Wake-up Call: Feedback that does more harm than good

Well-delivered feedback sessions are key to improving employee performance

Feedback is key to improving performance. And yet when feedback sessions are poorly delivered, they harm employee engagement and productivity levels. So, what are the key indicators of harmful feedback? Here are five critical signs that you are doing it wrong:

You are not increasing their self-awareness
The goal of giving feedback is not just to get Tim to turn his work in on time, or Sally to stop being so defensive. It is increasing employees' self-awareness, so they genuinely understand how they come across to others and how their actions affect others. As the famous Dunning-Krueger effect demonstrates, the less competent people are, the less self-aware they are, so poor performers are particularly likely to benefit from a reality check.

You're not giving enough negative feedback
Although positive feedback is easier to convey, the most useful type of feedback is actually negative. The essence of negative feedback is not criticism or disapproval, but anything that exposes the candidate's self-views as overly positive relative to their objective performance.

In other words, feedback is negative when it shows us that we are not as good as we think. Naturally, this can be hard to accept and digest, because it wounds our ego. However, negative feedback is also indispensable for getting better: unless we know what we are doing wrong, we will have no desire to improve.


Your feedback isn't based on robust data
Another core element of effective feedback is reliable and valid data. It doesn't matter if you lack sophisticated monitoring systems or objective performance metrics – the feedback can still include empirical evidence on how the person is doing. Ideally, candidates should be benchmarked against a normative group. Furthermore, there should be an obvious connection between each data point and the behaviour of the candidate.

You don't give people a story
As the saying goes, data tells but stories sell.

Any feedback you give will have limited impact unless you can present a meaningful narrative, an explanation rather than mere description, of the person’s behaviour.

You are not making it personal
When giving people feedback, what matters is not focusing on your own style, whether you see it as straight-talking and direct or compassionate and caring. What's important is thinking about the recipient's style. Each person's reaction will depend as much on their own personality as the nature of the feedback itself.

Experienced feedback facilitators know this, so they tend to adapt their style and curate the message to the personality of the recipient.

For example, if the person is a factual, analytical, thinker, they emphasise the data. If the employee is emotionally sensitive or neurotic, they establish rapport, make them feel at ease ahead of the session.

Finally, it should be noted that the feedback cycle doesn’t end once the session is over. In fact, that’s just the beginning of the actual coaching, which requires follow-through in the form of actionable targets and measurable change.

As thorough models of coaching show, the feedback process is only complete if it defines the “where to next?” question for the candidate and establishes which interventions will be used, and what success will actually look like.

Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a professor of business psychology at University College London and a faculty member at Columbia University.