Use behavioral science to guide performance management
Research proves today’s employees want more frequent, thorough, and insightful feedback than they’re currently receiving in the workplace. In the ongoing war for talent, delivering effective feedback and coaching employees for growth are vital practices to increasing employee engagement, satisfaction, performance and longevity.
For managers who are accustomed to the conventional periodic performance review process, it can be difficult to determine exactly how to weave frequent feedback into their relationships with employees; however, as we move toward an ambient approach to HR and implement continuous performance management processes, it will remain critical for managers to tailor conversations based on how their employees prefer to receive feedback. Complicating matters is the fact that “feedback” can mean different things to different people. In this case, we look to behavioral science to identify these discrepancies and ensure that “more feedback” equals “better feedback.” After all, more isn’t better if it’s done incorrectly.
Understanding constructive criticism vs. positive reinforcement
“Feedback” is often synonymous with constructive criticism, in which there is acknowledgement of a job well done with accompanying suggestions for how to improve next time. The theory of “continuous improvement” implies that there’s almost always something that could be improved upon.
While this might be true, it’s also perfectly acceptable to provide positive feedback with zero caveats or conditions. Continuously reminding employees that they can always do better can be demoralizing. This practice can minimize their work and effort, which generally results in exactly the opposite of the desired effect. Proper feedback should incentivize employees to do their best work, not make them feel as though every effort will be picked apart.
An effective feedback strategy should be based on positive reinforcement. Acknowledging an accomplishment without conditions or a lingering “however…” sends a message to employees that their performance is valued and appreciated, rather than subject to constant critique. Did they meet or exceed the goals set out before them? If so, acknowledge that accomplishment. An employee falling short, on the other hand, may warrant a constructive criticism conversation. Recognizing the difference and providing feedback accordingly is a critical coaching skill for managers. For more tips on coaching in the workplace, check out our recent blog post.
Feedback value lies with the recipient
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the value of feedback lies with the person receiving it. It’s human nature to assume that everyone is just like us, and in the realm of feedback, managers often default to providing the type of feedback that they would want to receive themselves.
But everyone is different, and individuals may vary greatly in how and what kind of feedback they prefer to receive. Do they want one-on-one input? Public recognition? Would they prefer it to be offered freely — or only when they ask for it? It’s important for managers to understand these nuances among their staff and to create an environment in which employees feel safe speaking up about their feedback needs.
Secrets to better feedback
Approaching feedback delivery with this basic understanding of human behavior can help managers dramatically improve the quality and value of their performance management efforts. Here are a few key strategies to employ:
- Listen first. Because not everyone approaches feedback from the same perspective or experience, start by asking your employees about their preferences. Some may not know or be able to articulate their needs, due to inexperience or simply because no one has ever asked them before. Provide a template to employees that asks about their feedback preferences (i.e. formal or informal, written or verbal, in real time or scheduled, etc.). This can help you craft an appropriate feedback conversation and learn how long employees might need to process feedback.
- Share both positives and negatives. No one enjoys delivering less-than-positive feedback. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with constructive criticism, having constructive conversations or practicing constructive coaching is a much better approach. Focus on employees’ strengths and be mindful of setting a positive tone for the conversation, even where there are issues to discuss. Some experts suggest a specific ratio of positive to negative feedback; While there isn’t necessarily a magic number, behavioral science suggests that higher performing employees hear more positives than negatives in performance conversations.
- Don’t ignore high performers. It’s easy to get caught up in focusing most of your efforts on employees who need more coaching. They might be struggling to meet deadlines, require more support in meeting their goals or have challenges that demand your attention. But high performers — those who consistently do a great job — need your feedback, too. Even the student who consistently earns straight As and whose outstanding performance becomes an expectation still needs and deserves recognition, encouragement and motivation.
- Give feedback in the moment. Imagine attending a theater performance where the audience waits five minutes after the curtain closes to erupt in thunderous applause. The performers would no doubt be left wondering what they did wrong. Feedback on the job works the same way — when there’s a lengthy delay, it’s natural to assume that performance must not have been good enough. Avoid the awkward pause by giving immediate feedback. Real-time feedback is not only more relevant to the recipient, it also reduces the likelihood that managers will forget critical details, allowing them to provide more thorough input.
- Focus on your team. As a manager, your success is contingent upon the success of your team and your ability to help them perform at their best. A team-first or “servant leadership” approach requires an executive-level shift in helping your employees connect their individual work to overall company strategy and translating company strategy to your department and subordinates. Doing so successfully requires understanding how to deliver feedback that motivates your employees to do their best work. Earn their trust by providing the type of coaching that contributes to their individual growth and success.
Written by: Rachel Ernst
Rachel Ernst is the vice president of employee success at Reflektive. In her role, she focuses both on internal employee development, as well as building knowledge for Reflektive’s customers on change management, goal management, check-ins, real-time feedback, and employee engagement polling. Her background in HR spans across compensation, learning and development, leadership coaching, people analytics and organizational design. She is particularly passionate about evolving the performance management ecosystem to fulfill its ultimate goal of inspiring high performance through ongoing, real-time feedback.