Feedback

It’s Time to Stop Training Managers to Give Feedback

Instead, teach your employees how to seek it.

By Jeanine Prime, Ph.D., and Brian Kropp

Here’s a dispiriting stat: Only 38 percent of HR leaders believe their performance management (PM) systems are keeping up with the pace of business, according to Gartner’s 2019 Performance Management Benchmarking Survey. Sound familiar?

Those same leaders believe shifting away from the typical episodic, once-a-year approach to PM and toward a more continuous model—one that would allow employees to update their goals and gain feedback as their own needs and the business’ needs change—is a potential solution. Of course, this shift would require a lot more effort from managers in order for it to work.

Instead of being expected to give feedback once or twice a year, managers will have to deliver high-quality feedback on a much more frequent basis. With this increased demand on managers, many companies are seeking to ease the burden by investing in manager training. The rationale behind this strategy is simple: Give managers the right tools and they’ll be able to make light work of giving feedback. They won’t just deliver feedback more efficiently, but more effectively, too.

It’s a good idea in theory. However, we don’t believe manager training is the best way to jumpstart continuous PM. That’s because HR’s singular focus is misguided. Turns out the most significant barrier to continuous PM isn’t managers’ capacity or effectiveness at giving feedback—it’s employees’ motivation and effectiveness in seeking feedback.

Rather than making investments in those delivering feedback, HR should reprioritize its investments and focus on feedback recipients instead. Here’s where to start.

6 Barriers to Implementing Manager Feedback

Imagine that HR’s investments in training managers on how to give feedback have paid off. The result: Bosses are now significantly more efficient and effective at giving feedback. But what happens next? What are the odds that their feedback will be used? Spoiler: Not very good.

Even if managers perfect the art of giving feedback, there’s still little assurance that employees will implement it. In fact, studies document a host of factors that limit the impact of manager feedback.[1] With all these impediments to overcome, it’s no wonder meta analyses show that feedback has minimal positive—and in some cases even negative—impact on employee performance.[2]

Barrier #1: Poor Manager-Direct Report Relationships 

Employees are far more likely to accept and act on feedback from managers with whom they share high-quality relationships. These findings can be attributed to a key factor in such relationships: trust. It makes sense that employees will more readily accept and implement feedback from a source they trust.[3] With some surveys suggesting that less than half of employees trust their managers, a lack of trust undoubtedly stands as a significant barrier to the implementation of manager feedback.

Barrier #2: Manager Credibility

While manager credibility often comes from managers’ relationships or social capital, a very important, yet often-overlooked source of credibility is managers’ technical expertise.

As the nature of work and the skills businesses rely on undergo rapid change, managers are increasingly likely to supervise employees whose skill sets and expertise differ from their own. Without shared expertise with their managers, employees are less likely to judge their managers’ feedback to be credible.

This problem is only compounded by the fact that a whopping 82 percent of employees also believe their managers lack visibility into their work.[4] Without relevant technical expertise or visibility, there’s little chance that managers’ feedback will gain the requisite level of credibility to be well-received and implemented by employees. And manager feedback training likely won’t be enough to close this credibility gap.

Barrier #3: Employee Goal Orientation

Employees’ goal orientations—their patterns of interpreting and responding to achievement challenges—reliably predict their reactions, or lack thereof, to manager feedback. Overall, there are two broad types of goal orientations: mastery and performance. Employees who have a mastery goal orientation tend to focus on developing competence and gaining new skills, while employees with a performance goal orientation are more concerned with demonstrating superiority over others. Not surprisingly, research shows that employees with a performance goal orientation are least likely to be receptive to manager feedback—especially if that feedback is negative.[5]

Barrier #4: Manager-Direct Report Dissimilarity

As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse, managers are more likely to supervise employees with demographic characteristics (e.g. race and gender) that differ from their own.[6] Dissimilarity between managers and direct reports can also decrease the likelihood that manager feedback will be implemented. Employees often discount feedback from dissimilar managers because they judge their feedback to be less self-relevant or even biased.

