In Part 1 of this series, I postulated a formula for some of the “known” elements. The formula suggests that each of this factors can contribute to the success – or failure – of a retention strategy. Successful Retention = f (Objective Expectations, Compensation, Training, Recognition, Feedback, Organizational Culture, and…) Part 5 discussed several aspects on the power of both positive and negative feedback. There are two additional points that are important to understanding feedback – and some specific guidelines for delivering powerful feedback on a regular basis.
Negative Or No FeedbackFor years, I’ve used a classic exercise on feedback to demonstrate its power for managers in training programs. It involves having blindfolded participants attempt a task with three different variables: a manager who provides 1) No Feedback, 2) Negative Feedback, and 3) Positive Feedback. While there have been interesting examples where the “no feedback” or “negative feedback” have yielded explainable best results, the overwhelming number of times (100’s) I’ve conducted this experiment have shown that positive feedback produces results far beyond the other options. The exceptions are notable with practical value for managers. One of the highest overall scores was achieved by a participant who received absolutely no feedback. The instruction was given once – then nothing more was said as the participant attempted the task. But in this particular case, the participant “hit” the target perfectly on the first attempt (of 10). The participant “learned” exactly how to do the task – without begin given clear instructions (expectations). In the real world, a new employee might figure it out on their own – but that’s not a chance a good manager should take. In a second example, one participant who received only negative feedback on performance scored very well. I knew – and deliberately picked – the person because of a very highly “competitive” personality. This participant was visibly reacting angrily to the challenge, began to take the negative feedback very carefully to fine tune the attempts – and made it work. Are there personalities that can perform well with negative feedback – maybe even thrive on it? Sure, but that’s not the workplace environment needed for consistent high individual and team performance. And a final note on the power of negative feedback: There are various studies that actually show that we store negative feedback in a different part of our brains – and in a part where that memory remains more easily accessed (remembered) for a longer period of time. This is consistent with our knowledge of the “fight or flight” reaction and many other studies on the brain. Easy to prove on a practical level? I think so. Here’s a question: Think back to something very specific that happened to you in the second or third grade. Is the memory something positive or negative (embarrassing)? I’ve asked this question of 1000’s – I’m sure about 75% of you recalled something negative.
Guidelines For Positive Feedback
- Be specific! Generalities like “good job” or “thanks for the hard work” aren’t specific enough. Even if your goal is give some feedback on overall performance, include a recent, very specific example as part of that.
- It’s from you – not the company! You should include what it means to the organization, or the department, or co-workers but the primary source of the feedback is you and what it means to you. One of the most powerful pieces of positive feedback I ever received started with: “I want to let you know that my father, brothers, and I know how hard you’ve worked…” (By the way, those words are ingrained from decades ago).
- Don’t add “But…” Keep the message pure – the only thing that can be added for the future is the desire or expressed confidence that the employee will continue the behavior. Too many times, positive feedback is completely destroyed by the “But…” Even when done jokingly, it significantly depreciates the value of the positive.
- Make it public – with caution. Providing positive feedback in front of an audience can be appropriate in some cases and for some people. Think about it! It can also be embarrassing to some people and virtually ensure they will never excel again.
Guidelines For Negative (Constructive) Feedback
- Ask for Permission! This is the most powerful, and most overlooked, tactic for delivering negative feedback. Very few, if any, look forward to receiving negative feedback. Yet it’s frequently “dumped” without warning. Simply ask: “Can we talk about what happened with that last customer?” You’re the boss. In my experience, 90% of the time the employee says “Yes” and you’ve addressed a significant barrier. Obviously, there will be times that, as a manager, you’ll have to insist. But here’s another quick tip: If the employee says “no,” ask “OK, but we need to talk about what happened, when can we do that?” Try it – it works!
- Be quiet – listen! In the vast majority of cases, employees are aware of their performance. In many cases, they are tougher on their performance than the manager is. (Note: I’ve discovered that performers don’t like what critics write primarily because they miss more of the mistakes than they hit.) Present the key issue quickly, then let the employee explain and analyze. Good listening leads to focused analysis of the problem and solutions.
- It’s the future that matters. It’s not a never-ending discussion of the past. Focus on expected changes in behavior and consequences, good when possible, negative when necessary.
- Express confidence that the person can improve. Clear and simple!