Why Are We Managers So Poor at Feedback? It’s Like Trying to Explain How to Use a Towel to a Fish

March 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Most HR professionals believe that a manager’s most important job is to give feedback to employees.  Yet most managers are so poor at it which means the feedback is infrequent, poorly timed, of poor quality, or all three.  Why?

Recent research by Watson and Wyatt states that 43% of employees don’t get enough feedback to improve their performance.  Sibson Consulting reports that HR professionals are frustrated because managers don’t give constructive feedback and 58% of HR professionals give their number one feedback tool, the annual performance review, a C grade or below.  Study after study point to managers who are poor at giving feedback as the major reason why performance appraisals fail.

There is no hiding the fact that we all must improve our feedback skills especially since feedback is required for learning, to improve performance, to reduce stress, and to improve employee retention and employee engagement.  There are at least four big reasons (barriers) why feedback is poorly done now.

First, what managers call feedback is not feedback at all.  It is criticism.  Feedback is data from a process that is used for learning.    Opinion and criticism are the same.  Most managers say they are giving feedback but instead they give their opinions about the employee behaviors or individual performance. We all know that no one likes unsolicited criticism from anyone.   This barrier frustrates and causes discomfort to both employees and managers and that frustration creates a barrier preventing the truth and learning.

Second, current HR polices require managers to give the feedback.  Why not give employees the ability and autonomy to collect their own data?  Employees who collect their own data and can manage their own processes are more motivated and engaged.  Requiring managers to give the feedback means they must be the inspector, spy, the micro-manager, or the omniscient judge.  This is a very challenging, if not impossible role to fill.  Why not provide autonomy and trust to employees instead?

Third, the work environment most often discourages open and honest feedback.  Any feedback (or opinions) from our managers often has consequences attached to it.   For example, managers often control employee pay raises, bonuses, or performance appraisal ratings.  Anything that might damage those ratings might want to be hidden by the employee. How can managers give feedback to something they can’t see?  This type of work environment can be threatening and can act as a poison to the life of useful and honest feedback.

Fourth, I believe most managers intuitively know they should not and cannot evaluate individual employee behaviors without understanding how the work environment, the processes the co-workers interact and impact the employee.  This is one reason many managers avoid giving feedback to employees.  Attempting to provide feedback on the behaviors of employees without studying the entire system (the context) is like trying to explain how to use a towel to a fish.

If we are really interested in giving better feedback we must realize these four barriers exist and must be removed first.  Many HR professionals continue to be frustrated by the lack of quality feedback and yet these four barriers continue to exist and will continue to create that frustration unless we shift the way we think about feedback and we address them.  All the management training in the world will not remove these barriers.  The barriers are endemic in the work environment and so they must be first recognized and then removed by courageous leaders with the right management theory.


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