Of all the tools available to train, guide and motivate employees, the most finely balanced is the art of giving feedback.
If it is too negative, it can throw the employee off their game entirely, thinking that they are doing everything wrong and can never achieve the excellence demanded by their boss.
If it is too positive, it can be construed as shallow and start to lack any power as a motivator for change and development.
Through employee review and assessment programs, or through training of management personnel, the onus to set the tone for appropriate feedback often falls on the shoulders of the human resources department.
It sounds easy enough to give advice on such a subject, but it’s far more complicated than it appears. That’s because certain people need negative feedback, certain people need positive feedback, and there’s no one-size-fits-all formula to determine who needs what.
One of the most fascinating studies on feedback was published in 2013 in The Journal of Consumer Research. Entitled “Tell Me What I Did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback,” the study concluded that in cases where employees are experts in their fields, they are more capable of accepting negative feedback and they may even welcome it. But those who are new to a field and just trying to learn can be devastated with negative feedback.
Analyzing the study, it became clear that feedback is a chameleon in the workplace. When it is aimed at those trying to learn, it should be positive to encourage and motivate them to continue the challenge of learning. When the employee is adept at the skill, feedback can be less laudatory because the employee is then seeking the knowledge and advice on how to move to the next skill level.
But it’s still not that easy.
That’s because most employees hear only what they want to hear. So if you give them 60 percent positive feedback and 40 percent negative feedback, they will not even remember the negative feedback when they exit the office. If they are reminded that they were told to upgrade a certain skill on another occasion, they are apt to look puzzled as if they are hearing this suggestion or criticism for the first time.
One way to get around the feedback quagmire is to separate the words used from any connotation of good or bad. Instead, focus on non-emotional words and stick to essential skill points and technicalities.
The employee will come to understand that the feedback session will neither praise nor criticize him or her; instead, it will merely point out things that still need to be added to their skill sets to be proficient at their jobs.
About the Author
Roz Bahrami is a blogger for SkyPrep, an online training software. Roz regularly contributes blogs related to corporate training, L&D, and marketing.