Barrier #5: Timeliness

Feedback is much more likely to be implemented if it’s given at the precise time it’s needed.[7] Getting feedback on how to resolve a problem or challenge after the fact is clearly less helpful than accessing that feedback in the moment, when it can be acted on. With larger teams and low visibility into employees’ work, giving timely feedback is often a challenge for managers.

Barrier #6: Employee Performance

Finally, employee performance is also a critical predictor of how manager feedback is received. Even though a low-performing employee may be receptive to manager feedback, he or she may lack the prerequisite knowledge or skill to implement it.[8] On the other end of the spectrum, high-performing employees also tend to underutilize manager feedback[9], not because they lack the skill to implement it, but because they’re more selective in determining which feedback they judge worth putting into practice. When you have a track record of stellar performance, you’re more likely to believe you already have the formula for success.

Why Employees Must Be Proactive Seekers

With all these barriers to overcome, it’s no wonder why companies aren’t getting the results they expect from their investments in improving manager feedback. Yet many of the roadblocks can be avoided or minimized when employees actively seek the feedback they need rather than passively receive unsolicited manager feedback at prescribed check-ins or reviews.

There are two primary tactics that employees can utilize when seeking feedback: inquiry and monitoring.[10] Inquiry is the direct solicitation of feedback from coworkers, while monitoring is the practice of “reading” the environment and social context for cues or signals about one’s performance.

When employees are skilled in using these tactics and empowered to seek feedback from a variety of sources—not just from their managers—organizations can solve for both the problem of poor manager-direct report relationships and low manager credibility.

Employees will choose to seek feedback from those with whom they have trusting relationships[11], as well as those whom they find most credible andmost effective at delivering feedback. They’ll also be likely to seek feedback, where possible, from those with whom they share demographic similarities.

For employees from under-represented demographic groups, gaining feedback from coworkers with shared backgrounds offers a variety of benefits. By tapping demographically similar sources, they won’t just access feedback that takes their unique identity-based experiences and challenges into account, but also gain the critical social support they need to thrive.

Putting employees in the driver’s seat is also the best way to ensure feedback timeliness. Armed with the right tools for seeking feedback, employees can put these to use when and only when they need feedback most.

With exposure to different feedback-seeking tactics, employees can also choose the ones that best suit their own unique styles, goals, and feedback orientations. For example, indirect feedback tactics like monitoring may be more attractive to employees with performance goal orientations. With their strong concerns about saving face, monitoring tactics allow employees to gather information about their performance via environmental and social cues while minimizing the ego and impression management costs that come with more direct inquiry tactics.  

Finally, when employees expend the effort to seek feedback, they’re more apt to view it as worthwhile. As such, feedback that’s solicited by employees is more likely to be implemented than unsolicited feedback.

With so many benefits to be gained by equipping employees with feedback-seeking skills,[12] why aren’t more organizations doing so? Some may worry that with employees in control, they may only seek feedback from people they like and avoid sources of negative feedback. These companies fear that employees will only get sugar-coated feedback, and not the sharp—and sometimes negative—feedback they really need to improve.

While it’s true that employees may get more positive than negative feedback from sources with whom they have high-quality relationships, this positively skewed ratio isn’t as problematic as common wisdom might suggest. In fact, the researchers say it may be the ideal ratio that employees need to perform.

Employees are more responsive and more likely to implement positive feedback on what they’re doing right as opposed to negative feedback on what they’re doing wrong.[13] And as we alluded to earlier, negative feedback often comes with higher risk than many assume. Rather than giving employees the drive and insight to boost performance, a focus on negative or corrective feedback can be damaging and diminish employees’ self-esteem, sense of self-efficacy, and confidence, thereby impeding performance.  

