Brokerage Ops the December 2023 issue

Fearless Feedback

You can take the dread out of performance improvement conversations.
By Kimberly Paterson Posted on December 1, 2023

Recipients fear the possibility of criticism or any suggestion they have shortcomings. The more deeply a person cares about the job, the more likely they will view anything less than stellar feedback as a challenge to their self-worth. Managers worry that a negative comment could trigger anger, tears, denial or, worst, a hard-to-replace employee’s quitting. In the age of hypersensitivity, senior leaders will tell you they are increasingly reluctant to say anything that someone might interpret as offensive, inappropriate or discriminatory.

Given the anxiety feedback generates, it’s no surprise that performance-related discussions tend to be superficial, safe and brief. Often, avoiding potential conflict takes precedence over sharing the candid information the person may need to grow.

People Need and Want Feedback

While people may dread giving and receiving feedback and it may not be as productive as it needs to be, employees consistently say they want more. That’s because all living organisms are wired to seek feedback. It’s what enables us to adapt and survive. Without it, we don’t know how we’re viewed or performing and what we may need to do differently to thrive.

From an organizational standpoint, feedback helps people stay aligned and focused on the right goals. There is also strong evidence that honest feedback increases engagement. Yet according to a 2022 Eagle Hill Performance Management and Feedback Study, less than half of employees receive feedback once every six months or annually.

There is no such thing as constructive criticism. There are two psychophysiological states around which learning is organized: the positive emotional attractor (PEA) and the negative emotional attractor (NEA).

Reduce Anxiety and Increase Effectiveness

An effective way to reduce the anxiety of performance improvement conversations is to reframe how you think about performance feedback. Shift the thought process from critiquing performance to professional development. The purpose is to help the person leverage, strengthen and expand their skills to become the best version of themselves in their role.

Tap into PEA. There is no such thing as constructive criticism. There are two psychophysiological states around which learning is organized: the positive emotional attractor (PEA) and the negative emotional attractor (NEA). Criticism triggers the NEA state, which taps into our feelings of inadequacy. It triggers guilt, fear and anxiety. Whether conscious or not, people feel threatened and will typically shut down, get defensive or go on the offensive. In this state, people don’t hear input clearly, and they’re not open to learning. In the PEA state, we’re open, optimistic, creative, flexible and resilient.

When sharing corrective feedback, be clear about what isn’t working. Rather than dwelling on the problem, transition to a collaborative conversation about what needs to be different in the future. For example:

Triggers NEA: The renewal presentation you did yesterday missed the mark. You underestimated how frustrated the client was with the current carrier. We’ve lost their confidence, and I’m not sure we can recover.

Triggers PEA: Based on the client’s questions, my sense is they were disappointed in our proposal. How did you read the situation? You’ve always had a great relationship with this client. What do you need to do to get this back on track and save
the business?

Skip the sandwich. One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is not being candid in giving people the feedback they need to improve performance. Research shows that leaders are twice as likely to give positive feedback than they are to share corrective or negative feedback.

When managers give corrective feedback, it is often vague or softened with tentative phrases like “maybe you could” or “think about.” Many rely on the traditional “sandwich method” of starting and ending with a compliment and burying the corrective feedback in the middle. For example:

“You’re the best producer we have. Nobody comes close to your new business numbers. It would be good if you could maybe get along better with the marketing department. They’re complaining that everything is at the last minute with you. That said, you’re a
critical player, and we really value your contribution.”

The flaw in the sandwich method is the employee misses the part in the middle. That’s due to what psychologists call the series position effect. We tend to remember what’s said at the beginning and end and miss what’s said in the middle. The producer hears,
“I’m a star and they need me” and misses the key message that he needs to be more considerate of his colleagues in marketing.

Vary your approach. People need different types of feedback based on their personality, motivation and experience level. For example, an inexperienced employee needs a lot of positive feedback to stay optimistic and navigate the challenges of the new position. An experienced employee wants more corrective feedback so as to be at the top of his game. This is not to say, however, that you never tell the rookie about his mistakes or that you never praise the seasoned professional.

Be specific. When someone needs to improve, be explicit about the behavior that needs to change or the skill that requires development. Present facts rather than subjective or interpretive comments. Your analysis may be wrong and will make the person defensive. For example, instead of, “You need to get over your fear and make more new business calls,” say, “If you’re going to reach your sales goal, statistics show that you need to make at least 20 new business contacts per week. Right now, you’re only making five.”

Get the employee’s buy-in on what needs to happen next. Agree on a clear, measurable target and plan for achieving progress. Check in regularly. The more engaged the employee is in determining the plan, the greater the likelihood of success.

Think Continuous Feedback Loop

When employees say they want more feedback, they’re not talking about their annual job review. According to the 2022 Eagle Hill Performance Management and Feedback Study, 63% of respondents want more “in-the-moment” performance feedback. The percentage rises to 74% for workers under age 34.

As younger workers play a more pivotal role in the workplace, feedback will become even more critical. Managers with the highest levels of employee performance and job satisfaction will be those who make giving supportive, growth-oriented feedback a daily practice. When people routinely hear honest observations on what they are doing right, what they need to do differently, and how they can grow in their careers, you normalize feedback. When continuous feedback becomes part of the culture, you dramatically decrease the anxiety level for everyone.

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