Workplace Feedback: How and when to give it for maximum performance

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of good communication for the success of your small business.

As a small business owner or manager, it’s incumbent on you to be an excellent communicator and to promote that value throughout your organization. The number one reason employees cite when they quit, is trouble with their manager. That trouble either starts with or can fester due to poor communication. In contrast, when the channels of communication are operating well in your small business, you’ve created the conditions that will encourage long-term employee retention and create those invaluable brand ambassadors.

There are certainly many occasions for good communication in your small business. You need to be able to train employees effectively and let them know what is required of them to be successful. To those, we can add formal reviews and more general feedback on job performance.

Accentuate the positive

Let me give you a principle that applies to all the feedback and communication you have with your team members: negative comments have a far greater impact than positive comments. Think about this in your own life. When someone criticizes you, you think about it for a long time – maybe your entire life. You wonder what the person’s motivation is, what you have done wrong, and how the criticism will impact your future.

However, when someone says something nice to you, you probably just smile, say “Thanks,” and move on. In their Harvard Business Review article, “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio,” authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman say that within successful business teams, positive comments outnumber negative comments by almost six to one. In low performing teams, there are usually three negative comments for every positive comment.

Teresa M. Amabile, a professor of business administration and director of research at the Harvard Business School, has studied the relationship between positive and negative work events. Looking at about 12,000 diary entries, she found that the negative impact of a workplace setback on happiness – which, I believe could be a critical comment – had twice the power of a positive work event.

This gives us an important principle we need to apply when we’re giving feedback to team members: go overboard with positive remarks and use negative remarks sparingly. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to do the opposite; to survive we must reduce or eliminate mistakes, so we have a keen eye to find them and a quick tongue to point them out.

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Don’t stop talking

Another important consideration with employee feedback is frequency. Here, the big principle is that you should be offering feedback on a regular, even constant, basis. If you don’t say anything for weeks, and suddenly point out a problem, your criticism gets magnified by your general silence.

When you begin to follow this advice and deliver a steady stream of feedback, the ratio between praise and criticism will tend to improve. After all, if you have someone working for you who always requires correction, either you haven’t trained that employee properly or that person is doing the wrong job.

Further, when you keep the feedback coming regularly, it makes it easier for your employees to do their jobs because they will better understand what is expected of them. They will also appreciate the interest you show in what they are accomplishing.

This second point can be a major motivator on your team, as Professor Amabile discovered in her research. “We found that of all the events that could make for a great day at work, the most important was making progress on meaningful work — even a small step forward,” explained Professor Amabile, adding that “a setback, on the other hand, meant the employee felt blocked in some way from making such progress. Setbacks stood out on the worst days at work.”

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Make yearly reviews productive

Far too many managers wait until “yearly review time” to give employees feedback. The points I’ve outlined so far give you sound reasons to avoid this habit, but there is another important point to add.

Comments separated by time from their events lose their power. When you wait six months to praise (or reward) someone for a job well done, your words don’t carry much weight. It’s important to give the feedback in something as close as “real time” as possible.

Workplace communication expert Skip Weisman stresses the need to understand the purpose of the employee review. Too often small business owners see it as little more than a way to summarize what an employee has done well and poorly over the previous 12 months and figure out some number that will be adequate for a pay raise.

The real reason, Weisman says, is “to improve individual and organizational performance.” It should be constructive in nature, and I suggest that when you want to improve overall organizational performance, praising good performance will “move the needle.” Weisman also agrees that performance management is a daily, not annual, activity.

Let me close with one more important principle: performance feedback is a form of communication, and all communication is a two-way process.

When you praise and correct, do it in the form of a conversation. That means the person you are talking to is adding to the conversation and you are doing as much – if not more – listening than talking. Your employees must feel free to talk to you and comment on your observations. If you swoop down and make proclamations, you won’t accomplish anything except making some people angry.

When there are open lines of communication, problems surface early and can be dealt with before they become destructive.

As I said at the top, open communication is critical for your success; it creates an atmosphere and environment in which you will either flourish or founder. However, unlike your written procedures, your time clock, and your “Zero Accidents in 245 Days” poster, your feedback environment is “invisible,” and that means you need to pay special attention to fostering it.

Susan Solovic
Susan Solovic
Susan Solovic is an award-winning serial entrepreneur, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Top 100 and USA Today bestselling author, media personality, sought-after keynote speaker, and attorney. She appears regularly as a small business expert on Fox Business, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal’s “Lunch Break,” MSNBC, CNN, CNBC and many other stations across the country. Solovic was also named in the Top 10 of both SAP’s “Top 51 Potential Human Influencers” and she consistently ranks in the top 5 of the “Top 100 Small Business Experts to Follow on Twitter.” She has written four bestselling books which have been translated into multiple languages and is Of Counsel with the firm Junge & Mele, LLP in New York City.

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