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The F word: a manager's pet hate?

Whether you are an employee, employer, manager or colleague, you will have to give difficult feedback to employees who are not performing tasks correctly.

Giving feedback is important because it the only way to ensure behaviour will change.

It is important to deliver feedback in an appropriate manner, otherwise it can be counter-productive. Many people are motivated or inspired by well-delivered feedback, and will perform at a higher level because of it.

Robert Pozen from Harvard Business School says that just as we are generally more upset about losing $100 than we are happy about winning $100, research shows that employees react to a negative interaction with their boss six times more strongly than they react to a positive interaction.

In the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr John Gottman suggested that positive interactions must outnumber negative interactions by at least five to one in order for a marriage to succeed.

This observation is also true in the workplace, as Professor Andrew Miner and his colleagues discovered in a study published in 2005 in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology. They recorded employees' moods several times a day, asking each time if any events (such as a positive interaction with a co-worker) had occurred within the past few hours.

Their results showed that employees reacted to a negative interaction with their boss six times more strongly than they reacted to a positive interaction with their boss, with potential productivity impacts.

In research reported in the Harvard Business Review, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson found that many employees considered themselves to be on the receiving end of workplace incivility, such as overly harsh criticism from their boss. According to their research, nearly half of these employees decide to intentionally decrease their productivity.

Pozen suggests that managers need to weigh the trade-offs involved in giving negative feedback. If you criticise your employees, you will likely provide some corrective information, but you will also put your employee in a bad mood. If an error is so inconsequential that the corrective value of criticism is low, it might make sense for you to keep that feedback to yourself.

There are situations, however, when a manager must provide negative feedback. On these occasions, do not lose sight of your purpose for providing that feedback: such as to improve the employee's performance going forward or for their development. 

Even inadvertent criticism can be an issue. For example, if an employee writes a first draft of a written document, some managers might want to suggest some minor revisions even if the draft was generally good. In these situations, managers should clearly communicate that their revisions are merely suggestions coming from a second pair of eyes – and that they are not criticising their employee's performance.

Making feedback regular and a positive experience is important. Regular feedback, rather than just annual or half-yearly, means issues are addressed quickly and that there are fewer surprises. You will generally get much more from the person if you take a positive approach and see the feedback session as an opportunity for further improvement.

Also make sure any negative feedback is delivered in private. There is nothing more humiliating than being criticised in front of co-workers. Keep your tone collaborative and make it clear that your employee still has your support and your respect.

Asking for permission to give feedback can be of assistance and can help the receiver of feedback be mentally ready for it, rather than going into defensive mode.

Using specific examples is also crucial "You don't show a positive attitude" is not as specific as "In the seminar today, you did not display a positive attitude".

Also choose one issue at a time – raising too many issues can only confuse the feedback recipient and messages will be lost.

Using "I" rather than "You" words can also assist. Saying, "When you said X, it made me feel upset" or "I noticed that the customer became more irate" is much more effective than "When you say X, you are wrong." It is much more difficult to argue with "it made me feel," "I noticed that," or "I think that...," and using those phrases will keep the feedback session from becoming a debate.

Eve Ash points out that mutuality is also important – ask the person if they agree with your assessment, common ground can be the basis for a way forward. Remember that giving a piece of good feedback with negative feedback makes it easier to swallow.

Offer a self-disclosure; giving insights into similar problems and issues you have faced when completing similar tasks can help maintain a respectful and helpful tone. Accept some responsibility if needs be eg. "maybe the deadline we gave you was unrealistic" or "maybe I didn't explain the situation fully enough". Also ask for feedback yourself.

Finish off a discussion by suggesting a way forward, with a few achievable steps to action change and seek agreement on this.

Keep in mind that feedback should not avoid real problems. If there is an issue, do not be afraid to state it.

Pozen suggests that this approach should be generally reversed when it comes to praise. Unlike criticism, managers should bestow their employees with praise generously, publicly and at every opportunity – especially at the culmination of projects. As often as possible, tell your employees how much you appreciate their commitment and hard work.

iHR Australia underlines the importance of giving regular feedback and offers training programs to help managers develop the necessary skills to do so. Our Managing Everyday Performance and Professional and Courageous Conversations programs can assist with giving feedback and developing a high performance culture.

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