Giving Feedback Is Fundamental - Why Is It so Hard?

The quality of feedback managers provide to employees is a common frustration.

Posted Sep 15, 2015

Providing candid meaningful feedback is vital to sound management. So why is giving feedback such a problem? Why is it so often given badly?

I recently did a piece for Forbes, The Real Problem Isn’t Annual Employee Reviews – It’s Simply Management, exploring whether the current corporate trend toward questioning/jettisoning employee performance reviews is focused in the right direction. But no matter where one nets out on this issue – whether blame is tilted toward the review process itself, or toward non-communicative managers – at its core, a key piece of this interpersonal puzzle always involves feedback, or lack thereof.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In short, it’s safe to say the level and quality of feedback managers provide to employees is common shortcoming. During my decades in management I heard this issue lamented time and time again. Yet meaningful regular feedback from management is a key link in the productivity process. In an environment where approximately 70% of employees are not emotionally committed to their jobs, it’s safe to say that link isn’t always strong. Employees want to know how they’re doing. It’s human nature. Positive feedback (only if well deserved of course) is highly energizing. Lack of feedback is equally demotivating.

No feedback or the wrong kind of feedback – So why does giving meaningful feedback pose challenges? I find this puzzling myself, as it isn’t rocket science, as the saying goes, just basic human communication. Yet I hear frequently from people who know I’m interested in the subject accounts of how unprofessionally management feedback is routinely given. It can be surprising what passes for management.  Here are a couple of recent examples that were just passed along to me in the last week.

A young man, motivated and talented, who’s been in a new role for eight months now, has yet to receive a single comment of substantive, meaningful feedback. It’s been bothering him for a while. He thinks he’s doing OK, but there’s much to learn in his new position, so he really isn’t sure. In the complete absence of feedback, he’s grown increasingly anxious and uncertain about his performance.

A young woman, also motivated and talented, sat down with her manager for a meeting about a normal business issue, but when in the course of the conversation the employee happened to relate some criticisms that had been made by others about the manager, the manager became extremely angry and the meeting quickly dissolved into a personal attack on the employee. No specifics were offered – the rant was more along the lines of “You know, there are a number of things you do that really bother me” – without going into what any of those things were. The manager left, upset – leaving the employee even more upset.

Both of these scenarios are unremarkable. The remarkable thing is that variants of them occur and thousands and thousands of times daily. All too often employees receive either no management feedback, or feedback that is largely emotional and neither business-focused nor insightful.

So what are the characteristics of helpful feedback? While this list is by no means all-inclusive, constructive feedback should be specific, timely, meaningful and candid. Let’s look at these attributes.

Specific - Feedback should have a clear business focus. Unlike the example shown above  – “there are a number of things you do that really bother me” – what exactly are some of those things, and why do they bother you?

Timely - Feedback should be offered as close as possible to the action in question. It makes no sense to say, five months after the fact, “You know, Tom you did a terrific job developing that new dog food back in April.” Or, similarly, to note, “You know, Tom, I really wasn’t happy with that new cat food you introduced back in March.”

Meaningful - Better still, add content and precision to the management message. “Thomasina, you did a terrific job building a cohesive team for that dog food development meeting yesterday!” Or, likewise, “Thomasina, I really wasn’t happy with the amount of conflict and wasted time we had in that cat food introduction meeting yesterday.”

Candid - It’s all too easy to duck tough issues when they emerge. Or to not take the time to praise even when it’s well deserved. In the two examples noted directly above, at least the manager is being honest (both positively and negatively) with Tom and Thomasina.

As I often say about management, much of it is common sense – but just because something is common sense doesn’t mean it’s commonly practiced. Well-placed feedback is a powerful tool, a key link in the engagement and productivity process.

Thoughts from readers on why providing it can be difficult?

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).