6 Strategies to Give Feedback That Sticks

Giving Feedback at the Workplace Is an Art of Communication-the Mode of Delivery Matters most

Andy
Andy
Aug 22 · 12 min read

High up the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs lie the self-esteem and self-actualisation blocks, where we achieve with the respect of others, existential purpose and finding inner potential—all threatened by criticism.

Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong, explained how it is almost impossible for us to admit our mistakes, at least in the present: our brain is wired to protect ourselves. Criticism can feel like an actual threat to our survival, and often being remarkably potent biologically, almost as those to our very survival, according to psychologist Daniel Goleman.

Since our brain goes out of its way to protect us, we often don’t remember criticism clearly. When we hear information that conflicts with our self-image, we instinctually change the information rather than ourselves; we don’t experience, remember, track or retain mistakes as a feature of our inner landscape, according to Schulz.

While we may not retain information accurately, we internalise the emotions we feel in full—and most of the time it grows exponentially over time. Our brain possesses a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news, according to John Cacioppo, Ph.D.

Our brain reacts a lot stronger to stimuli it deems to be negative. Furthermore, if the criticism was delivered in a harsh, unempathetic manner, our mind gets fired when we also ‘receive’ the feelings from the messenger—our neural circuits are also stimulated, often in the same intensity as the other party, evidenced by a University of Washington study.

Chemistry also plays a big role in this phenomenon: when we face criticism, rejection or fear, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol—a stress hormone produced by our adrenal glands that exacerbate anxiety—which activates conflict aversion and protection behaviours.

With all the inherent problems of our mind affecting the way we internalise feedback, it is imperative to focus on the delivery and the after-action rather than on pushing our emotions onto others instead. While it may be easier to simply convey our anger or disappointment, the fact is that emotions mostly fail in creating an impact on future performance.


When Atlassian recently changed the way they did performance reviews, HR news portals and mainstream media gobbled up the news, syndicating them on various websites: the reality is, the change was highly welcome in the world where almost 66% of managers wish that their companies “would get rid of or change the current performance review process”, according to an Adobe study on performance reviews.

Performance Reviews Get a Failing Grade

Adobe’s titled study made headlines when they revealed how almost two-thirds of office workers and managers think performance reviews are undying dinosaurs: they are outdated HR management tools—more than half of office workers say reviews have “no impact on how they do their job” and are a “needless HR requirement.”

It is telling that a software giant like Adobe, serving hundreds and millions of creatives and developers abolished performance reviews in 2012: it simply didn’t work, especially in today’s millennial workforce: 61% of millennials would switch jobs to a company with no performance review, even if the pay and job level were the same.

The emotional impact of a performance review is often understated as well. Like mentioned, performance reviews either affirms or contradicts our self-image. Since we also amplify negative emotions a lot more in our minds, it is small wonder that Adobe found that after a performance review, 22% have cried, 20% have quite.

After a performance review, 37% have looked for another job.

Instantaneous Feedback Hurts Performance

Over 6 months, hundreds of Singaporean drivers were examined in a study by Masha Shunko (University of Washington), her colleagues and Vivek Choudhary (INSEAD) and Serguei Netessine (Wharton).

In hope of getting an insurance discount, the drivers agreed to let an app monitor and rate their driving. Drivers had to keep their driving performance score above 70% to qualify for an insurance discount and they had options to review their performance in real-time—immediately after their trips, some drivers looked at the score that their app gave.

The insight came from those drivers who actually looked at their feedback and responded with their driving actually got worse within the next few trips, with outcomes such as an 18% increase in the distance covered while speeding.

Drivers who discovered that they were inching closer to a ‘good performance rating’ saw their performance after fell way more than those who were far away from their goal of 70.


In Shunko’s study, she further highlighted that context matters the most: in certain situations, instantaneous feedback may give positive results, more so than deliberately delayed feedback. While there are few studies on the benefits of real-time feedback, she stressed that the mode of delivery should really be “individualised feedback”—no single approach is going to work well for everybody.

In a global survey, it is found that millennials heavily leaned towards monthly and quarterly feedback, specifically heavy on personal development rather than managerial direction. Yet, according to data, only 46% of millennials agreed that their managers delivered on their expectations for feedback.

There is room for improvement, but more importantly, a space of individualisation to fill.

Companies need to execute well both on the macro and the micro of giving feedback. By nailing down the exact fundamentals that companies expect to see, managers are able to reconcile with it and execute.

