Employee feedback, that is, communication about how someone is doing in his or her job is an essential part of getting anyone to perform as expected. No one can work in a vacuum; we all need feedback as to what we’ve done well—and what could be improved—in order to learn from our experience and be better going forward.
Feedback is a form of employee recognition, which I define as praise or thanks for doing a good job, producing desired work or results. Whereas employee recognition should always be positive, employee feedback could include constructive feedback about what could be improved on the part of the employee. Since constructive feedback could be viewed as criticism, it’s important to first build a trusting, caring relationship with the person so the feedback does not come across as negative, simply finding fault, possibly making the employee feel inadequate or insecure.
Dr. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, once observed that we all have an emotional bank account in dealing with others and we need to make positive deposits in other people’s accounts in order to build up credit so as to be able to make a withdrawal. Being proactive with positive praise and thanks, builds trust and a positive relationship. As such, I feel it’s important to be proactive in leading with positive feedback that “catches others doing things right” as much as possible—ideally on a daily basis. Not every person you work with every day, but developing the habit so that every day you systematically provide positive feedback to others in your daily routine. Not only will this make your employees’ day, but the activity tends to make most managers feel good about themselves as well.
You can further leverage the power of positive consequences by providing an employee incentive in advance to the work results employees achieve. During the planning process of any assignment or individual or group goal, ask “If you/we are successful with this [assignment/activity/project], what can I do to thank you or how would you like to celebrate your/our success?” This adds a motivation element to the work by clarifying the employee reward that can be attained.
Every employee wants to be valued and making positive, timely comments about desired behavior or results is the most preferred way to provide employee appreciation. Once an employee feels their manager or supervisory truly values them and is on their side, they will be much more receptive about getting feedback for how they could improve. It also works to receive positive feedback from one’s peers and—if possible—upper management within the organization.
Without that positive foundation, employees are often quick to become defensive and are less willing to hear the feedback, let alone act on it. The criticism can thus serve to undermine an effective relationship going forward and in an extreme case, leave the employee trying to avoid contact with his or her manager, since they’ve learned that contact is typically negative. Worse yet, they will start to spend more time and energy hiding mistakes or blaming others as a proactive effort to avoid further negative blame and reprimands from their manager.
Ideally, feedback should be a continuous process in which managers or supervisors systematically appraise the efforts of employees with their individual, departmental and the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. If it’s all saved up for a once-a-year performance review it will often be too much to cover over too long of a time period and hence will likely lose its effectiveness and risk undermining the employee-manager relationship. Research has shown that annual performance reviews often end up focusing on a single problem or mistake that the employee has recently done, instead of being a balanced review of an employee’s work over the past year. As a result the criticism can undermine the entire discussion and threaten the employee’s commitment to their job, their manager and the organization.
If the feedback is spread out throughout the year, perhaps as part of weekly “one-on-one” meetings between a manager and each of his/her direct reports, it is much easier to absorb and integrate into the employees’ ongoing performance. It’s far easier to make smaller adjustments along the way than to have to deal with what could be a large amount of negative feedback that spanned a longer period of time unchecked.
Incidentally, feedback is a gift and so the proper response to receiving it should be “thank you!” Many employees become resentful of negative feedback, but coming to see ourselves as others see us in an invaluable asset that we should always want to hear. That’s what will make us better, more effective and successful in our careers.
Bob Nelson, Ph.D., is president of Nelson Motivation Inc. in San Diego, California and the leading authority on employee recognition and engagement worldwide. He’s a multi-million copy bestselling author of books on those topics (eg, 1,001 Ways to Engage Employees, 1,501 Ways to Reward Employees) and has served as an HR Strategist for 80 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Bob is an affiliate partner of WorkProud®.
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