We all talk about how important it is to give employees continuous feedback, both positive and corrective. Managers struggle to give any feedback, especially corrective feedback. Paradoxically, a recent HBR blog piece, Your Employees Want the Negative Feedback You Hate to Give, presents data showing that employees want feedback, especially corrective feedback. Why is it that managers and their employees have such opposite perspectives?
In our experience, based on years in leadership roles and working with leaders, the most likely reason managers struggle so much with feedback, and particularly negative feedback, is that they find it hard to capture the specifics of what they should be complimenting or correcting. Let’s consider why this is. Most feedback — whether or not actually delivered — relates to behaviors rather than knowledge or skills. This makes the feedback far more personal in nature and, therefore, hard to give.
Assume for example that an employee is somewhat too confrontational in his communication style. This can be a meaningful derailer in the workplace, but it is not easy to explain. What you would really be saying is that the employee’s communication style does not fit what the organization wants, so the style needs to change, probably quickly. If you are going to say this, you need to demonstrate the right style, in contrast to the employee’s style, for the feedback to be meaningful — not so easy to do.
Another example is where an employee does not display the sense of urgency that the manager wants to see, even where the work is completed on time. A manager who gives this feedback is telling the employee that “your work is great, but I’m nervous about it getting done on time because you don’t get started as soon as I would.” This feedback would be criticizing the employee for his personality style being more pressure-prompted than the manager’s. How many managers would be willing to say this? Not many. Yet, this employee will probably not progress very far with that manager.
Here’s the real issue. Behaviors are heavily dependent on abilities and personality traits. The only reliable way to know these is through personality assessments which can then form the basis for hires which fit in a particular company or team culture. The assessments are also very accurate in pairing employees with managers who have compatible behavioral styles. In the absence of assessments, it will be very hard to change the current state of weak employee feedback.
Where assessments are used and employees are placed based on expected behaviors, two important things happen. First, the chances are extremely high that the employees will fit in their roles and be compatible with their managers. Second, the assessment process produces a vocabulary of behaviors that facilitates feedback which can be well understood by both manager and employee. In fact, the feedback can be validated based on 360 feedback which uses the same vocabulary.
What’s the ultimate message? Companies need to move from competency libraries that are detached from the way real people behave to using assessment-based behaviors in defining both role and leadership competencies. The results will speak for themselves: better hires, better deployments, more feedback, higher employee engagement and better business results.