It is important to note, however, on times where instant feedback is mandatory. Such situations can include:

  • Giving praise. Praise is a key part of driving engagement and motivation. Specific compliments reinforce what the leader would like to see more in the future.
  • Major issues. Leaders need to deal with egregious acts and non-compliance acts immediately.

Besides those urgent issues, what are the things that leaders need to focus on in the macro?

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

In the Macro, It’s About Engagement

For years, companies have been shifting resources to driving employee engagement. Employee engagement has hit an all-time high since 2016, according to a study by Gallup, at 34%. Technology has also made huge shifts, according to Deloitte, with 71% of organisations place a priority in analytics.

Doubling down on this base, organisations are bound to see rippling effects within themselves, from rises in revenue to an explosion in growth. However, without solid steps in the micro, companies will fail to execute on their employee engagement strategy.

What’s in the Micro?

Leaders need to consider many points here: by 2025, millennials are forecast to comprise 75% of the global workforce. Companies like Ernst & Young and Accenture have already reported that millennials make up over two-thirds of their entire employee base. Undoubtedly, lacking effort in engaging and retaining millennials is a surefire way to accelerate an organisation’s demise.

In an analysis of psychological tests of 1.4 million college students from 1938 to present, millennials are found to have more self-esteem. Conversely, they also possess more anxiety and a higher need for praise. Reconciling that with the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it is clear that leaders need to drive the top blocks as much as humanly possible.

Use the Rosenberg Method

Many organisations with highly evolved workplaces use the Rosenberg Nonviolent Communication method, according to Frederic Laloux, the author of Reinventing Organisations. It is a two-way communication framework that takes out some volatility of giving and receiving feedback.

  1. Express observations with only facts. What did your employee do? What did you remember and see? Without providing any evaluation, keep the observation as factual as possible.
  2. Express your emotions. This is about the feelings: did you feel disappointed. Did you feel angry? Did you feel upset? This must be communicated in the most neutral way possible.
  3. Express your reasons. Why is it you feel the way you feel? What is the reason that caused it?
  4. Express your requests. You need concrete actions from your employee—what do you want the employee to do in the future?

One At A Time

Most people can take in only one critical comment at a time, according to Stanford Professor Nass. Tying back to neurochemistry, constantly firing our circuits and elevating cortisol levels are undeniably taxing for us. Mental fatigue can set in and the feedback loses its intended effect.

Criticism is often formed by more than one point of improvement. Rather than meshing them all together, what leaders can do instead is to:

  1. Focus on one priority at a time. Employees are not machines that can take in hundreds of input at one go. Allow your employees to internalise and understand.
  2. Give a list instead. While you can also focus on priority, having a huge team does not give you the luxury of taking time with every single employee. You can talk to your employee about every point briefly, before going back to focus on one priority. For the rest, you can leave it for self-internalisation and then doubling down on them in a coaching session sometime in the month.
  3. Write out the feedback to ensure that it is coherent. Before speaking to the employee, you can also ensure that you are being persuasive and coherent with your feedback by penning it down. It is also a great way to look at language, reinforce positive psychology and remove superfluous things in respect to their time and yours.

Practical and Specific Feedback

Saying “good job” and “that was really disappointing” are both equally lacking in value for any team member. Being specific is imperative to ensuring that employees have the opportunity to take action steps for improvement.

When giving praise, effortless and vague comments like “that’s awesome” often feels fleeting. Rather, take time to recognise why they did a ‘good job’ and what part you think should be continued. Instead of saying ‘good job’, you can say:

You really outdone yourself by going heavy on the research, so I think you dial it up even further to make sure our articles are really factual.

Likewise, for criticism, you need to make it about their work and not just them. Granted, personality traits may come in to play but it is a variable that you cannot control. Instead, by turning your focus to actions born from their undesirable personality traits, you can start tackling the problems in a steady, consistent manner.

For instance, it’s less “you’re really bad at designing graphics”, it’s more of:

Your colours are chosen with no rhyme or reason, which makes it unappealing. There should be some baseline you’re coming from, be it a colour wheel or a colour palette, at the very least.

Giving team feedback the right way is an essential part of accomplishing a key responsibility of a leader. Without that, teams can never perform at high levels and there will unhealthy levels of self-awareness.

Adhere to the Praise to Criticism Ratio

Using positive feedback to praise and offering constructive comments are both important aspects in giving feedback—the question is, what is the right mix? According to Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, it might be 5.6 positive comments to a single negative comment.

When people don’t get enough recognition, most of the time, they will ask themselves: “What am I doing this for? Nobody cares.”

