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3 Feedback Mistakes Leaders Make

Simply put, the lack of feedback in most offices is stunning. The numbers vary by survey, but in general about 40% of first-world workers report receiving no feedback from their direct supervisor.

Well here’s the inherently logical result: 98% of workers report being disengaged as a result of this lack of feedback. (So, are you shocked or thinking ‘tell me something I don’t already know?’)

We humans are social animals. We (generally) like to talk and engage with others. But when you get to this tricky thing called ‘professional feedback,’ that model seems to collapse.

What’s happening? What mistakes are leaders – possibly you – making? And how can you correct them?

Mistake #1: No set strategy for providing feedback

Global leadership development firm Zenger-Folkman has done much research around feedback. In one session with an executive leader, they asked a simple question: “What’s your plan for this upcoming feedback session?”

The response:

“I want to get in the room, deliver my message, tell them what needs to change, and get them out of my office!”

Those are real words from someone who runs a business. It’s somewhat terrifying, but it also shouldn’t be a huge surprise.

Oftentimes, the first major problem with feedback at work is that the person providing it has no idea what to say or a plan on how to make feedback effective.

A solution: Be mindful about sharing meaningful information

John Wooden is perhaps the most successful coach of all-time. He won nine NCAA basketball championships at UCLA. In the late 1970s, a team of psychologists studied how he worked with players. In terms of feedback, the breakdown was:

  • 6% of the time, he gave compliments

  • 7% of the time, he expressed displeasure

  • The rest of the time was entirely information-conveying

You can argue that coaching college basketball and leading a team of knowledge workers is different, sure. But it’s not really that different. So rather than going in with ‘you did this well’ and ‘you did this poorly’ ideas, think about how to convey information (see Mistake #2 and #3). It’s more about making sure your team knows the priorities, the base-level work concepts, and how to lead themselves/others than placing them in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ buckets.

Mistake #2: Hiding behind performance reviews

The once-a-year performance review is a relic from another era, and within a Knowledge Economy, it doesn’t work at all.

Still, though, many leaders essentially hide behind it. “Provide feedback? We’ll do that at the annual review.”

Consider this math, though: average job tenure in North America currently is 4.6 years. That’s about 54 months. If an employee receives their first review exactly 12 months from their start date, that’s already 22% of the time they’ll likely work there. Imagine if you construed marriage in the same way. A couple married 40 years would have their first dialogue about their union at the 8.8 year mark. They might already have a child by then.

Joking about marriage aside, fast-moving business requires frequent check-ins between leaders and those above, beside, and below them.

A solution: Initiate Casual and Scheduled Conversations

There’s some new evidence that eliminating performance reviews and replacing them with frequent conversations and check-ins will develop your team faster.

So, how about 90-day reviews? In the book Hardwiring Excellence, the authors discuss asking these four questions at the 90-day mark:

  • Have we lived up to our promises to you?

  • What do you think we do best?

  • What have you seen in your other jobs that might work here?

  • Have we done anything in 90 days where you might consider leaving?

How many times have you been asked these questions? Perhaps, more importantly, how many times do you ask your team these questions?

Mistake #3: Not understanding the psychology of feedback

Here’s something interesting, from that same Zenger-Folkman feedback research above: people know when their performance sucks. The 3,875 people who’d received negative feedback were asked about the process; 74% indicated they knew they were performing poorly and weren’t surprised to be told so.

Many leaders approach feedback opportunities believing that they hold the keys to performance and that an under-performing employee probably thinks they’re doing great. That may be the case sometimes. We’re all capable of self-delusion. But in general, people know where they stand.

A solution: RESPECT, RESPECT, and a little more RESPECT

Instead, effective feedback is much more about having conversations, being present, and showing respect to employees. If you’re doing that, even if the feedback is negative, the outcomes will be better.

Respect isn’t something you schedule in Outlook. Leadership conversations need to begin from a place of empathy and a true desire to support others to succeed. If they do, feedback of all types can be appreciated and acted upon. If they don’t, the negative just seems harsher and nothing is really solved. And the positive, feels forced and fake. Begin by respecting those you work with (and who work for you). Productive feedback will flow naturally from that.

Companies that have licensed Lisa’s Leadership Programs have seen great results when it comes to mastering feedback. Perhaps this is the next step for you?


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