Performance management: Feedback is a two-way street

August 02, 2011

Knowing how to give and receive feedback is a crucial part of performance management. Far too many professionals fall short on both counts, missing out on key opportunities to enhance workplace effectiveness, says Minu Ipe, clinical associate professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

"In most organizations, feedback is given too infrequently and when it is given, it is fraught with too many problems to be truly effective," Ipe explains. The emotional content of feedback -- particularly when it is negative -- also makes it challenging to deliver and receive successfully.

The main problem is that, in many organizations, feedback is reserved for the annual review, and a once-a-year appraisal is not sufficient to spur behavioral change or improvement, says Ipe. She points to a study done by Watson Wyatt Worldwide that showed 43 percent of employees across private sector organizations in the United States feel they don't get enough guidance to improve their performance.

Feedback must also follow certain dictates to be useful, says Ipe. Feedback needs to be specific, timely, accurate, actionable, and meaningful, she says. She uses the acronym STAAM as shorthand for those five characteristics.

Just saying, 'You're doing a good job' doesn't really mean anything and won't add to performance," she explains. "You did a great job yesterday when you responded quickly to customer concerns and found a creative solution to the problem' is far more effective.

The best formula is to offer STAAM-type feedback in both formal review sessions and on a spontaneous, ongoing basis -- say, after an employee runs a meeting, turns in a report, or completes an important project, Ipe notes. While the timeliness of informal feedback -- which can occur immediately after an employee has performed a particular task -- can make it more effective than an annual appraisal, the importance of the formal review is not to be discounted.

Four steps for successful feedback sessions

When done properly, and combined with ongoing feedback during the regular course of business, a formal feedback session can be a very effective means of performance management. The key is preparation. "Just doing the formal review does not necessarily mean that you've communicated the feedback that is necessary, or that the other person has understood what you're trying to communicate, or that any change comes out of that process," Ipe says.

She suggests a four-step process that helps to make a formal review truly effective. It begins with identifying the objective for giving the feedback. "The approach to the feedback session will differ depending on what you are seeking to accomplish," she explains. Things to think about include, are you hoping to change someone's behavior? Enact short-term or long-term behavioral changes? Reward good performance or provide feedback about poor performance?

The next step is to prepare for the review, which Ipe stresses as crucial. Preparation should include taking the time to make sure your feedback falls under the STAAM umbrella; thinking about your relationship to the person you will be reviewing and tailoring your feedback for that individual; planning ahead for how you will handle any negative reactions; and determining an appropriate place and time to conduct the review. "It's not a good idea to conduct a feedback session when an employee is on a deadline for a project, for example," Ipe explains.

When delivering the actual feedback, Ipe cautions against falling into the trap of using what she calls the sandwich approach.

"What typically happens is that the reviewer is uncomfortable giving negative feedback, so they start with all these positive attributions, and then quickly drop in one constructive piece of feedback, and go back to discussing positive performance aspects," she explains.

The result? "The other person only hears all the wonderful things said about themselves, and the one piece of feedback that is truly critical is absolutely lost in the conversation," Ipe says.

The more effective method of giving feedback is to be direct and constructive when discussing negative behavior. "And," she adds, "be sure to listen to the other person. Feedback needs to be a two-way process."

The last stage is follow-up.

"Feedback doesn't end when the formal review is over," Ipe notes. The two parties should develop an action plan that incorporates what was discussed during the review, and following up to make sure the plan is being followed is critical.

"You need to check in to see if the person has changed their behavior according to discussions in the feedback session. If not, you may need to do some coaching to help them achieve the desired goals or behavior -- and continued feedback may be part of that," she says, explaining that follow-up is the best way to ensure buy-in from the recipient.

Taking responsibility for your own feedback

But while the giver of feedback often bears the brunt of the work, there are two parties involved in every feedback session, and the receiver of feedback bears equal responsibility for ensuring that feedback is effective.

