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Feedback may have one of the worst image problems in the workplace, but the new breed of professionals entering business are demanding more of it. By John Burfitt
When it comes to workplace feedback, this basic management tool continues to battle something of an image problem, despite it being essential for the growth and development of team members in a business.
“It is a challenge, and it can be confronting,” practice owner Dr Lindsay Hay of Sydney’s Baulkham Hills Veterinary Hospital admits. “Many of us will avoid it, to avoid any conflict and confrontation if we can.”
Another reason for the image problem, according to leadership and recruitment specialist Christine Khor, CEO of PeeplCoach, is that many managers have little idea of how to give feedback effectively. “The key to effective feedback is to be clear, confident and kind. Unfortunately, it is often hard to know exactly what needs to be said in an articulate and kind way,” she says.
“Some managers also don’t want to be seen to potentially hurt their team members’ feelings by offering stronger feedback.”
And yet, this confusion is in direct contrast with the reality that not giving employees regular feedback robs them of important opportunities to improve and grow in their roles. Holding back on valuable feedback also can create more work for managers in the long run, if the same mistakes are repeated without correction.
A US survey also reveals another sharp reality about feedback, and that is that most employees, despite what one might assume, do want and value it.
The survey by Clutch, a leading US B2B ratings and reviews site, revealed that of the total number of respondents who receive accurate and consistent feedback, 68 per cent report job fulfillment. Of the millennials who receive accurate and consistent feedback from their managers, 72 per cent find their job fulfilling.
While experts emphasise that informal and instant feedback should be a staple in the modern workplace, what the survey also revealed was only 23 per cent of millennials say they currently receive informal, ad hoc, or immediate feedback, compared to 30 per cent of gen X employees.
It’s in the timing
Establishing a workplace culture where constructive feedback is regularly offered needs to be a foundation of how a business is run, Rebecca Coventry, president of the Veterinary Nurses Council of Australia, says.
“Feedback should be given throughout an employee’s life cycle, not just at formal review time,” she says. “These are conversations that should go really well, if handled properly. Do not avoid having them, as the longer you wait to offer feedback, the more difficult and harder those conversations will inevitably be.”
Some feedback needs to be given on the spot, possibly during a supervised procedure, while some should be given during a catch-up conversation between manager and employee.
“Either way, it needs to be business as usual; something that is done regularly and expected,” Coventry adds. In more serious or personal cases, one-on-one meetings might need to be scheduled.
“Feedback needs to be up to date, as you cannot address performance issues that are historical if you have not done so previously. It needs to be offered in conditions that are safe for the employee.”
All in the delivery
One of the fears about feedback is knowing how to balance stronger, instructive and critical feedback with words of encouragement and praise for a job well done.
The truth is, both are as important as the other in developing the skills of the team and making for a stronger business.
“Pick your time, so it’s not done in a rush or when either of you are upset—and I see that happen far too often,” Christine Khor says. “It has to be given when the intention is clearly about helping to improve the performance of that staff member for the future.
“The culture of the business needs to be understood so that the person receiving the feedback knows they are having this conversation to help them improve, not to make them feel bad.
“So consider how you phrase the way you give direction and advice,” Khor adds. “Your staff needs to know you are being firm but kind. And when in doubt, follow this rule—be clear, be specific and offer solutions. Both parties should walk away from the conversation with a clearer idea of what is expected into the future.”
An eye on the prize
The more specific direction is about the issue at hand, and the desired outcome, the better it is for everyone in the feedback process.
An example Dr Lindsay Hay gives is when setting a standard for the expected quality of language within the clinic. “I have a problem with some of the staff swearing openly in conversation when I know some other staff don’t like that sort of language,” Dr Hay says. “I call that out at the time, so it’s a standard everyone understands. Likewise with excessive private phone usage—it’s something everyone is clear about so if it’s called out, it’s understood it’s one rule for all.”
Rebecca Coventry says delivering effective feedback so that it leads to better results in the long run can be as simple as ABC. “That is Agree, Build and Compare,” she explains. “In doing so, ensure the staff also feel heard as feedback should never be a one-way conversation. You need to listen and find out what is going on for them, as the issue might be more complex than you initially assume. Then move the conversation to what results are wanted, with all the desired outcomes and realistic timelines.”
Christine Khor adds: “Give your staff all the information they need so they can be the best they can be. I don’t know of anyone who wants to sit still with their skills.”