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Providing Feedback Effectively: Moving Employees from Good to Great

Bill Gates once said, “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve”. While this may be true, providing feedback in an effective manner can be a real challenge when working with adults. Should we focus on the positive or point out the negative? Will our comments fall on deaf ears or be taken seriously? Is frequent feedback helpful or perceived as micromanagement? The majority of experts agree that effective feedback is like good coaching; it’s dependent on receptivity, timeliness, and selecting the right communication approach.

According to Gregory and Levy’s research1, employees are most receptive to feedback when it’s individualized and provided by a trusting and empathetic supervisor. To be truly effective, managers and supervisors need to operate from a place of genuine care and empathy for those with whom they oversee. They need to see people as individuals with specific needs, goals, and challenges. Doing so allows for authentic, personalized feedback aimed at supporting the unique growth of each person. Gregory and Levy call this “leading with individual consideration” which in turn leads to strong feelings of trust—an essential ingredient for ensuring receptivity.

Feedback also needs to be routine and timely—not just reserved for annual performance reviews. People are much more receptive to change when feedback is provided “just in time” and focused on the task at hand. Imagine your team completing a difficult project and eight months later your team leader compliments you on a job well done along with a suggestion for improvement. Chances are you’re on to a new project and don’t recall what it was that you did. The words have lost their impact. For feedback to be effective, it needs to be frequent and timely; similar to what a caring coach would do.

While a coaching approach is important, not all coaching styles are effective. In 2015, Weer, DiRenzo, and Shipper2 studied the difference between facilitative coaching (success-focused) and pressure-based coaching (failure-focused) on team effectiveness over an extended period of time. Not surprising, the researchers found that facilitative coaching over a 54-month period fostered highly committed members resulting in highly effectively teams. Conversely, pressure-based coaching over the same length of time resulted in long-term tension and angst leading to significantly decreased team performance. The authors noted that periodic pressure-based coaching can increase productivity in the short-term; however, continual facilitative coaching will lead to much better outcomes over the long run.

While facilitative coaching may be effective, Minter and Thomas suggest that feedback3 should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on the employee’s performance, our feedback approach may need to be adjusted to fit a coaching, mentoring, or counseling style. Minter and Thomas suggest that high performing individuals typically respond best to a coaching approach with periodic check-ins and as-needed guidance based on ongoing progress.

Employees viewed as average-performers, do better with a mentoring approach where feedback is more frequent and developmental in nature. A mentoring approach works best when employees and supervisors team together while keeping in mind the 10-60-90 adult learning principle which assumes that employees retain 10% of what they are told, 60% of what they are told and shown, and 90% of what they are told, shown, and demonstrate back. Using the 10-60-90 principle along with continual development feedback to reinforce new behaviors can result in dramatic employee improvement.

Minter and Thomas contend that employees perceived to be low-performers yet determined to be worth keeping might respond best to a counseling approach involving goal-setting, close one-on-one training and shadowing, along with continual feedback sessions. The authors also remind us that people don’t always fit nicely into one of these three categories. Depending on the situation, a mixed approach might be needed.

Providing feedback is not as simple as a pat on the back and complimenting a job well done. It takes time, individuality, empathy, forethought, and most important—trust. People can improve and perform their best if managers take the time to build a trusting relationship along with timely, facilitative, customized feedback. When done well, feedback can make the difference between a good employee and a great employee.

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About the Author

Dr. Sue Hines is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and Associate Professor in the Doctor of Education in Leadership Program and teaches in the M.A. in Educational Leadership Program at Saint Mary's University’s Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs. She has over 30 years of combined teaching experience at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level. Her career has primarily included college teaching, faculty development, program development, program accreditation, and academic research with a focus on faculty development program evaluation.

References:

1Levy, P. & Gregory, J. (2011). It’s not me, it’s you: A multilevel examination of variables that impact employee coaching relationships. Counseling Psychology Journal 63(2), 67-88. doi: 10.1037/a0024152.

2Weer, C., DiRenzo, M., & Shipper, F. (2016). A holistic view of employee coaching: Longitudinal investigation of the impact of facilitative and pressure-based coaching on team effectiveness. The Journal of Applied Behavior Science 52(2), 187-214. doi: 10.1177/0021886315594007.

3Minter, R. & Edward, T. (Spring/Summer 2000). Employee development through coaching, mentoring and counseling: A multidimensional approach. Review of Business 21(1/2), 43-47.