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Critics' Choice

What every manager should know about feedback

A company president in her 50s remembered when her first manager told her she wasn't finishing her work. "I was surprised, because I thought I was finishing," she said. "He explained what he meant by 'complete'. As I listened, I realized he was describing a pattern that I'd had all through school. I'd get to a certain point with a project, and then I'd lose interest and move on to something else. Somehow, my 'not-quite-done' work was enough for me to make good grades throughout university. When I entered the work world it was a liability. Once I started really finishing my work, I could see the difference in quality and how it affected our team's product."

She made a wry face.

"I still get bored and want to move on to something new," the company president continued. "If that manager hadn't taken time to give me feedback, I might not be where I am today; certainly it would have taken longer. And I'd be wondering why I wasn't getting ahead."

Feedback — when it's done well — can improve results and strengthen working relationships. When it helps people see their blind spots and understand the impact of their behaviour, feedback can change the trajectory of a career.

Unfortunately, many managers I talk to confess that they put off giving feedback because they are uncomfortable. Others tell me that their feedback attempts go awry. The conversation ends up in an argument, the recipient rejects their feedback, or they feel put on the spot when the other person asks for examples. When I talk to the receivers of feedback, I hear horror stories of mysterious hints, vague announcements, arguments, blame and humiliation.

In a work context, feedback is information about past behaviour, given in the present, with the hope of influencing future behaviour

A VP of development told me this story. "I had a habit of joking and teasing my staff," he said. "I thought I was being informal — you know, showing the team I wasn't a stuffy suit. My boss explained that what seemed like friendly ribbing to me felt like intimidation to people lower on the totem pole."

The VP's eyes unfocused as he remembered the conversation

"It was uncomfortable. But you know, none of my other managers had the guts to tell me my teasing was holding me back. Once I understood the damage I was doing — both to my staff and my own career — I changed my ways."

If feedback is so important, why is it seldom done well? It doesn't have to be this way. Let's look at some of the facts of feedback, what gets in the way and how to do it well.

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