Credit and Blame at Work

Exploring the psychological forces at play while you work.

Good feedback, bad feedback

How not to give feedback to a colleague

In the current economic environment, it is crucial for individuals, teams and organizations to continuously improve their performance. Getting and giving useful performance feedback, whether through a formal performance appraisal system, or through less formal, more ad-hoc tools like Rypple, can help greatly. Regardless of whether you are providing feedback in a formal annual review, a brief Rypple survey, or at the water cooler, here are some tips to keep in mind when providing feedback:

Feedback is least useful when it is:

Inaccurate or untrue: if the feedback recipient doubts the accuracy of the feedback, it is unlikely he or she will be able to learn from it

Biased due to favoritism or politics: although nothing in human affairs in general or the workplace in particular is ever "objective", the more the feedback can stand on its own rather than being seen as part of some personal or political agenda, the better.

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Insensitive and unduly critical: this kind of feedback is unlikely to be "heard"- the recipient will be too upset to process what you are saying

Not specific or actionable: anything vague or out of the person's control is not going to help him or her do anything differently

Constituted by orders or ultimatums: this kind of feedback is likely to raise hackles rather than willingness or ability to improve.

Feedback is most useful when it is:

Candid and honest: this kind of feedback is credible and although it can be painful, is your best bet for helping the person get his or her game up

Specific and actionable: the more behaviorally-based the feedback is, rather than character-based, the more able the recipient will be to implement what you suggest

Based on more than one incident or example: without trying to "build a case", it is still helpful to bring multiple examples into your feedback so that the person can see patterns as they appear to others

Based on more than one person's view: this can be tricky- on one hand, if multiple people share a perception, it is likely to be more valid and credible. At the same time, you don't want the person to whom you're giving feedback to feel ganged up on

Framed positively and constructively: this is the opposite of being unduly critical- people are more likely to hear and act on feedback if you use a "carrot" rather than a "stick" in describing to them the potential benefits of doing something better or differently

Summarized and integrated into key themes: it is helpful to provide some thematic linkages between feedback in order to give the person a big picture view and then also provide detailed feedback in that larger context

For more information about how to design a performance appraisal system, here's a presentation on that topic.  

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a workplace consultant, an industrial and organizational psychologist, and an adjunct professor at New York University.

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