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Say the right thing at the right time – Seth Godin Rules for Giving Great Feedback

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A great manager does many things well, including offering her people the right type of feedback  to encourage, stretch and/or expand their thinking when they need it most.   Despite the common perception that positive feedback is the best motivator, research discussed in an HBR blog last week focuses on how both positive and negative feedback can be effective for motivating and enhancing performance, depending on the individual and her level of proficiency in a job.  The research, by Stacey Finkelstein (Columbia University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago), dissects the function of negative and positive feedback and also when and with whom it will work best.

Positive feedback, the research shows, increases peoples’ commitment to their work, by enhancing confidence.  In contrast,  negative feedback provides valuable information on how to improve.  For individuals who are new in a job and less confident, positive feedback is likely to help one remain positive and comfortable in facing a new set of challenges.   For the seasoned expert, negative or constructive feedback is more likely to give one unexpected insight on how to make incremental improvements, and with a track record of success, one is less likely to be discouraged or offended.

For one of my  executive coaching clients, regular delivery of feedback to employees—particularly constructive feedback—has not been something that has come naturally, even as his team and responsibilities have continued to grow in size and scope over the years.  As a personal development strategy at the close of 2012, this leader decided he wanted to incorporate a “feedback model” into regular one-on-ones with employees.

As we spoke recently, a month after setting about this new practice, I heard my client being critical of his ability to implement the feedback model consistently.  As we dug deeper, however, it became apparent that just by adding the topic of “feedback” to his agendas, he was becoming more observant of his employees in both the big and the small ways; while he may not have been “executing” against the feedback model in the way he envisioned, he was communicating more frequently with his team about what was and was not working, and he also was tuning into each individuals’ behaviors and results in a more nuanced way.

This also made him more reflective about the quality and quantity of feedback he was giving to each of his employees.  He noticed, for example, that he was able to give much more concrete feedback in domains where he had worked previously and to his credit, that he was spending more time with employees who were newer in their roles and dealing with detailed processes and systems that were being challenged by expedient growth in the organization.

For employees who were more experienced and high performing in their roles in functions less familiar to the leader, however, he was challenged as to how to offer “value” for his direct reports.  Should he gain more knowledge in this domain where he had not worked previously to offer that necessary “constructive” feedback? Should he bring in outside experts who can help them stretch and further refine their craft? Or should he assume the role of advisor and coach who asks forwarding questions and helps his star performer reflect on the bigger picture without judgment?

All of these are potential directions for this manager, and ones he is considering, all because he has put employee feedback on his list of reoccurring agenda items.

In closing, this experience was a good reminder that a model is purely that – it’s a template of what can work, not a prescribed approach. Relationships and conversations are just too complicated to be limited by formulas.   On the flip side, the story demonstrates how small shifts in awareness and prioritization can have profound positive results for a leader, team and the organization.

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