Is feedback a dirty word? 4 steps to empowering, constructive feedback

There are a number of steps organisations and HR can take to create a more empowering approach to creating and delivering constructive feedback

Feedback has become a loaded term in many organisations, however, there are a number of steps organisations and HR can take to turn this around and create a more empowering approach to constructive feedback, writes Purnima Nandy

One of the most powerful tools at the hands of any leader to motivate and keep his team engaged is feedback. Unfortunately, the word ‘feedback’ has developed a negative connotation and has become synonymous with criticism.

Why is feedback considered a bad word?
The ritual of giving and receiving feedback can be traced back to performance appraisals; the yearly sometimes half-yearly process of reviewing an employee’s performance and work against their job description and goal sheet.

Although this HR process was created to manage employees and bring teams together to get the best out of them, over the years of management practice the appraisal process has been reduced to a quick discussion with one’s manager and completing a long online form. The only occasion managers spend quality time with their teams giving them detailed and useful feedback is either when the performance has not been up to the mark or when there are imminent changes to be communicated or project deadlines to be met.

Due to this dilution over the years, feedback has earned a bad name for itself and today when an employee is told that a feedback session has been organised, the first thought is often that bad news will be shared.

“Feedback is not the foe; it is poorly given feedback that is the enemy”

Moreover, it is quite often forgotten that feedback is a two-way process, as it is received as well as given. To empower employees, the 360-degree feedback process was created, where staff are given the opportunity to provide feedback on managers and senior staff. The sole purpose of this exercise is to open up channels of communication and also to let employees know that feedback is critical to bring teams together. Unfortunately, this process widespread among organisations and in the workplaces where this has been incorporated, employees are reluctant to be honest and constructive; instead, they just share average ratings and unhelpful comments for fear of repercussion.

Why we need to bring feedback back into the system
As HR leaders, one of the most important responsibilities that we shoulder is to keep employees engaged, motivated and dedicated to the organisation and the larger mission. This is a very tall task as organisations are diverse bodies with a myriad of working styles and intellect and outlook. To keep this diverse workforce together, they must be united by a single goal and emotion. By giving periodic constructive feedback to employees, leaders can keep them motivated by showing them the larger picture, correcting errors and appreciating good work.

The power to give feedback is an immense one as it can either make or break an employee’s zeal and confidence. Similarly, by receiving constructive and useful feedback a leader can understand how things are on the ground and whether his team his satisfied or not. It is a myth that negative feedback or criticism can disengage an employee; what can be worse is no feedback at all, no acknowledgement of his/her work and no guidance on the future.

Feedback is not the foe; it is poorly given feedback that is the enemy. Poorly given feedback can be of three types:

1. No feedback at all
2. Only criticism and error finding
3. Generic feedback. For example, a comment like “good job” is a generic feedback as it does not tell the receiver why the job was good or what was done well. It means not much and can leave the receiver with no sense of appreciation or acknowledgement.

“The power to give feedback is an immense one as it can either make or break an employee’s zeal and confidence”

4 strategies to give and receive constructive feedback
1. Create a pro-feedback culture.
As leaders we can create the right feedback giving and receiving culture with your team by welcoming feedback from them, actioning the relevant feedback and also demonstrating positive behavioural reactions towards feedback. By creating a culture where people are open to constructive feedback, the notion and beliefs around feedback will change. Not everyone is good at receiving or giving feedback, so as leaders it is important that you mentor and train your teams in developing this skill.

2. Differentiating between constructive and unhelpful feedback. Constructive feedback cannot always be praise or appreciative but it must always be constructive and useful. What that simply means is when an employee/team member receives feedback from you they must be able to action it and the feedback must add value to their work. For example, telling someone that their work is not up to the mark is not useful or constructive feedback. Telling them why it not up to the mark and arriving at ways to fill the gaps in a feedback discussion makes it constructive.

3. Make time for feedback sessions. One of the most important resources available to you as a leader is time. By specifically making time for feedback sessions with your time, you will demonstrate to them that this is important. The sessions need not be long but they must be regular and must end with an action plan or takeaways to be further worked on. Also, tying in constructive feedback discussions to goals will help in making them more strategic.

4. Showing empathy. Giving and receiving feedback effectively requires showing empathy and needs a certain amount of EQ. Constructive feedback cannot be only task-oriented, neither should it only be an emotional discussion. There has to be a good balance between the two and thus having a certain amount of EQ is essential to be a good giver and receiver of feedback. Showing empathy and listening skills are very critical to allow the other person to be vulnerable enough to share their thoughts.

Giving and receiving constructive feedback is more an art than a science. There is no framework on the best way of imparting feedback. It is a human skill and a one that can and must be learnt and practised by leaders to not only enable a feedback culture but to also train their teams on the same.