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A Psychologist's View on Employee Feedback in the Workplace

James Cummings
James Cummings

Changing behaviors to create productive people

As a business psychologist with more than a decade working with organizations, I am always amazed at how hard people find it to provide feedback to others. I have seen senior managers literally hide behind the water cooler to avoid having to provide feedback to staff.  I've heard all kinds of rationalizations for this behavior. "I wanted to prep more on the numbers." "I needed HR feedback on processes." "I needed a coffee first."

We all like to be liked, but feedback is essential to improvement. As human beings we crave feedback; we need it! As businesses, we very quickly veer off track if adequate feedback processes are not in place.

In my experience, it is the fear of unwanted reactions that are the root of feedback aversion. We build up a mental picture of how a scenario will pan out, and then invariably we manifest that picture. The few times feedback does go well we remark, "wow, that wasn't so bad," but mentally label it an outlier, holding on to our ingrained desire to sidestep the uncomfortable and avoid "rocking the boat" in the future. 

It's true that positive workplace interaction is often necessary for the success of a company, but every team member has a role to play in ensuring the business functions as it should. Everyone must take responsibility for their own functionality and productivity, and that means taking responsibility for both successes and failures; learning from them in equal measure. 

While feedback is a great way to encourage and reward excellent work, the feedback process can also be an effective way to critique subpar performance and forge a new way ahead. If done properly, it not only improves performance but also builds positive, healthy working relationships. Companies need people with the confidence to stand up for what they believe in; people who understand the role of conflict in creating new ways of working and developing better solutions. Well-thought out corporate feedback mechanisms can take a company closer to its goals and create a culture of constant improvement. Excellence can only happen in an environment that facilitates honest and open feedback.

Giving positive feedback

This may seem like an easy thing to do, but surprisingly, many people find it hard.  When was the last time you thanked a work colleague for coming through on a project you worked on together? If it was recently then well done. If not, then you are in the majority group. Encouraging feedback solidifies working relationships and leads to better collaboration in future. 

Here are some positive feedback mechanisms you should actively embrace:

  • Commending a colleague for providing you with a solution
  • Discussing team progress and lauding their commitment
  • Celebrating a specific milestone and providing a reward

These sound obvious, but, if you fail to plan feedback processes and to make them part of your agenda, they will be missed out when the pressures of daily task delivery take over.

Feedback to improve employee productivity

Sometimes, if you notice a team member lacking in confidence or competence, positive feedback can boost their morale and enable them to learn better, interact more confidently, and become more productive. 

But, feedback isn’t always about commendation. In situations where you need to challenge a behavior or outcome, whether you are a senior manager or line manager, it is your responsibility to let someone know where they can improve. What really matters, though, is how you go about it.

The most effective feedback is where the person feels respected, safe and, perhaps, a little bit out of your comfort zone. Feedback must be tailored to the person, making them feel valued and letting them know why, where and how they need to grow and improve. 

Remember: "Criticise in private. Praise in public"

The following framework can be used to provide feedback in teams.

1. Begin by telling them what you like

To make your feedback effective, it must be well-received. Don’t go into critique mode by listing a person’s or team's faults straight away. You’ll shut the door immediately, and, to all intents and purposes, the conversation is over. For someone to be open to something he or she may find disappointing, try beginning by offering an honest compliment.

Challenge yourself to identify something useful about their work or behavior. This only works if you truly believe what you are saying. As long as you are genuine, the will be more willing to listen and accept what follows.

2.  Pause and think about your reasons for giving feedback

Before you provide constructive feedback to someone, check your intentions first. Your advice as a leader or colleague must come from a place of genuine intention. Team success, company growth, or relationship building are great motives for feedback processes.

If your intentions are more about your personal feelings or making someone more like you, you are likely to make matters worse. While it is good to want someone to improve, making them conform to your picture of how they should be is not always a good thing. Workplace diversity is the driver of creativity. Always fight to embrace different ways of thinking and innovative people; guide them don't change them.

3. Tell them what they could have done differently

Take an objective approach and realize the incompetent or inappropriate behavior in the workplace is often down to a skill or knowledge gap that you have failed to plug.  Without being loud or judgemental, show or tell them how they could have handled the situation differently. Ensure that they have the skill set that they need to do their role and that they understand the corporate culture in which they operate. If you find yourself frequently tackling the same issues then there may be recruitment or induction issues that need to be addressed at a strategic level.

4.  Explain in detail what you would like them to do next time

When working with someone set an intention for the future. Tell them what you want and explain your expectations of them in future situations. Provide them with a clear roadmap for change. This may mean putting them on a training course or scheduling on the job training. Focus on knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and avoid calling into question their personality. Don't try and change the person. Respect who they are. 

Remember that feedback isn’t a one-way street. Actively seek out anything about yourself that can improve your working relationships and job productivity. Be willing to learn and develop and you will be leading by example.

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James Cummings
James Cummings Member
James is a business psychologist and serial entrepreneur, with over a decade working in finance, IT, marketing and recruitment sectors. He has authored numerous books in the management space and is Founder and CEO of Daily Posts Copywriting