For feedback to be effective, make sure you don’t do these 5 things.

1. Provide feedback using numbers on a generic rating scale rather than descriptive behavioral statements.

I’m perplexed that while Likert-type rating scales associated with traditional performance management are being eliminated faster than high-fructose corn syrup from everything we eat, the same types of ratings continue to be used in revamped feedback programs. “In your weekly feedback survey, you were rated a 3 on a 5 point effectiveness scale for the corporate competency of “Making Awesome Decisions.” As with performance ratings, results such as this can only lead to more questions: What does that mean? Did I make good decisions or bad? What did I do well and what do I need to work on in the future?

Instead of using ambiguous numbers and generic rating scales to provide feedback, try providing specific examples of what the behavior looks like at several different levels of skill, then comparing the employee’s behavior to those standards. It follows the same logic you may have learned in interviewer training where you need to think about what a poor answer sounds like, an acceptable answer, and a super-duper answer. It’s only difficult if you don’t know the behaviors associated with the competency you’re trying to assess, and how they vary across different levels of performance.

2. Require feedback be shared with the boss even if the person is resistant to it.

Feedback can be personal and difficult to hear. It’s not for everybody. Yet sometimes we like to think it is, and we set up a feedback practice based on this misconception. Interestingly, despite the perpetual acknowledgement that organizations still struggle to build a strong leadership bench, those same leaders are entrusted with the important task of guiding employees through their feedback and development planning, when at the same time those leaders are struggling with their own development efforts.

The fix for this one is simple: don’t force employees to share feedback if they don’t want to. The boss is not the only resource available to the employee. Let employees choose who they share feedback with and who they don’t.

3. Expect employees to independently create their IDPs.

There is no shortage of development plan templates out there, both paper versions and online. Often the company-provided development plan template is accompanied by a voluminous tome of hundreds or even thousands of “development suggestions” to choose from. What more do people need?  They’ve got all the resources!

Let’s think about this for a moment. Whose area of expertise is development planning? In most cases, not the employee’s. Yet we expect employees and leaders in non-HR areas to have the insight and patience to create robust, meaningful development plans with their massive pile of “resources”.

Rather than leaving employees to their own devices where they are likely to become overwhelmed and frustrated, try providing personalized guidance to help them link feedback to the development plan. This does not mean to “spoon-feed” them as is often the concern. It does mean to make sure they know where to start. Talk through the development goal and how it will be accomplished. Help them identify available opportunities. Engage them in thinking about potential obstacles and how they can be planned for. Discuss how progress will be monitored, frequency of check ins, deadlines, and consequences of not following through. Ask them to describe what success will look like. This is the delicate balance between fostering ownership of the IDP while still offering support and guidance.

4. Accept a learning activity such as taking a class or reading a book as sufficient for a development goal.

How many development plans have you seen where the major activity was to attend a class or a conference? Or read a book! How many managers have you coached because they sent an employee to training to correct a performance deficiency but after the class, nothing changed?

No matter where you stand on the recent controversy surrounding the 70/20/10 rule, providing learners with opportunity for retrieval and application of freshly acquired knowledge is at the heart of neurolearning.   Classes, reading, and coaching from others will be quickly forgotten without the real world experience of personally demonstrating the skill being developed. Find a relevant project, assignment, meeting, etc. that offers opportunity to practice and apply the skill being developed.

5. Expect implementation of the development plan to go smoothly and expect immediate change.

Many times when I’ve coached people on their development plans they were more concerned with coming up with a plan that would be a “quick hit” rather than a genuine development experience. “I still have to get my day job done.” “I don’t have a lot of time.” “I just want to get this done so I can get promoted.”

Development is hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight, usually not even in a month or even two. Depending on the skill and other factors, it can take years. Employees and especially leaders need to allow ample time to accommodate the learning, application, and self-reflection required for true skill development. Just like with everything else, there is no magic bullet.

What about you? What mistakes have you seen with feedback and how did you make it right? Tell us in the comments!

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Eileen Azzara