Mastering the Feedback Loop

“Feedback is a gift.” That phrase is used so often that it’s become a tired expression. Unfortunately, I’ve observed that few people actually give or receive feedback well. One of the reasons this is the case is because just as our team members have various ways of learning, they also are more or less receptive to different ways of being offered feedback. As leaders, we need to figure out the best ways to provide that input to grow our teams.

As I was reading Felicia Spahr’s article on how to give better feedback, I found myself lingering on the idea of giving effective feedback (both criticism and praise) to employees without hurting morale or coming across as sugary. I thought I would share some of the advice I’ve found particularly helpful.

Learn how your employees want to receive feedback

When you hire someone new, ask them how they like to receive guidance. Then, really listen, write down what you heard, and check for understanding with your employee. As you build a trusted relationship, set up SMART objectives as well as milestones to touch base, measure performance growth and talk about “the how” and “the why” behind the results. Before you touch base the first few times, pull out the document with the initial feedback as reminder for how they want to receive guidance. This way, you’ve set aside time for feedback and can share it in a method that speaks best to the individual employee.

Here’s a personal example showing that knowledge of how your employees prefer to receive feedback creates better outcomes. I once had an employee who did fantastic work but wasn’t getting the credit she deserved. In diagnosing why, I saw that she was uncomfortable receiving praise in public and therefore did not tell others about wins she drove. During a one-on-one discussion on the topic, she said she never thought to communicate progress and outcomes to her leadership team because she saw it as a distraction rather than a vital part of her job. We then talked about the potential downstream negative impact of not telling people, e.g., others could not learn from the successes and she would not get the advancement she deserved. She recognized the benefits and added “communication touch points on progress and outcomes” to the “to do” list. By working through the feedback she changed her behavior and received appropriate credit for her contributions, ensuring that she was on the radar screen for important projects and promotion opportunities.

Praise is public, negative feedback is private

Providing employees with feedback can make them feel valued and ultimately help business performance, but it’s a delicate process to master. By celebrating a job well done in public, and giving constructive feedback in a one-on-one setting, you will be motivating employees to continue doing great work, and providing them with a safe space to ask questions to help improve their performance.

One caveat to this rule would be if there is an opportunity to create a teachable moment for an entire team, then constructive feedback can be carefully shared in a group setting. Before you share feedback at your next staff gathering, be explicit about why you are providing this information to everyone at once.

Another caveat is that I have had some employees who prefer to get praise in a private setting, while most thrive off being acknowledged publicly. Either way, make sure your feedback is direct, specific and actionable, and offered in the appropriate setting.

The “golden” ratio

There is empirical data that giving more positive feedback than negative feedback is important to long-term health of a team and the motivation of the individual. The recommended balance is generally between 3:1 and 5:1 ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback (a summary of the original research can be found here). Though this research addresses feedback in a professional setting, keep in mind that this ratio works in personal relationships as well.

Generating positive energy is not just good for morale, it can also help you perform better and get promoted! Research into social networks inside of organizations from the American Psychological Association shows that being a “connector” and someone who people feel adds to their energy leads you to promotions and higher overall performance.

Whether you’re about to take on your first direct report, or you’ve been managing others for years and are looking for a fresh perspective on your management duties, investing time in stepping back and thinking about the bigger picture pays off in the long run. Returning to my employee whom I mentioned earlier: We were able to frame the development opportunity in a personalized way that gave her the chance to take action, improved her communication with the leadership team, and ultimately furthered her career.

Giving direct feedback isn’t an easy skill and it’s not one at which everyone excels. But it is an important one, and results like this show that helping employees continually hone their feedback skills can ultimately be key to the overall success of the business.