Feedback: The Leadership Practice That Needs Elevating for the Hybrid Workforce

February 10, 2022

Feedback: The Leadership Practice That Needs Elevation for the Hybrid Workforce

If you have ever been to a live concert, you might have noticed the singers or band members wearing an earpiece in their ear. This earpiece serves an important purpose providing the performer with a direct source of sound. The speakers at any venue are facing the audience, which means that without a direct source, the performer ends up hearing whatever sound is bounced off the walls of the venue. This delayed feedback makes it extremely difficult for the performer to do their job well.

That earpiece gives an immediate, direct, and clear source of feedback.

During the past few years, our workplaces have become more split. Our physical locations have moved further apart, and while the benefits of increased engagement have risen with the flexibility, you must consider the ramifications of receiving delayed or inaccurate feedback. Is your “sound” taking days or weeks to bounce off a wall and get back to you? Or have you established a direct framework and pathway of giving and receiving the feedback you need regardless of your work location?

The Double-Edged Sword of Feedback

Feedback is a classic double-edged sword. If done properly, feedback has enormous benefits for both parties involved. But the other side of the sword is that when not done properly, it has negative effects. One meta-study that analyzed the outcomes of feedback concluded that in 38% of the cases, the results were negative. How can you increase the likelihood of obtaining a completely positive outcome?

A Broader Definition of Feedback

A common view is that feedback refers to communication coming from a manager to a direct report. That feedback falls roughly into two categories. The first is commendation and praise. The second is providing suggestions for a new or better way to handle some project, interaction, or process.

We are introducing an entirely new dimension. It is the practice of the manager seeking feedback from an employee. We submit this has profound effects on:

  • The relationship between the manager and direct report
  • How the manager is perceived by the direct report
  • The engagement of the direct report
  • The direct report’s willingness to follow the example of their manager and more frequently ask others for feedback
  • The expanded practice of managers asking for feedback represents the optimum way to build a coaching climate in an organization. Managers can be role models in seeking feedback and the ideal way to respond to it.

The Impact of Expanded Feedback During the Pandemic

To test the impact of feedback in the pandemic, we examined 360-degree assessments from 3,422 managers assessed during the pandemic. We then identified those managers rated in the top and bottom quartile on their effectiveness at asking for feedback and giving others honest feedback in a helpful way. We found that 408 managers were in the low quartile group and 573 in the top quartile group. These managers were, for the most part, managing direct reports who worked remotely. The graph below shows the results comparing employee engagement scores of direct reports for those managers in the top quartile on asking for and giving others honest feedback, compared to those in the bottom quartile. The difference is highly significant (e.g., T-Value 17.65, Sig. 0.000).

Feedback: The Leadership Practice That Needs Elevation for the Hybrid Workforce

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In addition, we found that those in the bottom quartile had direct reports where 41% were considering quitting their jobs compared to only 18% in the top quartile. We also found that only 21% of the employees in the bottom quartile were willing to “Go the Extra Mile” compared to 55% in the top quartile. This data shows the motivational impact associated with asking for and giving others honest feedback. While we know that it is not these behaviors alone that create the negative impact, it is important to recognize that both behaviors contribute.

Impact on Other Behaviors

Comparing those with top quartile scores to those in the bottom quartile on asking for and giving others honest feedback, we discovered that every one of the other 58 behaviors measured in our 360-degree assessment was negatively impacted. In the graph below, we show the top 11 items with the greatest impact. While we do not believe that poor performance on asking for and giving honest feedback directly causes each of the behaviors below to be negative, these behaviors appear to be strongly connected. Think of these behaviors much like friends that those in the bottom and top quartile hang out with. We all recognize that the friends we hang out with strongly influence how we behave. Below are the “friends” that had the strongest impact on these leaders’ behavior:

Those in the bottom quartile on “asking for and giving others honest feedback” also tend to:

  • Not make a real effort to improve based on feedback
  • Be unconcerned about developing others
  • Fail to create an atmosphere of continual improvement
  • Not provide others coaching or mentoring
  • Resist staying in touch with other’s issues and concerns
  • Fail to balance results with individual needs
  • Not encourage a high level of cooperation with others
  • Fail to inspire others to high levels of effort
  • Allow conflict to fester
  • Fail to provide others with a definite sense of direction and purpose
  • Be poor role models

Feedback: The Leadership Practice That Needs Elevation for the Hybrid Workforce

A Good First Step

We conclude that improving your effectiveness at asking for and giving others honest feedback can be a very effective first step at improving your ability to manage remote employees. It should also have an impact on the above list of negative issues. Here is the process we would recommend.

Asking for Feedback

  1. Ask for feedback. We have observed that the most helpful approach is to ask others for one recommendation or suggestion about how something could be improved. That something could be a presentation, a report, a process, or a project. The power of this is that it clearly signals that you are not fishing for compliments. You also are not asking for a broad appraisal of your leadership capabilities. It frames the conversation. Asking a broad question like “How am I doing?” does not usually produce concrete, actionable suggestions. So, ask other people things like, “What is one thing I could have done to have an even better meeting?”
  2. Develop the habit of regularly asking for feedback.
  3. Express your appreciation for the suggestions you receive.
  4. Engage an external coach to help you improve and follow up on your improvement plans.
  5. Ask to participate in a 360-degree assessment. Ask both those you feel will give you positive and corrective feedback. After receiving the feedback, identify significant weaknesses that need to be improved and strengths that need to be cultivated. Create a plan for improvement. Share the plan with others and continue asking for feedback.

Giving Others Honest Feedback

  1. Most people assume that the way to improve at giving others honest feedback is to be more direct and clearer with others about what they are doing wrong. Our data suggests the opposite. Those who were rated most positively at giving others honest feedback tended to give either only positive feedback or a good mixture of both positive and some corrective feedback. We recommend that you start by significantly increasing the frequency of positive feedback you give to others. Look for opportunities to encourage, praise, and recognize others.
  2. The mixture of positive to negative feedback should match the quality of work that direct reports complete. If a direct report does 90% of their work correctly and 10% wrong, then your feedback ought to be 90% positive and only 10% corrective.
  3. Encourage your direct reports to ask for feedback. If you are a good role model at asking them for feedback, that will help them to follow your example. When people ask for feedback, it puts them in a mindset where they are more likely to accept constructive feedback about how they can improve.

Feedback is a Super-Power

We believe that asking for and giving others honest feedback is a super-power. Those who learn to do these two behaviors well will inevitably be much more effective leaders. Having better skills at this powerful practice will also positively impact a variety of other critical behaviors.

—Jack Zenger & Joe Folkman
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