How to Empower Your Employees to Seek Feedback

Despite all the benefits of feedback seeking, most employees won’t be effective at doing so on their own. It’s up to HR to nudging and equip them to practice this skill. Here are the first steps:

1. Make Feedback Seeking the Default

We’ve seen in several different domains just how much our behavior is shaped by default choices. For example, when establishing 401k plans, employees often accept the default savings choices selected by plan administrators. In the same way, HR can create a feedback environment that nudges employees to access and utilize feedback.

To the extent that HR can make feedback readily accessible to employees, making it more effortful to avoid feedback, HR can help make higher receptivity to and use of feedback a cultural norm. For example, we see more and more examples of companies creating feedback-rich environments by adopting productivity-enhancing tools that provide employees with data and information about their performance.

2. Put Employees in Charge of Designing Feedback Processes

Engage employees in designing tools and practices for seeking feedback. With in-depth, on-the-ground knowledge of how work gets done and the barriers to performance, employees have invaluable insights about the type of feedback they need—and when they need it. Progressive companies like CSR are tapping into these insights, leveraging design-thinking principles so that employees can design feedback processes and tools around their own unique feedback needs. 

3. Make Feedback Conversations Employee-Initiated

As noted earlier,when employees initiate and drive the feedback agenda, they’re much more likely to act on the feedback they receive. Consistent with this logic, companies like BP Lower 48 are turning ownership of feedback conversations over to employees. Not only do employees determine when performance conversations happen, but they’re also empowered with tools and frameworks to drive the agenda.

To ensure that employees get the feedback they need to learn and grow, HR must look beyond its current focus on training managers to deliver feedback. Without creating employee demand for feedback, investments in manager training will yield very little return. HR should shift its investments from managers to employees, empowering them to proactively seek and access the feedback they need—from those most qualified to provide it.

Jeanine Prime, Ph.D., is a vice president and research leader for Gartner’s HR practice. She has more than 17 years of experience leading research about talent management, leadership, and diversity and inclusion.

Brian Kropp, Ph.D., is the group vice president for Gartner’s HR practice. He works with chief human resources officers, heads of compensation, and heads of benefits to develop strategic plans to attract, manage, and retain their top talent.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Chawla, N., Dahling, J. J., Gabriel, A. (2016). Feedback dynamics are critical to improving performance management systems. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 9, pp. 260-266 doi:10.1017/iop.2016.8

[2] Kluger, A., N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119, pp. 254-284

[3] Steelman, L., A., & Rutkowski, K. A.(2004) “Moderators of employee reactions to negative feedback”, Journal of Managerial Psychology, 19, pp.6-18, https://doi.org/10.1108/02683940410520637

[4] n=7,309 employees, 2017 Gartner Manager Effectiveness Survey

[5] VandeWalle, D., Cron, W. L., & Slocum, J. J. (2001). The role of goal orientation following performance feedback. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, pp. 629–640 doi:10.1037/0021-9010.86.4.629 

[6] Ryan, A. M., Brutus, S., Greguras, G. J., & Hakel, M. D. (2000). Receptivity to assessment-based feedback for management development. Journal of Management Development,19, pp. 252-276. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/02621710010322580

[7] Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, pp. 81-12. DOI: 10.3102/003465430298487

[8] Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, pp. 1121-1134.

[9] Audia, P. G., & Locke, E. A. (2003). Benefiting from negative feedback. Human Resource Management Review,  pp.13, 631–646.

[10] Anseel, F., Beatty, A., S., Shen, W., Lievens, F., & Sackett, P., R. (2015). How are we doing after 30 years? A meta-analytic review of the antecedents and outcomes of feedback-seeking behavior. Journal of Management 41. 

[11] Chen Z, Lam W and Zhong JA. (2007) Leader-member exchange and member performance: A new look at individual-level negative feedback-seeking behavior and team-level empowerment climate. Journal of Applied Psychology 92, pp. 202-212.

[12] Whitaker, B. G., Dahling, J. J., & Levy, P. (2007). The development of a feedback environment and role clarity model of job performance. Journal of Management, 33(4), 570-591.

[13] Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, pp. 81-12. DOI: 10.3102/003465430298487

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