"Individuals are responsible for their own performance and if you are not getting adequate feedback on your performance, you should really be asking for it," Ipe says. "Asking for and getting feedback is a critical means for us to evaluate our own self perceptions and to determine how we are perceived by others in the organization."

Knowing how to receive feedback starts with correctly asking for it, Ipe says. Employees requesting feedback should have a well-defined objective and, as with giving feedback, cannot be vague about what they hope to achieve.

"Saying to your boss, 'How am I doing?' will not result in a meaningful answer," Ipe notes. Instead, she recommends requesting a specific time to have a conversation about specific aspects of performance. Asking your boss to set up a time to discuss how to improve your presentation skills, for example, is a far better way to go.

In addition, receiving feedback effectively means being prepared to handle possible negative information, and to make behavioral or process changes based on the feedback given. If asking for tips on how to run meetings effectively, for instance, an employee must be ready to incorporate those tips in their meetings or risk alienating the person who took the time to offer their feedback.

"If you ask and you hear something you may not like, the tendency is to get defensive and try to prove to the other person that what you are currently doing is correct," Ipe says. "This backfires because you are communicating to the other person that you asked for feedback but you're not going to take what they say seriously. This can jeopardize any opportunity you may have down the line to get additional feedback from them, which can hamper your own performance."

Receiving feedback effectively also means making sure you truly understand the feedback you are given. Taking the time to ask for clarification, to discuss goals, and to determine a way to follow up on the discussion helps to make the most of the feedback session.

"It is ideal if both people involved decide what should be done after the feedback is given, determining how to incorporate the ideas that were discussed into a development plan," Ipe says. Again, the feedback receiver should be proactive in planning. Statements like, 'Can I come back in two months so we can review my progress?' or 'Can you coach me as I work through this particular change?' are most effective, Ipe says.

Lastly, a little gratitude goes a long way. "Thanking the person giving the feedback, and acknowledging the value of that feedback is really critical. The other person had to take time to prepare for the conversation, and the conversation may have been difficult for the giver if the feedback was not all positive," she explains. "A thank-you is a great way to convey that you appreciate that and may help you secure further feedback."

Finding Feedback Everywhere

In addition to knowing how to ask for and receive a specific feedback session, professionals need to be more aware of the various types of feedback that occur all around them, Ipe adds. "Feedback is embedded in our everyday interactions with other people, and it is important for us to step back, pay attention and recognize these things as informal feedback coming our way," she explains.

For example, feedback can be found in the way co-workers react to how you communicate strategies or present ideas. Ipe also recommends examining how your supervisor responds to your performance. "Are you the person your supervisor brings into a meeting with senior leadership? Are your reports the ones that are sent to management to represent the work of your group? Those outcomes are examples of positive feedback," Ipe explains.

The way your personality and character are perceived in the workplace also speaks volumes. Are you the person people come to when they have a problem on the job? Are you the social hub of the work world? Do co-workers trust your judgment and come to discuss important issues? Looking at these responses as feedback can help you determine the workplace image that you project, says Ipe.

Ultimately, Ipe explains, remembering that feedback is a two-way street is the best way to ensure that this crucial piece of performance management and workplace development thrives within your organization.

Bottom Line

  • Giving and receiving feedback is crucial to performance management, but in most organizations feedback is too infrequent, and fraught with too many emotions to be effective.
  • Too be effective, feedback needs to be specific, timely, accurate, actionable, and meaningful. Use the acronym STAAM as a memory aid.
  • Offer STAAM-type feedback in both formal review sessions and on a spontaneous, ongoing basis.
  • A four-step process that helps to make a formal review truly effective includes identifying the objective, preparation, direct and constructive delivery, and finally, follow up.
  • Take responsibility for your own feedback. If you are not getting adequate feedback on your performance, you should really be asking for it.
  • Be prepared for negative information.
  • Thank the person giving you feedback for taking time to critique your performance.
  • Learn to read your daily interactions for feedback cues.