I’m pretty sure the first person to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was not a 14-year-old girl—or a professional in corporate America, for that matter.
Words can hurt. At work, many times those words come in the form of too much feedback.
Contrary to popular belief, people don’t do better just because you tell them they’re doing something wrong.
Researcher Chak Fu Lam and his colleagues at University of Michigan questioned at what point the volume of feedback turns from helpful to harmful. Lam’s findings conclude, “As feedback frequency increases, performance improves … until it starts taking a nosedive. Past a certain point, receiving and responding to too much feedback becomes a liability because it takes your attention away from the work you need to do. At high levels of frequency, feedback reduces task effort, hampers task performance.”
Constructive feedback, at its core, is a judgment of performance. In some cases, the person giving the feedback has the purest of intentions and is just trying to help you. Regardless of intent, constructive feedback still means you are doing something incorrectly, you could do something better, or your character or instinct is flawed. So let’s talk about the things to consider before you ever say those dreaded words that could forever alter your relationship with the recipient, “Do you have a minute for some feedback?”:
- Is it a pet peeve, or a real issue? Don’t merely focus on how you are going to deliver the feedback; first determine if the feedback is necessary at all. Just because people do things differently doesn’t mean they are any less effective. If their behavior doesn’t truly affect their performance or your bottom line, you’ve probably found a pet peeve of yours and it’s a perfect opportunity to practice tolerance.
- What’s in it for them? Before you go into any feedback meeting, think of ways to appeal to your employee’s true individual motivators such as achievement, recognition, and challenging work. Is reputation important to them? If they seem too nervous at presentations, perhaps the consequences are that stakeholders will want someone else to present. The benefit to working on their confidence is better perception by others and the ability to keep presenting. Examine the value to the person receiving feedback to change the behavior.
- You are not a mind reader. Don’t assume you know the reasons something is happening or a person is behaving in a certain way. Go into the feedback meeting with a purpose to “uncover and discuss,” rather than “tell and fix.” Be open to the idea that your feedback and assumptions may be incorrect. Your goal is to build a partnership—not just tell them what is wrong and what to do. You want to collaborate toward a solution.
- Champion strengths. Make sure you reflect on and communicate what they are doing well. Complimenting sincerely and authentically helps to ensure the ego isn’t completely damaged. Too much constructive feedback can weaken a relationship to a point where it will never be right again. Don’t forget the good stuff. Sometimes if you take the big picture into account, it lessens the need to point out quirks or habits that, in the long run, are irrelevant to success.
Here’s the thing: You can tell someone to “correct” a behavior until you are blue in the face, but it doesn’t mean he or she will listen. It doesn’t mean he or she will change. And it certainly doesn’t mean he or she will like it. Feedback is an integral part of moving up the corporate ladder and improving upon your talents. Constructive feedback is a good thing, to a point. Secretly, late at night, after the kids have gone to bed, I watch Dr. Phil on DVR. He believes it takes 1,000 “atta boys” to overcome one “you’re not good enough.” I think he hit the nail on the head.
Rachel Lamb is a consultant at Exec|Comm, a communication skills training firm based in NYC. She helps clients across the globe present, lead meetings, and write with confidence and passion. She can be reached at email@example.com or 212.252.5863.