Chances are you have heard the expression, “Feedback is a gift.” The cliché is a salve against the sting of criticism, but what it more assuredly does is make giving bad news easier for the leader.
Two lessons from extending the metaphor of feedback as a gift are worth consideration. The first involves the motivation for providing a gift. The second, the suitability of the gift itself.
Gift giving is not a selfless act. We give to others in part to affirm our own values, character and generosity. Catchy terms such as “giver’s glow” describe why people give in what appears a selfless manner. Leaders experience the glow, too. After all, most performance feedback focuses on how employees could better please supervisors. Providing feedback reinforces a supervisors’ authority, experience and the trust the organization has vested in them.
When feedback is considered to be more about the supervisor than the receiver, it’s easy to see why employees feel less than fortunate receiving it. The reason the feedback fails as a gift is for the same reason an unfortunate holiday sweater isn’t right – the giver has not taken time to understand how to offer insights in a welcomed way.
Below are examples from recent conversations with managers about frustrating feedback they have received.
Feedback that Doesn’t Fit
Feedback bemoaning issues outside employee control is not a gift.
It’s Something You Already Have
Feedback that restates messages contained in available objective data is not a gift.
It Is “So Last Season”
Feedback that resurrects a performance issue from days long ago as a cautionary tale for today is not a gift.
Your Secret, Yet Ignorant, Admirer
Feedback from individuals unfamiliar with responsibilities or improperly trained, as is often the case in a hurriedly designed 360 review, is not a gift.
No One Appreciates a “Gift Card”
Asking an employee to “just go ahead and write what you want your review to say” is not a gift.
It’s the Thoughtlessness that Counts
Cheerleading phrases such as, “You are doing a great job! Keep doing it!” and personal criticisms with no corrective suggestions such as, “Sometimes I encourage people to lean in and go for it. Not you,” are thoughtless and serve only to allow catharsis for the giver. Not a gift.
The Perfect “Gift”
Performance conversations are among the most critical leaders undertake. Why do leaders fail to offer feedback that teaches, guides and encourages? Because just as it’s work to find a perfect gift, crafting relevant, memorable and useful feedback requires the leader deeply understand the realities of the follower’s situation.
Leadership positions contain the responsibility to make the time and effort to get feedback right. Lazily constructed and hastily communicated feedback reinforces to followers it is “better to give than to receive.”
Nathan Bennett is associate dean for program innovation at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business of Georgia State University. Read more about him at https://robinson.gsu.edu/profile/nathan-bennett/.
Associate Dean for Program Innovation and Professor
J. Mack Robinson College of Business
Nathan Bennett is the associate dean for program innovation and professor in the dean’s office of the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. He specializes in top management team effectiveness, managing innovation and change processes, leading strategy execution, and creating value through entrepreneurship. He has more than 20 years of experience in designing and delivering high-impact leadership development programs, with clients including Schneider Electric, The Coca-Cola Company, Delta Air Lines, GEICO and GE.