Seven Feedback Mistakes Managers Make

Most managers today would agree that feedback is key to employee success. But unless that feedback is high quality, performance will never improve, no matter how frequent your one-on-ones with direct reports.


The results of our interviews point to seven major complaints about typical manager feedback:

  1. There is not enough feedback (no guidance).
  2. There is too much feedback (micromanaging).
  3. Too much of the feedback is negative, and not enough is positive.
  4. The feedback is misinformed.
  5. The feedback is vague.
  6. The feedback is rushed.
  7. The feedback is delayed.


1. Not Enough Feedback


"A lot of times I’ll be working on something for the first time, and I have no idea if I’m doing it right until the project is complete and we hear from the lawyers on the other side. I’ll try to get my manager to look at something I’m doing, maybe give me a little guidance, and all I get is, 'I don’t have time to look at that.' When the other side finally gets back to us, my manager calls me in and chews me out. And all I can think is, 'If you would have just taken a minute to look at this when I asked, we could have avoided all of this hassle.'"


ANALYSIS. This is an example of a feedback relationship that is totally out of tune with the employee's frequency needs. She asks for guidance, but her supervisor doesn't respond. As a result, she feels unprepared to carry out some of her basic functions and believes her employers do not value her contributions. Moreover, her work does not receive necessary revision at the right time. Ultimately, the costs go directly to the bottom line because work quality is diminished and the client is unsatisfied. Only then does she receive feedback--when she no longer needs it!

2. Too Much Feedback


"My manager would ask me to write a letter, for instance. I would do it and he would have corrections or additions. But that process would keep happening several times. He would keep changing his mind, want more words changed. We would spend an hour getting out a routine letter--less than three quarters of a page. It became counterproductive to even have me involved because we would just go back and forth on everything."


ANALYSIS. This is another example of feedback that is out of tune with an employee's frequency needs. However, here the manager is overly involved with the mundane details of the employee's work. The result, from the employee's view, is too much feedback.


In viewing this case, we might say that the manager should be more specific and explain from the start precisely what the letter should say--that he needs to delegate a concrete goal with clear parameters. Yet this manager seems unclear about those parameters himself. He keeps changing his mind, requesting additions and revisions, using the employee like a puppet to play out a creative process that he should work through on his own. He is, above all, entirely too tangled up in the employee's tasks and responsibilities: Her work and his work are not clearly delineated.


3. Too Much Negative Feedback


"My manager will leave me a message on my voicemail criticizing something if he doesn’t like it, but I never get a message when I do a good job. It’s a distraction. I get sidetracked because I am mad."


ANALYSIS. This is an example of a feedback relationship that is so unbalanced it results in inaccurate information: It probably gives the employee a misleading picture of the manager’s actual evaluation of his performance. "No news is good news" doesn’t cut it in management anymore. Employees need to know exactly what they are doing right so they can repeat their successes, just as they need to know what they are doing wrong so they can avoid repeating mistakes.


4. The Feedback Is Misinformed


"My boss yells at me because of customer complaints, without even checking out my side of the story. One time, a customer was yelling at my cashier because she wouldn’t let him return a sweater that is not sold at our store. We have an inventory control system, and we can tell if an item came from our system or not. I go over and tell this customer to stop yelling at my cashier. He writes down our names and stomps off. The next thing I know, the store manager is screaming at me about how this guy says he’s never going to shop at our store again. He didn’t shop here to begin with!"


ANALYSIS. This is another example of inaccurate feedback. Because the store manager failed to check her facts--or at least check the department leaders or cashier’s side of the story--she has severely diminished her credibility with this department leader and probably with the cashier as well.


While the department leader was in a good position to witness the interaction between the customer and the cashier, and thus to assess the situation properly, the store manager had no firsthand information. What is more, the department leader relied on the store's inventory control system to determine the appropriate response to give the customer. Even if store policy is "the customer is always right", it was certainly inappropriate for the store manager to scream at the department leader for defending the cashier and enforcing another store policy. The manager should have checked her facts, questioned her assumptions, and offered a more suitable response.


5. Vague Feedback


"A pat on the back is great and all too rare, but it still doesn’t tell me much. I’d like to know exactly what it is I’m doing right, so I can make sure to keep doing it. My boss gives me dirty looks when I've done something wrong. I want to say, 'OK, I can see you’re really mad at me, but tell me what I did wrong so I can fix it or at least not do it again.'"


ANALYSIS. This is an example of feedback that is not specific enough to be of much use to the employee. The manager in this case is trying to give feedback but doesn’t know exactly how to communicate the details.


This manager should be telling the employee

  • Exactly what she does wrong, instead of giving her dirty looks,
  • Exactly what she does right, instead of giving her pats on the back, and
  • Exactly what she should do next, instead of expecting her to figure it out.


6. Rushed Feedback


"Everybody is always running around here like crazy because we are super busy, but some people make it much worse because they never slow down long enough to utter a coherent thought. My manager will say, 'You gotta change those sales projections.' And I’ll say, 'The projections I gave you yesterday?' And she’ll say, 'Not yesterday, I haven’t even looked at that.' She’s, like, zooming by as we have this exchange, and I’m left there thinking, 'Maybe you could tell me which projection you’re talking about.' Then I have to track down further sources of information to actually act on her request. She’s in such a hurry, she slows everything down."


ANALYSIS. It is ironic but all too common for managers to feel they don't have the time to meet with employees, when that will ultimately save lots of time. Here, the manager’s failure to focus for just a few moments on feedback results in a waste of time for everyone. She didn’t maximize the time she did spend on the interaction, and her employee has to figure out what she was talking about. What is more, by giving feedback only in passing, the manager implies that the feedback is low priority.


7. Delayed Feedback


"My boss insists on seeing everything before it goes out of here, and he always has changes. But he takes forever to get back to you, which means our clients are always complaining about the delays. One time he stumbled onto a design that I had given him so long before that nobody could remember which client it was even for. I had to dig through a bunch of old files to find out. When I finally got in touch with the client, she had already gone to someone else, and the job was over and done with."


ANALYSIS. This is an extreme example of untimely feedback resulting from a manager’s lack of time management and organizational skills. When managers have slow turnaround on reviewing and employees work in progress, often the only real consequence is a frustrated employee who feels that his or her work is not appreciated. That is consequence enough. In this case, the slow turnaround ends up costing the organization a potentially valuable client as well.


When a manager’s review and revision are necessary parts of an employee's regular work process (as is often the case), then timeliness is all the more critical period this manager should have given himself a 48-hour rule on reviewing employees' work in progress.


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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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