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Feedback: Necessary, valued – but seldom appreciated

Bob Milligan Published on 25 May 2015

We begin with a formula for feedback that, when implemented, will increase performance and enhance job satisfaction:

Large quantities of specific positive feedback + Continuing excellent redirection feedback = Reduced need for negative feedback + increased productivity + greater job satisfaction

  • Positive feedback = a compliment referring to a specific behavior, attitude, outcome or performance that exceeded expectations

  • Redirection feedback = comments directed to correct a failure to meet expectations caused by the situation or the context of the performance – lack of training, ineffective supervision, unpredictable circumstances, unreasonable expectations

  • Negative feedback = comments directed to inform the employee that current performance or behavior is unacceptable and that improvement is necessary.

    Used when the situation cannot explain the failure; the failure to perform can only be explained by the employee’s personal characteristics – motivation, effort, commitment

We explore this formula first by discussing the three descriptors in the title: necessary, valued, seldom appreciated. We then explore the two key items in the formula: positive and redirection feedback.

Necessary, valued, but seldom appreciated

We begin the analysis of “necessary” by asking and answering two questions from sports:

1. What do almost all discussions about sports include? The answer is: Who won, and how and why did they win.

2. How successful would a football team be if they never studied game film? The answer is less than their potential because they would be overlooking opportunities to improve.

What do the answers to these questions tell us? My answer is: We as human beings need to know who is winning –“the score.”

If we desire to know who is winning in sports, why would we not want to know who is winning – how we are doing – in our work life. The answer is: We always want to know how we are doing.

There is, however, no obvious scoreboard for our work. The only way for our employees, then, to know how they are doing is to give them feedback.

“Valued but seldom appreciated” sounds contradictory. The “seldom appreciated” refers to the recipient’s usual initial reaction. The valued part refers to the longer-term, more thoughtful reaction of the recipient and the value to the business.

We now explore this statement by looking at our two greatest feedback attributes: positive and redirection feedback.

Positive feedback

In workshops, I often ask participants how many times they have provided feedback in the last 24 hours. Most of the few who answer five or more times have been working with small children: coaching sports or teaching Sunday School.

Why are we more comfortable giving positive feedback to children? My answer is: Children have not “learned” they should be reserved in receiving compliments – positive feedback. This is not a good lesson but indeed is one that permeates our society.

Does the reserved response to positive feedback mean that adults do not want or appreciate positive feedback? The answer is a resounding no.

Research and my experience is that adults respond just as positively as children to positive feedback; they just do not show it. Many times managers, in discussing their efforts to increase positive feedback, have reported that they were not certain their employees appreciated the positive feedback until they heard from the employees’ spouses.

Why then should we provide positive feedback?

  • Positive feedback is motivating. In one of the most profound contributions to motivation theory, Frederick Herzberg identified many opportunities to motivate employees. “Feelings of personal accomplishment” and “recognition for achievement” are two of those motivators.

  • Positive feedback focuses the recipient on success. To be effective in increasing performance, the feedback must be specific, timely and accurate.

  • Positive feedback builds confidence. Since many members of our workforce are young and often pretty insecure, this advantage is powerful.

  • Excellent, specific positive feedback engages the employee in their performance.

Redirection feedback

Why is it so difficult to talk about failures to meet performance expectations and inappropriate behavior? Shouldn’t we look at these situations as opportunities to improve much like sports team do when they view game film?

The difficulty stems from the emotional reactions we have as human beings. Even though each of us recognizes that we make mistakes, we still experience negative emotions when these mistakes come to light.

Providing feedback to enable workers to improve and succeed is called redirection feedback. The reality is: The initial emotional reaction to that feedback will almost certainly be disappointment, discouragement, frustration, even anger.

The reality also is: Redirection feedback is necessary for continuing employee success.

This certainly appears to be a difficult dilemma. Redirection feedback is needed, but there is likely to be a negative emotional response. It is a dilemma, but it is not as bad as it sounds. Why?

The initial negative response does not always last. Think about the last time you learned you were not as successful as you thought. I bet your initial response was disappointment; however, as you processed what you had learned, your thoughts turned to how to overcome this mistake or improve in the future.

Although your immediate reaction was negative, you know that you benefited from the knowledge that you could have done better.

The answer to our dilemma is to focus on ensuring that the employee quickly moves past the initial disappointment to a focus on improving their behavior or performance. How do we do this?

The general answer is to provide redirection – not negative – feedback that is communicated in a way perceived as fair. A critical key to successful redirection feedback is to keep from putting the employee on the defensive.

The reason this is so important is that when the employee is on the defensive, he or she is more likely to move from being disappointed to being angry, less likely to think rationally and less likely to view the feedback as fair.

Keeping our employees from becoming defensive when receiving redirection feedback is difficult but possible. The following will reduce the likelihood of defensiveness:

1. Emphasize that the purpose of the feedback is employee success, not blaming or reprimanding.

2. Be calm and positive, not angry or excited, when providing the redirection feedback.

3. Minimize the discussion of what happened by moving as quickly as possible to future behavior. No matter how badly the employee wants to, he or she cannot change what happened in the past. He or she, however, has control over his or her future behavior or performance.

A final thought

Feedback is indeed necessary, valued, but seldom appreciated initially. Providing more positive and redirection feedback will be awkward and difficult at first. It will get easier with practice.

The reward will be less need for negative feedback, greater productivity and enhanced job satisfaction. end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cwornell University.

Bob Milligan
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