Gill Taylor: Good feedback covers both good and bad performance

It's fine to praise people, but a good manager knows how to give balanced feedback, writes our columnist

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

"Robust candour" is a hot topic in human resources at the moment. Continuing the theme of performance management from last month, I thought I’d look in more detail at how to give feedback effectively.

When things are going well, doing this should be relatively easy, but the great British cultural problems of understatement and emotional constipation do get in the way of giving praise.

To be effective, praise should be given as near to the event as possible, with details of what went particularly well or the impact the person had, plus any way in which they could build on this as a learning point.

If you praise too broadly – "that was great" – or give praise to people who don’t deserve it, it loses its value to the recipient. Feedback is always given in the context of an ongoing relationship with a line manager and, to get the very best out of it, it needs to be based on trust: trust that the manager is noticing what the person does, has their best interests at heart, will treat them fairly and will give feedback appropriately, both good and bad. Each encounter is an opportunity to build trust and confidence or to chip away at them by omission or ineffective communication.

Giving feedback when things are not going well is more difficult. It requires a manager to have confidence that they know what a good job looks like and when someone is not doing it in the right time, to the right depth or breadth, or with the right attitude or behaviour – and the last two are things on which a manager can comment. A staff member might always deliver on time but do it in a way that alienates all other team members, and that is not good performance. A manager must be able to name clearly what is not working well and what kind of improvement they expect to see by when.

A good manager praises when it’s due and gives challenging feedback as well, so that the employees get used to the expectation that they might get both kinds and that this is normal and happens to everyone in the team. Then they are more likely to listen and take on board what the manager is saying. If we only ever praise people, they will not develop the resilience and self-reliance to develop and make better judgements for themselves.

I would also expect a manager to be confident in their judgements and to have thought through and evidenced all the reasons and expectations for improvement before starting the conversation. That way the manager is less likely to be derailed by common reactions. Some of these are genuine explorations of what a manager is saying, but some are patterns from people who are not used to being self-reflective.

The four most common patterns are: Denial – it wasn’t me and it’s not that bad; Defensiveness – I only did it this way because…; Anger – how dare you say this to me; and Unfair – you are picking on me.

As with most things in HR, practice beforehand with a colleague or friend and persevere. Coaching from a more experienced manager works well too.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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