Giving feedback should be an integral part of a manager’s duties. Indeed, research shows that effective feedback is a major driver of leadership effectiveness and performance. In order for a business to excel, effective and consistent feedback, both positive and corrective, is key.
Yet, many managers still feel anxious about delivering corrective feedback. Primarily, managers worry that negative feedback will damage their employee relationships. And it’s not unfounded. Giving and processing negative feedback can lead to feelings of anger, frustration and self-consciousness, which can impair progress and break down trust.
But is that the full picture? Corrective feedback, when paired with positive feedback and recognition is a powerful tool for improving employee relationships and performance. Not only that, but a recent Harvard Business Review study found that 57% of employees preferred corrective feedback over positive feedback, whilst 72% thought corrective feedback would improve their performance. So, when done well, constructive feedback can benefit both parties — the manager has a pool of better performing employees and the employee is able to grow and develop. Moreover, leaders who themselves ask for critical feedback are felt to be more effective by their employees, peers and superiors alike.
In this post, we’ll break down how to navigate the difficulties of delivering corrective feedback by using the principles of coaching conversations.
Why Is Receiving Feedback so Difficult?
To truly learn to tackle corrective conversations we first need to understand why these kinds of interactions can be so uncomfortable.
Psychologist William Swann explains that one of the reasons we have such strong reactions to corrective feedback is because it conflicts with the way we perceive ourselves. Negative feedback is like a confrontation to our sense of self that can lead us to feel as though our ‘very existence is threatened’ and induces a feeling of ‘severe disorientation and psychological anarchy’. It can be intensely unsettling to learn that people don’t see us the way we see ourselves. As leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith notes, it’s far harder to change the perceptions of our behaviour than the actual behaviours themselves.
Further studies show that these threats to our self-image trigger the fight-or-flight part of our brain. That’s why negative feedback can often lead to arguments or complete shutdown. Our brains literally tell us that we’re in danger. Calming this anxiety is a delicate balancing act that managers need to master in order for feedback to be useful.
Coaching Conversations Are a Two-Way Dialogue
Perhaps because feedback is a dreaded task, many managers set out to get through their feedback as quickly as possible. The feedback is delivered, the manager says their piece, the conversation is over — case closed. Yet, research shows that employees feel that feedback is more honest when their managers listen to what they have to say in return. Two-way dialogue is integral to successful corrective feedback.
Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, David Rock, explains that two-way conversations allow the receiver to take responsibility for their error and work towards their own resolution. The result? The receiver feels empowered and motivated to work towards improving rather than feeling threatened and unmotivated. Rock describes this role-reversal as self-directed ‘feed forward’ feedback which becomes a ‘status reward for them, rather than a status threat’. Just because the feedback is negative, doesn’t mean that the conversation needs to be.
Psychologists further enforce the need for managers to encourage employees to openly address their feelings about their feedback through the idea of cognitive appraisal. Cognitive appraisal is the process of ‘affect labelling’ or giving words to our feelings. Psychologists argue that when we acknowledge how we feel about certain feedback we’re better able to modulate our feelings of insecurity and uncertainty so that we’re able to learn from our mistakes rather than dwell on them. By encouraging employees to say how they feel, for example; ‘I was completely caught off guard and now I feel uncertain about my role,’ managers are able to better manage the situation and provide further guidance. The conversation becomes more thorough and effective.
Coaching Conversations Don’t Get Stuck on the Problems
There is a tendency to treat corrective feedback as a wholly negative conversation. When managers worry that their feedback may be construed as unforeseen, they attempt to quell the feeling of being blindsided by reiterating the problem or issue that led to the conversation. However, research shows that more often than not employees already know the problem before the feedback is given. This is not to say that the conversation should be cut short because the issue is already known. As we discussed above, not allowing an appropriate amount of time for questions and further discussion is poor practice. Rather, corrective feedback needs to be a coaching conversation and move beyond negativity.
When delivering corrective feedback the initial problem should only dominate the beginning part of the conversation; the bulk of the conversation should then be concentrated on establishing pragmatic next steps, positive reinforcement and mutual discussions about how you’re going to move forward. There is no need to continually return to the issue over and again, as it will only lead to demotivation and further negativity. Importantly, this approach is not the same as the dreaded ‘feedback sandwich’ when negative feedback is poorly disguised by giving it between two positive affirmations. Rather, this kind of forward-looking feedback puts its emphasis on solutions and next steps.
Coaching Conversations Are Grounded in Facts
As with most things, when it comes to corrective feedback context is everything. Without clear facts and examples, it’s near impossible to help an employee learn from their mistakes. For example, you tell an employee that they’ve been micromanaging their team but are unable to provide any examples that support your claim. You expect your employee to improve and change their approach, yet without a clear understanding of what actions or behaviours need adjusting, your employee goes round in circles. The feedback here is too vague to be useful. A better approach would be to explain specific and concrete times when the employee micromanaged the team and then work with them to find ways to ensure that those behavioural patterns can be improved.
Without a basis in fact, the receiver may also end up feeling as though the negative comments are based on personal opinions. So, remember the old cache ‘it’s not personal, it’s business’ — be direct and concise and use concrete examples.
Coaching Conversations Form Part of a Larger Feedback Loop
Corrective feedback should form part of a culture of ongoing feedback and continuous performance reviews. When companies have a strong culture of feedback, their corrective feedback is more effective and generally better accepted. It’s not difficult to see why. If an employee has worked incredibly well and exceeded their goals for 9 months but then falls short on a target the following month and only receives feedback about that failing, it’s not surprising that the employee then feels disrespected and blindsided. By making feedback a regular and ongoing part of the company culture, corrective feedback blends into the continuous loop of performance reviews. Feedback becomes expected, not feared.
Moreover, ongoing feedback helps employees to realise that making mistakes and having conversations about them is not a bad thing, but rather a further opportunity to learn and grow. They’re used to hearing feedback regularly on both their successes and shortcomings and so the corrective conversation is not out of place — it forms part of their personal development. When there is a culture of ongoing feedback company-wide, employees are also aware that they have not been singled out but are rather one of many who receives feedback. This, in turn, helps to quell the sense of isolation that often comes with negative feedback.
Coaching Conversations Are Ongoing
Corrective feedback doesn’t end once the conversation is over. Rather, it is a continuous process of checking-in with how the employee is responding to the discussion over a period of time. Research shows that once people receive negative feedback they’re prone to isolating themselves from those who delivered it. It’s a basic human response to negativity. Yet, when employees feel alone and unsupported, performance and motivation take a hit.
So managers should catch up with employees after corrective feedback has been given and be open to discussing how the employee is feeling about it. This also includes recognising the employee for implementing better behaviours and having further conversations if their actions remain unchanged. Research by Marshall Goldsmiths and Howard Morgan found that employees who engage in an ongoing dialogue with their teams showed dramatic improvement. In contrast, those who didn’t ‘barely exceeded random chance’.
Corrective feedback doesn’t have to be a negative experience for all involved. Check out a demo of our software to find out how continuous performance reviews help to manage corrective feedback in the best way.