Why is feedback so hard for managers?

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I’ve written about employee feedback more times than I can even remember. I won’t link all of them, because that seems a little self-involved, but two of my favorites were lessons from John Wooden (a successful guy) and some research around how rare feedback is, especially at work.

That’s the part I’ve never really understood. Feedback, and subsequently employee feedback, should be a natural part of any communication cycle or dynamic. You complete a bunch of tasks or projects, and you want to know how the projects went in the eyes of the people with the most authority. Seems logical, right? It would make you better at your job, make you feel more invested, etc, etc.

Instead, most companies do this:

  • Only allow employee feedback to be given once a year in a very controlled HR environment
  • Completely eliminate the employee evaluation, deeming it “not business critical,” and replacing it with nothing
  • Allow managers to consistently complain about how busy they are and how they have absolutely no time for employee feedback
  • Talk about feedback loops when a journalist calls to profile the CEO, but never actually do anything with them in day-to-day life
  • Stash employee feedback in HR, where no one will care, instead of making it the responsibility of every manager

Does this really need to be this hard? I don’t think so. Let’s try and fix it.

The first baseline you need on employee feedback

Employee feedback is a form of respect, plain and simple. You are saying “You just worked pretty hard. Let me tell you a few things about it.” Respect is super important to high-functioning workplaces. Unfortunately, respect-heavy workplaces are not normative these days.

The second baseline you need

Dirty little secret of most white-collar work: most people don’t become managers because they want to guide/develop others. They do it because it’s the only way to make more money. As a result, many managers lack soft skills, notably among those being “communication.” This ties directly to employee feedback. 90% of managers I’ve had — probably over 50% for you — have absolutely no idea how to give feedback, and assume they need to be “tough.” So they blast you for something that happened seven months ago and assumed they just covered their own ass and “showed true leadership.” It’s all pretty comical.

The issue, then, is that we need to teach people who become managers how to provide employee feedback.

So how do you provide employee feedback?

There are 91 million articles and books on this, and 92% of them are complete and utter bullshit. For now, I’ll turn to First Round Review, because they usually do a pretty good job. Here’s their tome, “23 Tools To Make Feedback More Meaningful.” Lots of good stuff in here, but let’s pull this:

When you first start to work with someone, it’s worth saying, “Hey, you’re in this job, which means you jumped over a pretty high bar. I’ve looked at your background. I sat in on the hiring process. I know you’re smart. You’re capable and will work hard. I’m here to maximize your potential. And I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

In my mind, 7 in 10 managers would never possibly be able to say that. They’d open any new relationship or feedback session with “Here are the deliverables I expect from you.” That’s how most people look at work and/or managing, which largely explains horrible engagement scores and people job-hopping like horny rabbits on crack.

Look, we all know the buzzwords here…

  • Transparency
  • Openness
  • Honesty
  • Safe space
  • Communication
  • Measurement
  • Engagement
  • Investment
  • Respect
  • Candid
  • Candor
  • Conversational
  • Frequency

… and we all know the reality

… which is that most people don’t give a shit about this stuff, and here’s why: effective employee feedback is often focused on behaviors, right? Makes sense. Problem: work, to many people, is only about results. Spreadsheet Mentality, baby! In fact, First Round Review even mentions this:

The best type of coaching gives the recipient 100% of the control to make changes. This means focusing on action-based goals with no dependencies. If you tell your head of content marketing that she needs to drive 700,000 page views a quarter, that’s not in her control. The closer she gets to the end of the quarter, the more the pressure is going to build, the greater the chance she’ll lose confidence in herself. As a leader, it’s your job to determine the actions she can take that are likely to produce the results the company needs.

This is totally logical, but the problem is: it doesn’t line up with how we think about work. Work to most is about execution and goals. If employee feedback is about “transparency” (what the hell is that?) and “behaviors” (does that mean we won’t make our numbers?), it’s never going to stick around. This is partially why you see companies ditching performance reviews.

Could we align the execution focus with employee feedback?

Of course. But that’s where the “frequency” word matters. Employee feedback needs to happen real-time, just like Favor or Amazon or Uber. (Welcome to the intersection of the on-demand economy and work.) If an employee does something good — or fucks up — he/she needs to be given feedback essentially within three hours, or else it’s completely meaningless. Seven months later on a review, as often happens? Who cares?

If you want better execution (which most of us want), then you need real-time employee feedback. And no, I don’t mean hiding behind some portal and saying “Jim, did you see my comments?” I mean talking to them. Being human.

Remember above all: the №1 predictor of effective teams oftentimes is psychological safety. If an employee feels respected and open to legit feedback — feels like the direct manager cares, has his/her back, etc. — then the safety element is there, and the work will end up better. That’s one of the easiest ties between “employee feedback” and “We could make more money or get a nice bonus” I can give you, right there.

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