Timely and specific critique is easier stated than done

You get back what you feed. In fact, you get back more than what you give. That is the magic of feedback in business management. So, if you are in any way linked to managing business, then you would certainly be aware of the all-round role and significance of feedback. Yet, there is lack of clarity about the concept. The general feeling is that feedback is all about a senior manager evaluating his juniors’ periodical performance. This has given rise to the belief that feedback is a bi-annual or annual practice.

From the textbook point of view, this perception is way off the mark. But practice-wise, it is quite on the mark. This is how feedback is generally used as an HR tool in our part of the world. And it would be worthwhile to dwell on this topic alone in this piece.

However, before I move further, let me clarify a few issues for our young managers. Feedback is an integral part of all managerial functions. It impacts all participants in business whether they are customers, clients, employees, suppliers, vendors, bankers, knowledge providers or any other stakeholders. Adherence to this approach will ensure that your company continues to excel on all fronts. How can an enterprise improve continuously without actively finding out what is wrong or lacking in different business functions?

Effective and timely feedback, both positive and negative, is a vital ingredient of successful performance management and goal setting programme. It drives human resource development.

Let’s start with the easier system – positive feedback. Though easier to deliver, positive feedback is not provided as often as it should be. In our society, it is generally believed that praise may go to the employee’s head and make him either more demanding or complacent. I have observed majority of senior managers only pulling up and reprimanding their junior colleagues. That is their view of the feedback system. This is a fallacious notion which is injurious to relationships in the workplace. However, by turning negative feedback into constructive feedback managers can change the game altogether for the better.

So, let’s get down to understanding the art and science of constructive feedback.

A pat on the back can enormously boost an employee’s morale and make him more productive. It also creates a nurturing and supportive culture in the organisation.

Feedback needs to be timely. It needs to be given soon after a specific behaviour or event. If you pull up an employee months after some bad behaviour or event, do not expect an effective outcome. In fact, the employee may not be able to even link your criticism to the real event after so long. Also, he may not recognise the severity of his folly because of the delay. He would be right to assume that had his error been so grave you would have taken up the issue with him immediately. The delay renders the feedback futile.

The same holds true when the manager delays words of praise after a good deed or exceptional performance. Delayed appreciation loses its impact. Frequent but deserved acclaim adds to productivity.

While timeliness of applause is certainly essential, no less imperative is the specificity of the feedback. It is no good telling an employee that he is going downhill or going great guns. Full details of the good work done or the mistakes committed by the employee should be provided to him/her in the feedback. The senior manager will need to fully prepare to provide solid, actionable and credible feedback.

Feedback based on empirical data is always more effective. For example, a positive feedback for a young marketing executive could be in terms of the target-plus sales leads generated by his campaigns. A negative feedback for a production manager could be about a statistically significant fall in goods produced even as related circumstances remained unchanged. That is, to say, 23% fewer goods were produced in a given period of time despite the fact that availability of raw material, electricity, labour, etc. faced no shortage. This will make it easier for the appraisee to fathom the loss that his act of omission or commission has caused to the company. This is justified feedback as it rules out possible foul play or vendetta by the feedback provider.

Feedback is not for the sake of giving back. The objective is to make good performers to do better and to enable low performers to rectify mistakes, avoid repeating errors and become accomplished performers. Therefore, the appraised employee should also be suggested practical and doable measures to improve performance.   

While this constitutes the crux of the feedback mechanism, there are some smaller yet significant facts that reinforce the system. Feedback delivery should never be turned into a public circus. One has often seen senior managers hauling up their juniors in front of all. This amounts to deliberate insult. Not only does the junior executive get thoroughly demoralised and crestfallen he also loses respect among his peers. This affects the department’s functioning adversely. An open interaction should certainly happen but at a relatively secluded and private place in the office where both parties are not overheard.

The language and manner of feedback delivery determines its efficacy. Too many negative phrases often lead to the appraisee shutting down his mind. A barrage of negatives like ‘shouldn’t’, ‘don’t’, ‘wasn’t’, etc. unnerves the person at the receiving end so much so that he is unable to state his case. He is then unable to absorb what he is being told. The entire feedback exercise thus comes to a nought. Mixing debilitating criticism with the opportunity to the receiver to give his views as well can take care of the above challenge. It is, therefore, best to have a judicious mix of negative and positive points in the feedback. The feedback provider should never be on an embarrassing spree. Unfortunately, this does happen when superiors lose their objectivity.

Most of us would remember good teachers asking us frequently during the class period whether they had been able to make themselves understood. This would encourage to even the most shy of students to clear their doubts. It is the same with feedback. Experienced managers do the same while interacting with both good and bad performers. This can make even the toughest feedback a motivating and learning experience. Both the feedback giver and receiver emerge enriched from this HRD experience.

Feedback can often get cramped when too many issues are stuffed in a single interaction. The human mind has its limitations. Absorbing unexpected criticism on a plethora of issues in a go can be mentally debilitating for the person under the glare. That is why so much emphasis is laid on timely delivery of feedback. When that happens spontaneously, the possibility of confrontational issues piling up gets mitigated. A to-the-point and limited feedback has a higher success rate.

Wishing you fruitful feedback sessions!

Basant Chaudhary is a Poet, Writer, The Chairman of BLC and Basant Chaudhary Foundation. (feedback@basantchaudhary.com)

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