Feedback has long been used as a management tool for communicating growth opportunities to employees. It’s so central to internal business operations that many companies even establish their own standardized evaluation forms and employee performance ratings.
But there are two inherent problems with employee feedback, as it is traditionally perceived and approached.
First, the concept of “employee feedback” is self-centered in its very nature. It makes the assumption that we, as managers, are telling the employee something they don’t already know.
Second, studies have shown that when we focus on what people need to “fix,” it activates the “fight or flight” system (known as the “sympathetic nervous system”). When this happens, it causes the other areas of the brain to shut down, limiting us to the information necessary to survive. To put this in perspective, this is the same system that gets triggered by a near car accident.
When this “alarm” gets regularly set off, it can actually have a lasting impact on our health, contributing to high blood pressure, the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and brain changes that may be linked to depression, anxiety, and addiction.
So should we stop giving employee feedback?
We just need to shift our approach.
Here are three simple ways to give employee feedback that’s well-received:
1. Focus on your employees’ strengths, not their weaknesses.
Feedback often tries to fill a void, which is actually counter-intuitive to the way that we learn. If an employee is inherently introverted, it’s not helpful to tell them that they need to be more confident when presenting to clients. Telling someone about a problem doesn’t help them overcome it. Instead of focusing on an employees’ perceived deficits, recognize and reinforce their areas of strength. Maybe they do an excellent job interpreting data and presenting it in a way that clients can easily understand and see the value behind. By focusing on areas of strength, you can help employees hone in on what they do well — and motivate them to further that skill set. Then maybe the confidence in presenting to clients will follow suit.
2. Provide employees with opportunities to flourish their strengths, rather than “fix” their weaknesses.
Managers tend to provide trainings in areas where employees fall short. In some instances, those trainings are necessary, especially when there is one black-and-white way a task or procedure must be done. But, when there’s not, it would be more beneficial to empower the employee to choose their own path and find their own answers, especially in an area where they’ve already demonstrated an expertise. When you try to grow employees by giving them work that doesn’t align with their knowledge, abilities and coping mechanisms, it’s actually the recipe for work-related stress, according to the World Health Organization. Presenting employees with opportunities that align with their talents is like providing an apple tree with the nutrients it needs to produce the ripest apples, rather than asking it to produce pineapples instead.
3. Make employees aware of the ways that you can support them.
New tasks or responsibilities — even ones that utilize our existing skill sets — come with a certain degree of uncertainty. That uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it signals the brain to kickstart learning, according to research from Yale. But if you’re presenting an employee with a new opportunity to grow their skills, make sure that they also know how you can help support them through it. What does that look like? It could be connecting employees with internal resources, such as a work colleague or executive who has tackled a similar project in the past. Or it could be buying a tool that helps employees automate smaller project tasks, so they can conserve their brain power for more complex ones. Maybe it’s as simple as just letting your employees know that you’ll be there to support them, in whatever form that needs to take.
By changing our approach to employee feedback, we can help people see their potential, not their limitations.