When people don’t get enough recognition, most of the time, they will ask themselves: “What am I doing this for? Nobody cares.” While others may argue that there are many inwards and outwards factors such as existential meaning, contributing to a larger cause or monetary benefits, ultimately, people love compliments—especially genuine, well-thought ones.

It is primarily due to ourselves: we attempt to get dopamine due to it being biologically preordained. To stimulate the release of dopamine, recognition for good work can be used in the workplace. In that vein, the dopamine hit cements the knowledge that more of such behaviour begets more praise: this is positive reinforcement at work.

One way to start is to giving recognition or praise for doing work every seven days. According to Gallup research, employees who got that in the last seven days were responsible for a 10–20% difference in revenue and productivity.

Go Individual

There is no “best” form of praise: David Grazian, the director of corporate taxation at Granite Construction, Inc. uses money to recognise good work. In contrast, Simon Cooper, Ritz-Carlton Group’s president, and COO, believe it to easily degrade into bribery. Regardless of the type of recognition, it is imperative that leaders maintain consistency department-wide, then going deep into each employee and understanding what kind of feedback works best for them.

Some may desire public praise while others want nothing more than quiet, casual praise over a cup of coffee. Leaders need to figure out the best form of praise for each person and the frequency: praise must always be warranted—ditch the “employee of the month” program.

Just like Shunko’s study, it is evidenced that many people receive feedback differently: some want it instantly, others want it to be delayed. Nailing down the mode of delivery is extremely crucial but leaders should not be afraid to ask: what better way to find out than to actually broach on the topic itself?

Coach and Develop

According to Josh Bersin, organisations have been shifting away from a competitive ranking model to a coach and development model over the last two decades. With the current millennial generation being inclined towards being coached and developed by their leaders, it is imperative that organisations root themselves into that model for the future.

Orgnaisations also need to focus on cultivating a growth mindset: nothing is fixed and everything can be changed. Gary Vaynerchuk famously said: “I love losing.” While an extreme example, it is evidence of a genuine growth mindset where there is always room for improvement in every single feedback.

By doing both coaching and cultivating, leaders are able to unlock a person’s potential to maximise their own performance.

Weave Technology In

As mentioned earlier, HR analytics and technology have been on the rise. With companies like Randstad investing in HR-tech startups and HR analytics becoming more popular, it is clear that data has been instrumental in creating a positive impact within companies. Be it in performance management or in identifying the right hires, every sector in the HR-tech world is covered.

How can companies weave technology to give and receive feedback?

  • Build your own pulse survey. Identify someone to be in charge of the entire employee pulse survey, from creation to identifying types of questions to put in. A simple form will suffice, with the questions being compiled into a single report for the manager to read through. Actionable plans can be discussed later on in an in-depth meeting.
  • Use existing employee survey technologies. Performance management software is on the rise and they are often laced with additions such as cognitive science, neuroscience or positive psychology. Regardless, companies can consider using technologies and piloting them within a single team. Not all software is created equal.
  • Get bespoke solutions. HR consultancies often work with data firms to help build bespoke solutions for companies that have more sophisticated requests, such as AI to identify what kind of questions in terms of context—a finance and a marketing team operate very differently, after all.

While technology is great, leaders need to remain objective with it and understand what sort of mindset goes into using data to make decisions. That way, leaders can pull on both ends, using both quantitative and qualitative research to make an impact.

Photo by Kenan Buhic on Unsplash

It is clear that giving feedback is more than just an act: it is a must-to-have for any organisations intending to adapt and progress in modern-day society.

More than just giving vague feedback, leaders must really focus on introducing progress into the employees’ work. It is critical to point them in the right direction and give them actionable steps.

Definitely, it is difficult to juggle between giving constructive comments and executing positive reinforcement; leaders are human themselves and sometimes their moods can affect the team subconsciously.

It is important that leaders stay authentic and relatable: open up about difficulties and have employees understand the leader’s emotions.

What makes a great leader is more than just driving results—it is about inspiring, guiding and mentoring.


This article was first published on the Human+Business, a publication aimed at leading conversations about how we can be more human in our businesses, management and leadership in today’s context.

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The leading destination in Empathetic Leadership in the 21st Century—business in the 21st Century needs to be more human and we look at how people can navigate the ever complex space to deliver real results and real impact.

Andy

Written by

Andy

Former startup co-founder. I write about empathetic leadership and management in the 21st Century

The Human Business

The leading destination in Empathetic Leadership in the 21st Century—business in the 21st Century needs to be more human and we look at how people can navigate the ever complex space to deliver real results and real impact.

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