Commentary: Giving feedback, the trickiest task that pains every manager
But communicating feedback is a core function of leadership, says human resource expert Adrian Tan.
SINGAPORE: It was just after 4pm when one of my managers and I kicked off our weekly catch up.
We went through the usual numbers, and after going through a few other items, eventually arrived at the finale - me letting her know about a behavioural issue a couple of her subordinates expressed discomfort with.
She has this habit of whispering at parts of her conversation. And when she does that with others, those not involved in that conversation become uncomfortable. Some get the impression she may be saying bad things behind their back even though she isn’t.
That feedback appears well accepted (and delivered, in my opinion), and we continued to cover a couple more other issues. I think to myself I am on track to knock off at 6pm to grab an early dinner with the family.
Then things went south.
Returning to the feedback I gave her, her face tensed up, her voice got louder and her eyes watered up.
She felt that it was unjustified, that her contribution wasn’t recognised. Before I knew it, I’d spent another hour making sure she was alright.
If you think dealing with people is tough, wait until you give them feedback.
IS FEEDBACK REALLY THAT DIFFICULT?
But come to think of it, delivering feedback isn’t really tough. Just ask anyone you know with low Emotional Quotient (EQ).
It is the negative response you get from the recipient that is difficult to process and makes giving feedback unpleasant. Which doesn’t really affect folks with low EQ who are more than happy to dish out the harshest yet most frank and direct criticism.
But being on the receiving end of negative responses to feedback is not something people like me are comfortable with.
Which leads many of us to accumulate and hold back most information about performance until the year-end performance review session.
This is when managers tell you in December what you did right or wrong in January. When you think you had a good work year because nobody said anything, you might get a rude shock hearing that you messed up really bad.
FEEDBACK OUGHT TO BE TIMELY
Back to the feedback I was trying to give my staff.
In honesty, I had observed her habit of whispering before others brought it to my attention. I also found it a little uncomforting but I did what lazy managers would do - I ignored it.
If I had just pulled her aside and told her about this when it first began, or at the point where she was doing it, her reaction might be more tempered.
This and many other episodes in life have taught me that feedback (just like vitamins) are best given in micro doses frequently and when you need it the most.
And the company performance management structure should encourage that by firstly doing away with annual performance reviews because it motivates managers to kick the can down the road.
Forward-looking companies, such as Adobe, have already retired performance reviews. Adobe replaced theirs with Check-in, a performance management approach that prioritises an ongoing process of feedback and dialogues between managers and employees.
A human resources team also provides support for employees and their managers to have constructive conversations.
I can already hear the angry cries of protest from companies that don't possess the financials like Adobe to reinvent performance reviews. But one doesn't have to look far to make use of HR Tech platforms such as EngageRocket, Synergita or SelfDrvn to enable more frequent check-ins between employees and their managers.
At the end of the day, having an effective feedback system might boil down to attitudes. Be like Jack Ma and carry the heart of a teacher.
This includes having the acumen and grace in allowing and aiding your people to outshine you, and that can only be achieved through giving your acute observations of what they are and aren't doing, and your prompt feedback about what's working and what's not.
Even for the most cynical managers who might be sceptical – remember that if the football team performs well, the manager gets the credit.
COMMUNICATING IS A KEY FUNCTION OF LEADERSHIP
People management isn't just sending memos of instructions for execution. A huge chunk of your time as a manager is expected to be spent on communicating.
Which also brings us to another aspect of management - leadership.
Like it or not, your subordinates will look to you for guidance and direction.
And as a leader within the organisation, it’s incumbent on you to think about how to enhance the talent you have in your organisation at various junctures. Most of them require communication, whether it’s a pat on the back or someone pointing out a common mistake.
Giving feedback should not be viewed as an additional chore that is secondary to the role of a manager but, instead, an integral aspect of leadership in seizing opportunities to shape team performance and deliver business outcomes.
In doing so, you demonstrate your commitment to the worth of your people. That is a choice you make as a leader every day.
Adrian Tan is co-founder of The Resource Group, a boutique HR consulting agency that specialises in HR and grant consultancy for SMEs. He is the recipient of the SHRI HR Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013 and writes regularly about HR at adriantan.com.sg.