Is Your Workplace Feedback Thoughtful, Balanced, and True?

Every time a manager provides feedback, their credibility is on the line. Giving feedback that is generally inaccurate--off-base, unfair, unbalanced, or factually wrong--is a surefire way to undermine that credibility. On the other hand, employees come to trust and value managers who regularly provide feedback that is thoughtful, balanced, and true.


The accuracy of managerial feedback has a significant impact on three crucial areas:


  1. Rewards and incentives: Remember, one of the reasons why performance evaluation is used at all is so high performers can be identified and rewarded and lower performers given incentives to improve. When feedback is inaccurate, the wrong people are rewarded, and the incentive system is weakened.
  2. Assessment of training needs: Employees use feedback to clarify their professional development needs. Inaccurate feedback can lead employees away from the skills and knowledge they need the most and toward training that is inappropriate or unnecessary.
  3. Leadership development: Employees and managers should attempt to use managerial feedback to identify high performers worthy of more responsibility, and often, increased authority as well. For this reason, inaccurate feedback can result in a misallocation of leadership-development resources.


But day-to-day, accuracy matters for managers because employees use performance evaluation to measure what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. In other words, what things they should continue doing and which things need improvement. When accurate feedback is routinely provided and implemented by the team, everyone's job gets easier.


Top Five Causes of Inaccurate Feedback

There are five major causes of inaccurate feedback for managers to avoid.

1. The manager doesn't take enough time to prepare for giving the feedback.

Some feedback needs to be instant. But most feedback given in the workplace is asynchronous, and therefore requires more due diligence on the part of the manager. Before examining performance, stop and do the following:

  • Reflect on what you are about to say. Does your feedback address the issue at hand? What is the goal or desired outcome of your feedback? Does your intended message guide the employee towards that goal, or distract from immediate next steps?
  • Question your assumptions. If you find yourself jumping to conclusions about an employee's motivations or intentions, take a step back. Turn your assumptions into questions to ask the employee during your next one-on-one, such as:
    • Was there a reason you deviated from standard operating procedure?
    • How did you decide which tasks to prioritize over others?
    • What was your plan? What steps did you take, and which steps were you going to take next?


2. The manager rushes through delivering the feedback.

Giving feedback can be awkward or uncomfortable, especially if it is negative. But it is crucial to take at least enough time to do the following:

  • Describe the performance observed.
  • Describe the performance that is desired in the future.
  • Describe the concrete steps the employee can take to improve for next time or fix past mistakes.
  • Explain why this instance of performance matters, not just for the organization, team, client, or project, but for the employee's own job and career goals.
  • Confirm the employee understands the goal of the feedback and the next steps they are meant to take.


3. The subject matter of the feedback is emotionally charged.

This is another reason it is important for managers to take the time to prepare to give feedback in advance. Feedback that is delivered in anger, anxiety, or any other heightened state of emotion, is less likely to address concrete aspects of performance and more likely to simply reflect the manager's feelings. Under these circumstances, the employee is ultimately left with feedback they have very little ability to implement.


4. The manager bases feedback on information from unreliable sources.

Nothing is worse than feedback based entirely on misinformation, for both the manager and the employee. The most extreme example of this is a manager who consistently takes the side of the customer or client, regardless of how much trust they have in the employee in question. When feedback concerns a project or interaction involving multiple people, get all sides of the story first. If you're not sure how reliable a particular source is, ask around.


5. The manager focuses disproportionately on the negative because the manager only gives feedback when there is a problem.

Too many managers are caught in a vicious cycle of undermanagement, where problems routinely occur, and firefighting seems to be constant. The cause and the outcome are the same: The manager only gives feedback when there is an urgent problem. Under this kind of hands-off leadership, small problems pass under the radar until they ultimately turn into huge problems--when they are inevitably much more difficult and time-consuming to solve. The solution is for managers to balance positive and negative feedback by delivering it regularly, in routine one-on-one meetings with each direct report.


Make better use of your management time

Improving the quality of your leadership, no matter your role, is one of the best career investments you can make:

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Bruce Tulgan: Founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and Top Expert on Leadership Development and Generational Issues in the Workplace

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