By Theodore Kinni
Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.
To study stress, a couple of scientists offered free job application coaching to unemployed people. The scientists brought each unwitting subject into the lab for a practice interview, during which an interviewer—a ringer, of course—gave increasingly negative feedback, starting with disgusted looks and moving to outright criticism. Understandably, the interviewees’ stress levels climbed the charts.
The moral of the story isn’t to avoid scientists looking for subjects, although that may not necessarily be a bad idea. Instead, says psychologist Daniel Goleman, who made emotional intelligence a byword in the business world, “Managers and supervisors should be aware that this can be what happens to people if you focus in performance feedback solely on what they did wrong, rather than how they can improve and what they did well.”
Giving employees feedback—in formal reviews and in the course of daily events—can be one of the most uncomfortable jobs that managers face, and it is one for which they are often unprepared. I’m no paragon of constructive feedback myself, but I’ve read some really good books by some really smart people about it.
One important piece of advice concerns your demeanor. Goleman cites another study in which subjects were given both positive and negative feedback. “If they were given negative performance feedback in a very warm, positive, and upbeat tone, they came out of there feeling pretty good about the interaction,” he explains. “If they were given positive feedback in a very cold, critical, judgmental tone, they came out feeling negative, even about positive feedback.”
In addition to simply being nice, you can set up a constructive emotional subtext for feedback sessions by using these ideas from The Center for Creative Leadership: Provide feedback in private place where you won’t be interrupted; sit down beside the employee, not across a desk; and make it a conversation—not a lecture—by giving the employee an opportunity to respond; and, finally, make sure to say four positive things for every one negative.
Even better, take a lesson from Ed Schein, a professor emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a pioneer in the study of organizational culture: Do more asking than telling. In Humble Inquiry, Schein writes, “Telling puts the other person down. It implies that the other person does not already know what I am telling and that the other person ought to know it.” In other words, if you start a feedback session by telling a subordinate that he did something wrong, a defensive reaction is almost guaranteed.
Of course, we’ve all been on the receiving end of “why did you do that” questions that are just as confrontational as any statement. But Schein is talking about questions that come from “an attitude of interest and curiosity.” If you applied this to feedback conversations, you might seek to understand why an employee has done something before you judge her actions or offer advice. Who knows, maybe the simple process of asking about an issue or event in a non-confrontational way will lead the employee to see her actions in a new light…or maybe you will.
Finally, don’t forget that you can have positive feedback conversations, too. Just because something ain’t broke, doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. Consultant Glenn Devey recommends following the WIN model, which is used in sports coaching, for positive feedback sessions. WIN starts with you talking about what an employee did well, continues by asking the employee to reflect on his performance and identify what factors contributed to it, and ends with a discussions about what to do next time in order to maintain and improve performance. Imagine what your team might achieve if you made it a rule to have four WIN sessions for every one negative feedback session.
Queue these up:
The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights by Daniel Goleman
An Ideas Into Action Guidebook: Giving Feedback to Subordinates by Dana McDonald-Mann and Raoul j. Buron
Humble Inquiry by Edgar H. Schein
The Manager’s Guide to Employee Feedback by Glenn Devey