Knowing how to give and receive feedback is a crucial part of performance management. Far too many professionals fall short on both counts, missing out on key opportunities to enhance workplace effectiveness, says Minu Ipe, clinical associate professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business.
"In most organizations, feedback is given too infrequently and when it is given, it is fraught with too many problems to be truly effective," Ipe explains. The emotional content of feedback -- particularly when it is negative -- also makes it challenging to deliver and receive successfully.
The main problem is that, in many organizations, feedback is reserved for the annual review, and a once-a-year appraisal is not sufficient to spur behavioral change or improvement, says Ipe. She points to a study done by Watson Wyatt Worldwide that showed 43 percent of employees across private sector organizations in the United States feel they don't get enough guidance to improve their performance.
Feedback must also follow certain dictates to be useful, says Ipe. Feedback needs to be specific, timely, accurate, actionable, and meaningful, she says. She uses the acronym STAAM as shorthand for those five characteristics.
Just saying, 'You're doing a good job' doesn't really mean anything and won't add to performance," she explains. "You did a great job yesterday when you responded quickly to customer concerns and found a creative solution to the problem' is far more effective.
The best formula is to offer STAAM-type feedback in both formal review sessions and on a spontaneous, ongoing basis -- say, after an employee runs a meeting, turns in a report, or completes an important project, Ipe notes. While the timeliness of informal feedback -- which can occur immediately after an employee has performed a particular task -- can make it more effective than an annual appraisal, the importance of the formal review is not to be discounted.
Four steps for successful feedback sessions
When done properly, and combined with ongoing feedback during the regular course of business, a formal feedback session can be a very effective means of performance management. The key is preparation. "Just doing the formal review does not necessarily mean that you've communicated the feedback that is necessary, or that the other person has understood what you're trying to communicate, or that any change comes out of that process," Ipe says.
She suggests a four-step process that helps to make a formal review truly effective. It begins with identifying the objective for giving the feedback. "The approach to the feedback session will differ depending on what you are seeking to accomplish," she explains. Things to think about include, are you hoping to change someone's behavior? Enact short-term or long-term behavioral changes? Reward good performance or provide feedback about poor performance?
The next step is to prepare for the review, which Ipe stresses as crucial. Preparation should include taking the time to make sure your feedback falls under the STAAM umbrella; thinking about your relationship to the person you will be reviewing and tailoring your feedback for that individual; planning ahead for how you will handle any negative reactions; and determining an appropriate place and time to conduct the review. "It's not a good idea to conduct a feedback session when an employee is on a deadline for a project, for example," Ipe explains.
When delivering the actual feedback, Ipe cautions against falling into the trap of using what she calls the sandwich approach.
"What typically happens is that the reviewer is uncomfortable giving negative feedback, so they start with all these positive attributions, and then quickly drop in one constructive piece of feedback, and go back to discussing positive performance aspects," she explains.
The result? "The other person only hears all the wonderful things said about themselves, and the one piece of feedback that is truly critical is absolutely lost in the conversation," Ipe says.
The more effective method of giving feedback is to be direct and constructive when discussing negative behavior. "And," she adds, "be sure to listen to the other person. Feedback needs to be a two-way process."
The last stage is follow-up.
"Feedback doesn't end when the formal review is over," Ipe notes. The two parties should develop an action plan that incorporates what was discussed during the review, and following up to make sure the plan is being followed is critical.
"You need to check in to see if the person has changed their behavior according to discussions in the feedback session. If not, you may need to do some coaching to help them achieve the desired goals or behavior -- and continued feedback may be part of that," she says, explaining that follow-up is the best way to ensure buy-in from the recipient.
Taking responsibility for your own feedback
But while the giver of feedback often bears the brunt of the work, there are two parties involved in every feedback session, and the receiver of feedback bears equal responsibility for ensuring that feedback is effective.
"Individuals are responsible for their own performance and if you are not getting adequate feedback on your performance, you should really be asking for it," Ipe says. "Asking for and getting feedback is a critical means for us to evaluate our own self perceptions and to determine how we are perceived by others in the organization."
Knowing how to receive feedback starts with correctly asking for it, Ipe says. Employees requesting feedback should have a well-defined objective and, as with giving feedback, cannot be vague about what they hope to achieve.
"Saying to your boss, 'How am I doing?' will not result in a meaningful answer," Ipe notes. Instead, she recommends requesting a specific time to have a conversation about specific aspects of performance. Asking your boss to set up a time to discuss how to improve your presentation skills, for example, is a far better way to go.
In addition, receiving feedback effectively means being prepared to handle possible negative information, and to make behavioral or process changes based on the fe