Your Guide to Effective Feedback
18th November 2014 | Michael Armstrong
This is an edited extract from the latest edition of Armstrong’s Handbook of Performance Management: An evidence-based guide to delivering high performance. Exclusive launch offer: you can save 20% and get free delivery in the UK with discount code ARMB20. Enter the code when prompted at the checkout.
Feedback to people on how they are doing is a key performance management activity. It is the provision of information to people on how they have performed in terms of results, events, critical incidents and significant behaviours. Feedback can be positive when it tells people that they have done well, constructive when it provides advice on how to do better, and negative when it just tells people that they have done badly. Feedback reinforces effective behaviour and indicates where and how behaviour needs to change. It can be provided by managers informally during the year or formally at a performance review meeting. It can be given by subordinates or internal customers as part of a 360-degree feedback system. Or it can be something that individuals do for themselves.
The nature of feedback
Feedback in performance management is positive in the sense that it aims to further development and improvement of the individual. A positive approach is to treat mistakes or errors of judgement as opportunities for learning so that they are less likely to be repeated in the future. Key to this is evidence-based performance management, which depends on feedback that relies on facts not opinions. It refers to results, events, critical incidents and significant behaviours that have affected performance in specific ways. It compares what has actually happened with what was supposed to have happened. It refers to agreed goals, success criteria and performance measures, and uses the latter to establish outcomes. The feedback should be presented in a way that enables individuals to recognise and accept its factual nature.
The use of feedback in reviewing and developing performance
Providing regular feedback is an important part of the continuous process of performance management. Lee (2005) described this aptly:
“Performance conversations should include a two-way exchange to ensure that the employee understands why the good performance is good and the bad is bad. Accurate descriptions or diagnoses of performance are also crucial, for understanding and improvement are possible only through timely feedback. The longer the gap between performance events and performance feedback, the greater the challenge of remembering with clarity the character and quality of the performance events...”
It is crucial to remember that feedback and appraisals are two different things, although they are usually conflated. Feedback is information-based, whereas the basis of appraisal is judgement or evaluation. Furthermore, feedback is an ongoing activity, and appraisal is periodic and event based (annual).
Guidelines on providing effective feedback
Research on performance feedback suggests that when individuals receive negative feedback, they are often discouraged rather than motivated to improve. Feedback is more likely to be effective if they keep the employee’s attention focused on objectives at the task performance level and least likely to be effective if they are applied at a personal level. Gray (2001) discovered two factors that influenced how receivers valued their feedback: 1) the extent to which the feedback was trustworthy, and 2) the extent to which it was constructive. The following 10 guidelines provide a strong foundation on which to provide effective feedback:
- Build feedback into the job. To be effective, feedback should be built into the job or provided soon after the activity has taken place.
- Provide feedback on actual events. Feedback should be given on actual results or observed behaviour. It should be backed up by evidence. It should not be based on supposition about the reason for the behaviour. You should, for example, say: ‘We have received the following complaint from a customer that you have been rude, would you like to comment on this?’, rather than: ‘You tend to be aggressive.’
- Describe, don’t judge. The feedback should be presented as a description of what has happened; it should not be accompanied by a judgement. If you start by saying: ‘I have been informed that you have been rude to one of our customers; we can’t tolerate that sort of behaviour,’ you will instantly create resistance and prejudice an opportunity to encourage improvement.
- Refer to and define specific behaviours. Relate all your feedback to specific items of behaviour. Don’t indulge in transmitting general feelings or impressions. When commenting on someone’s work or behaviour define what you believe to be good work or effective behaviour with examples.
- Emphasize the ‘how’ not the ‘what’. Focus attention more on how the task was tackled rather than on the result.
- Ask questions. Ask questions rather than make statements: ‘Why do you think this happened?’; ‘On reflection is there any other way in which you think you could have handled the situation?’; ‘How do you think you should tackle this sort of situation in the future?’
- Select key issues. There is a limit to how much criticism anyone can take. If you overdo it, the shutters will go up and you will get nowhere. Select key issues and restrict yourself to them.
- Focus. It is a waste of time to concentrate on areas that the individual can do little or nothing about. Focus on aspects of performance the individual can improve.
- Provide positive and constructive feedback. People are more likely to work positively at improving their performance and developing their skills if they feel empowered by the process. Provide feedback on the things that the individual did well in addition to areas for improvement. Focus on what can be done to improve rather than on criticism.
- Ensure feedback leads to action. Feedback should indicate any actions required to develop performance or skills.