Feedback for high performance: six things you need to know

Feedback for high performance: six things you need to know

There are so many things a manager has to be on top of, so many important things! If you’re a manager, you may need to manage budgets, roster staff, organise promotions, put out communications, attend meetings, deal with problem staff, and meet with clients. It’s an endless list of “important things”. Add to that list, providing employees with direction and feedback. Now here’s the thing. We all know that providing employees with performance feedback is important, but it’s an important thing to do amongst an endless list of important things to do.  I think that’s the reason providing feedback is a neglected and weakly developed skill for most managers. And, mostly, in my experience, it doesn’t get done well or often enough.

Sure, there’s the obligatory (for many organisations) annual performance appraisal process, resisted by many managers, where they have to be endlessly harassed by HR people to get them done. Appraisals are good and important, but just like goals, as I explained in my article about goal-setting, performance feedback doesn’t have to be written. In fact, I think some of the most powerful feedback comes in the form of the quick interactions we have as managers, the many golden opportunities that present themselves every day. It doesn’t take a lot of planning, written notes, or meetings. Hell, you can make it up as you go about your day.

In terms of people management, providing feedback is a critically important skill. I can’t see how you can lead a team and achieve high levels of performance without being skilled at it.

Feedback works
Have you ever thought about the fact that behaviourism, which dominated psychology for decades, was basically all about feedback? Behaviourism has taught us that the behaviours I will see tomorrow (for example in a workplace), are determined by the consequences that follow the behaviours that occur today. In other words, the feedback I get about how I performed today, will influence how I will perform tomorrow. Or to put it another way, how hard I will try to achieve excellence tomorrow, will be a product of the feedback I receive about how hard I tried today.

It’s a good idea to trust the science when thinking about how to improve the performance of a work team, or a sports team for that matter. Sports psychologists draw on these same concepts when working with elite sports teams.

So what are some of the key aspects of behavioural science that managers can draw on if they are trying to improve the performance of a work team?

1. Be clear about the performance you expect
If you are not seeing the performance you want to see, first focus on ensuring that people are clear about what you want them to achieve. Talk to them about the behaviours you are wanting to see in a matter-of-fact way. Your aim should be that they walk away from that conversation feeling good, thinking about what they need to do, and not feeling like they’ve just been given a ‘serve’.

2. If you are trying to develop performance, most of your feedback should be positive
Thinking about what the science tells us, I like the analogy of a garden. The plants you want to grow are like the behaviours or levels of performance you are trying to develop (e.g. I want to see more awareness and attentiveness of customers). Like plants, new behaviours don’t grow when they are poisoned. It would be the equivalent of giving an employee negative feedback because (despite the fact that they improved) their performance wasn’t good enough. That happens a lot in organisations and it’s poison to performance. Poison the weeds (the unproductive behaviours). Don’t poison growth. In other words, negative feedback is not good at growing behaviours or developing the levels of performance you are striving for. Negative feedback is important and its good for other things, but it’s not good for that.

Positive feedback is good for building new behaviours, developing performance levels, going from not seeing a behaviour (like attentive customer service) to regularly seeing that behaviour. Positive feedback works well for achieving that.

3. Don’t wait for perfect performance: reward improvements
In the book, The One Minute Manager, one of the pieces of advice is, “catch someone doing something right” and that’s a great piece of advice! A similar message to that is, catch someone who has improved at something, anything! Become a manager that has their antennas out, searching, searching, for any form of improvement, and when you see an improvement, you ‘hit’ the person with some positive feedback: “that’s really good. I noticed that you just did that. I really liked the way you did that”.

I believe one of the biggest mistakes managers make with feedback is that they fail to acknowledge and reward improvements. They are not tuned in to the improvements people might be making, and the improvements are gold, because they represent growth. Unfortunately a common mindset is, “why should I reward performance that I know is not at the level I expect it to be?” My answer to this is, because the science tells us so. Do you want to build performance or do you want it to break down? And, importantly, rewarding an improvement is not the equivalent of saying, “you don’t need to do any better than this”.

4. Reward successively higher levels of performance
In behavioural science there’s a term called “shaping behaviour”. In an organisation, you can think of it as shaping performance. There’s a mountain of research evidence to support this concept and it’s especially important for driving performance improvements towards a standard. It means that, after receiving some positive feedback today, I will need to achieve more to get the next bit of positive feedback. In this way, your use of feedback is able to continually drive improvements.  It’s about rewarding successively higher and higher levels of performance, until the performance is at the standard you want it to be at.

5. Become a pokie machine
If you ever wondered why so many people are addicted to pokie machines, there’s a psychology to it. Regular but unpredictable rewards are really good at locking in behaviours. If you want to know how often you should be providing feedback, think about the pokie machine analogy. Positive feedback should be regular, but unpredictable. The research shows that this type of feedback is the strongest when it comes to reinforcing behaviours.

6. Keep it brief and informal
There’s nothing wrong with formal or detailed feedback (such as in the form of performance appraisals), but feedback is too important and too powerful for driving performance to leave it to these occasions. There are too many day-to-day opportunities that present themselves, so why wait for an appraisal meeting that you probably don’t even want to be part of? Positive feedback can be as simple as a quick passing comment, such as “well done”, or “that looks really good” or to be more specific, “I really liked the way you served that customer”, “I’m really pleased that you took it upon yourself to do…..”

There are many important things we do as managers, but what’s more important than managing people? Do it well and you can multiply your effectiveness and your organisation’s productivity. Giving feedback—in the right way, at the right time, and of the right type—is one of the key skills that can help you to do that.

It’s also something I teach in my Soft Skills for Hard Results training program.

John Girardi

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