The Assumptions Employees Make When They Don’t Get Feedback
There are three common stories that employees tell themselves when they don’t get enough feedback from their managers: 1.) “As long as I’m not creating trouble for my manager, I’m doing fine.” If the bar for satisfactory performance is “not a problem employee”, then your bar is way too low. 2.) “My manager doesn’t think I can take feedback well.” If you don’t have compelling evidence to support the belief that your employee won’t receive feedback well, then you need to, as Nike suggests, “Just do it”. 3.) “My manager doesn’t think I can change.” It’s important to adopt a growth mindset, for your employee and for yourself. By giving more helpful feedback, you’ll be providing your employees with the data they need to do more of what’s working, less of what isn’t, and with fewer opportunities to make up their own stories.
Feedback is a daily staple of my work as an executive coach. I am often giving direct feedback to the leaders I work with, sharing 360-degree feedback from the leader’s colleagues, and then helping them process and reflect on the feedback they receive.
One piece of feedback that the executives I coach receive over and over again from their direct reports is: “She doesn’t give enough helpful feedback.”
When I ask these direct reports about the impact this has on them, I find that, in the absence of understanding why they’re getting so little feedback, they often make up their own explanations.
Here are three of the most common stories that employees tell themselves about what their manager is thinking when they don’t get enough helpful feedback, why these stories are a problem for them (and for you), and what you can do as a manager to rewrite these stories:
Why this is a problem: While some people are perfectly satisfied just staying out of trouble, most professionals would rather know what impact they’re having — both the good and the not-so-good. If the bar for satisfactory performance is “not a problem employee,” then your bar is way too low. And, as a result, you will likely get more of what you focus on, which means a whole bunch of “non-troublemakers” as opposed to high-performing, committed, and engaged professionals.
Furthermore, communicating this mindset (overtly or covertly) is likely to keep an employee from bringing important issues to your attention for fear that they might “create trouble” — and then lose out on the only input they’re getting from you.
What to do instead: “Not creating trouble” should become your minimum expectation, not the highest goal you set for your people. And after you change your expectation, change your mindset and your language. Let your employees know specifically what you appreciate and value when they meet or exceed expectations, and also share your perspective on what they could do differently when they fall short. Also let them know what constitutes unacceptable “trouble” (like making inappropriate remarks, repeatedly showing up late, poor follow-through on tasks) vs. acceptable “trouble” (such as difficulty obtaining a resource, not knowing how to do something, or needing a personal accommodation).
Why this is a problem: Giving feedback that helps people achieve better business results is part of a manager’s job. It’s also her job to create a climate of psychological safety — which is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake — for a direct report to receive feedback well.
If you’re not giving feedback because you actually fear that it won’t be well-received, then you’re falling short on three counts: first, you’re not helping your direct report to have more impact (which also means, by extension, that you’re not supporting her to better help the team, the clients, and the organization). Second, you’re not modeling accountable behavior if you skip giving feedback because you fear how it will land. And third, you may be contributing to a lack of psychological safety by failing to create the opportunity for your direct report to experience support rather than retribution.
What to do instead: Separate out the story from the facts of how your direct report receives feedback. If you aren’t giving regular feedback because you assume or fear that your colleague won’t receive it well, ask yourself, “What concrete, observable evidence am I basing that assumption on?” If the list includes behaviors like, “He walks out of meetings abruptly when he hears something he doesn’t agree with,” or “She often asks, ‘Am I going to get fired for this?’ when I bring a client concern to her attention,” then you may be justified in your concerns. In my article,“When Your Employee Doesn’t Take Feedback,” I suggest that managers start giving feedback on how the employee receives feedback (or in this case, how you think he or she is likely to receive feedback based on similar situations).
And if it turns out that you don’t have compelling evidence to support your belief that he or she won’t receive it well, then you need to, as Nike suggests, “Just do it.” Give your employees the feedback they crave.
Why this is a problem: If you actually believe that your employee cannot change, you will not offer him the resources or opportunities to do so. This will set you up to be right, but at the expense of your employee’s current success, and future career trajectory. As Chris Miller, a program director at UNC Executive Development, writes in his white paper, “Expectations Create Outcomes: Growth Mindsets in Organizations”: “managers with fixed mindsets often fail to recognize positive changes in employee performance. They are also less likely to coach employees about how to improve performance or to offer constructive feedback…This leads to a loss of talent in organizations.”
What do to instead: Adopt a growth mindset, for your employee and for yourself. As Miller writes, “Employees with growth mindsets welcome challenges, work harder and more effectively, and persevere in the face of struggle, which makes them more successful learners and better contributors to their organizations than employees with fixed mindsets (Briceno, 2015).” If you hold a growth mindset for your employee, you will give more feedback because you believe she will welcome — and rise to — the challenge. And if you hold a growth mindset for yourself, you’ll be more comfortable giving feedback because you trust that you will welcome the challenge.
As Dr. Brené Brown writes in Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories.” By giving more helpful feedback, you’ll be providing your employees with the data they need to do more of what’s working, less of what isn’t, and with fewer opportunities to make up their own stories.
Deborah Grayson Riegel is a principal at The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She also teaches management communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
The Assumptions Employees Make When They Don’t Get Feedback
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