Even with the best intentions, feedback can easily backfire. The praise you give doesn’t lead to greater confidence. Your expert advice seems to take the wind right out of his sails. You decide to “go easy” on her, only to find her growing more anxious by the minute. And you are far from alone if you’ve had a hard time figuring out why.
Fortunately, scientific studies of motivation have identified clear, principled reasons why some types of feedback work, and others don’t. It is neither mysterious nor random. If you’ve gotten it wrong in the past (and who hasn’t?), then you can do a better job giving feedback from now on by sticking to a few simple rules:
Rule #1: When things go wrong, keep it real.
It’s not easy to tell someone that he screwed up, knowing it will cause him anxiety, disappointment, or embarrassment. But don’t make the mistake of protecting a team member’s feelings at the expense of the truth, because without honest feedback he can’t possibly improve. Remember that negative emotions exist for a reason – they motivate us to take action to fix the problem.
Never try to make a team member feel that he wasn’t responsible for what went wrong (assuming he is, in fact, to blame), just because you don’t want to be “hard” on him. Letting him off the hook for his own mistake will rob him of a sense of personal control over his own work. Nothing is more de-motivating than feeling powerless. The short-term discomfort is nothing compared to the long-term damage that powerlessness can do.
Rule #2: When things go wrong, fight self-doubt.
We all need to believe that success is within reach, regardless of the mistakes we have made in the past. This requires us to be tactful, to share feedback without surrendering the possibility for improvement. To do this,
- Make your advice specific. What exactly can your team member do improve? When you are a leader, helping others figure out how to do it right is just as important as letting them know what they are doing wrong.
- Emphasize actions that she has the power to change. Talk about aspects of her performance that are under her control, like the time and effort she put into a project, or the strategic approach she used.
- Avoid praising effort. Studies show that being complimented for “effort” after a failure not only makes people feel stupid, but also leaves them feeling incapable of reaching their goal. In these instances, it’s really best to stick to purely informational feedback – if effort isn’t the problem, figure out what is, and let the employee know.
Rule #3: When things go right, avoid praising ability.
I know we all like to hear how smart and talented we are, and so naturally we assume that it’s what our team members want to hear, too. Of course they do. But it’s not what they need to hear to stay motivated.
Studies show that when we are praised for having high ability, it leaves us vulnerable to self-doubt when we encounter difficulty. If being successful means you are “a natural,” then it’s easy to conclude when you’re having a hard time that you just don’t have what it takes.
Instead, praise aspects of your employee’s performance that were under his control. Talk about his creative approach, his careful planning, his persistence and effort, his collaborative attitude. Praise the process, not the person. That way, when he runs into trouble later on, he’ll remember the process that helped him to succeed in the past, and put that knowledge to good use.
Using these three rules, you’ll be able to give your team just the right combination of hard truth, helpful guidance, and motivational pep talk to get them working at their very best.
How about you?
How do you like receiving feedback?