The Behavioral Science Behind Feedback

Michael Scott once said, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”

SEE ALSO: Ultimate Guide to Employee Check-Ins

That’s actually a very real question—”feared or loved?”—that many managers face, especially when it comes to providing constructive feedback to employees. It can be a delicate balancing act—trying to coach employees for improvement while also being sensitive to their feelings and trying to maintain positive relationships.

Effective feedback can be a delicate balancing act. Click To Tweet

To improve the process, many companies are moving away from annual performance reviews and encouraging managers to provide more frequent feedback. However, many people confuse “frequent feedback” to mean that they should be providing constructive criticism whenever an opportunity arises. Too often this takes the form of pointing out employees’ mistakes, weaknesses, or problem areas—essentially an employee’s negative qualities or moments.

However, behavioral science shows us that it’s actually more beneficial to point out an employee’s positives: Their strengths, successes, good decisions, innovative ideas, accomplished goals, moments where they step up and take the lead, and moments where they embody your company’s values.

It’s actually more beneficial to point out an employee’s strengths and successes. Click To Tweet

Approaching feedback in this way requires a paradigm shift, but the work of speech therapist Lena Rustin embodies how this model can work successfully. Rustin worked with children who struggled with stuttering. In addition to the typical exercises that focused on breathing and speaking techniques, Rustin also collaborated with the children’s families. She wanted to change the way the families interacted, to build a more positive environment in the home.

So, she asked the families to identify and call out the positive behaviors of other family members—at least once per day. She wanted the families to recognize specific acts of kindness and charity that took place in the home in order to show gratitude and encourage similar behaviors in the future. Rather than putting pressure on the children to stop stuttering, the goal was to help them feel confident—through positive reinforcement—and that confidence helped them stop stuttering.

The Power of Positivity

Rustin’s example illustrates the power of positivity. The term “constructive criticism” should really be reframed as “constructive coaching” or “constructive conversations”. Most people’s instinct when reacting to criticism is to get defensive or feel ashamed or patronized. Not only does this make the employee less open to feedback but it also, if repeated regularly, can hurt self-esteem, increase stress, cause frustration or resentment, and make the employee feel as if they’re being micromanaged.

Research has shown that, within organizations, over one-third of feedback actually leads to decreases in performance. And employees are aware that most feedback isn’t effective: A Gallup survey found that only 27% of employees strongly agree that the feedback they receive helps them perform better. And even fewer—22%—strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.

The consequence of ineffective feedback isn’t simply the status quo. It can actually hurt employee engagement over time. A study from the Harvard Business Review examined how engagement is affected when business leaders struggle to deliver feedback effectively. The report showed that employees who averaged in the bottom quartile for job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and desire to stay also gave their leaders the lowest rankings for providing quality feedback. So, there is a correlation between poor feedback and low engagement.

Ineffective feedback can actually hurt employee engagement over time. Click To Tweet

One of the most important aspects of effective coaching is the ability to listen to employees’ questions, concerns, and ideas then use those questions/concerns/ideas to inform feedback. Another Gallup study asked employees whether they agreed with the statement, “I feel I can approach my manager with any type of question.” Among those who strongly agreed with the statement, 31% were engaged in their work. And only 2% of employees who disagreed with the statement were engaged. Employees want to be heard. Managers need to be willing and able to listen, otherwise it’s going to be very difficult to keep their employees invested.

Think about the truly great teachers that you had in school. What probably made them great was their ability to connect with students and their passion for the material. Those qualities created a positive classroom environment, where students wanted to learn and interact. Managers should aspire to take the same approach when engaging their employees in coaching/teaching conversations. And it does pay off: A Deloitte report found that organizations experience a 21% increase in business results when leaders embrace a culture of coaching.

In that spirit, here are some tips—rooted in behavioral science—to help managers provide more effective feedback.

Focus on Strengths

Providing positive feedback goes beyond complimenting an employee’s work. You can also reinforce positive behaviors by focusing on what that employee already does well.

Work tends to be more enjoyable and employees tend to perform at higher levels when managers assign them tasks or put them on teams that maximize their natural strengths. A study of over 49,000 business units and 1.2 million employees found that 90% of workgroups that focused on employee strengths showed performance increases in the following ranges:

  •       3% to 7% higher customer engagement
  •       9% to 15% increase in engaged employees
  •       10% to 19% increase in sales
  •       6% to 72% lower turnover
  •       14% to 29% increase in profit

Rather than trying to force a square peg into a round hole, find a square hole for that square peg. The employee and the bottom line will both be happier for it.

Keep the Ratio Positive

Skip the feedback sandwich (where you slip in a piece of criticism between two compliments). It’s patronizing and, ultimately, it’s just a circuitous method to deliver negative feedback. So, it’s still likely to conjure up the defensiveness, shame, etc. that were mentioned earlier.

Psychological researchers have discovered that the most effective ratio of positive-to-negative comments for improving performance is 6:1. Now, that’s not to say that you should deliver six good compliments for every one bad comment, but it does illustrate the importance of tone— positives should far outweigh the negatives when providing feedback.

The most effective ratio of positive-to-negative comments for improving performance is 6:1. Click To Tweet

Provide Feedback Immediately

When an employee does great work or exemplifies your organization’s core values, recognize them right away. One of the main issues with annual performance reviews is that feedback/coaching often happens far too long after these moments have occurred. For positive reinforcement to work, it needs to happen consistently, and providing real time feedback is one of the best ways to build positive recognition into your company culture.

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