Managing Feedback

Judith M. Bardwick

The best relationships at work involve chemistry or rapport which simply means liking someone and getting along easily.  It means working with or for the other person is a positive experience that people look forward to.  It’s a friendly relationship that doesn’t involve real because friends don’t judge each other.  But at work evaluating someone’s present capacities and potential for more responsibilities is a serious and ongoing responsibility for management.   Managers have to coach their subordinates which involve giving feedback.  In order for feedback to be effective there has to be a pre-existing relationship of trust and respect between a subordinate and a manager.   

Giving Feedback is relatively easy because it’s tied directly to improving someone’s attitude or work performance.  When managers coach subordinates they usually point out what that person is doing well or poorly and how behaviors could change and output be improved.  The subordinate then knows improvement is possible and has been told how to do things better.  Coaching about specific work issues shouldn’t involve a lot of negative emotion but it often does either because the manager’s focus is on the negative aspects of performance or the employee’s sensitivity makes that the focus. 

Feedback can be destructive when it is vague or hostile.  Hostile feedback involves attacking the person rather than critiquing a behavior and it always elicits an angry and resentful push-back, even if it’s not expressed overtly.  Nothing positive is achieved with destructive feedback.  In contrast, constructive feedback addresses behavior, is honest and specific, and is intended to lead to positive changes.  Constructive coaching is really teaching with specific examples and information people need in order to improve.   

Most of the time the problem with feedback is there is too little of it.  Managers who are not comfortable communicating with subordinates tend to limit coaching to the feared and formal annual feedback session.  Instead, coaching should occur frequently and informally as a natural by-product of employees tackling new projects and learning new skills.  When employees improve old skills or gain new ones, the coaching session should become an opportunity for recognition. 

People know they’re being continuously evaluated at work.  It is appropriate that they tend to become uncomfortable and anxious when they’re not told how they’re doing.  Managers owe all employees clear expectations about what and how they will perform, specific goals and time tables, recognition for achievements, help when it’s needed and frequent, ongoing constructive feedback. 

Most commonly, it’s the squeaking wheel, the failing employee who gets the most coaching time.  A failing employee deserves support and time and a plan of improvement.  But most of the coaching should be given to the A-level stars and the B-level steady performers who, together, are the people who really accomplish what matters.   

No one does everything well and feedback should not dwell on what A- and B-level performers do badly in terms of skills.  Instead, managers should focus on the areas in which these people are most talented because honing talent achieves much greater results than trying to remedy areas in which people have neither talented nor interest. 

Coaching can improve performance and generate positive feelings in the subordinate if the manager doesn’t think of him- or herself as a disciplinarian.  The best mindset for the coaching role is that of a teacher who is continuously improving the performance of a talented, able and willing student.   That can and should be an immensely satisfying and, on occasion, a joyous relationship.



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