How to sidestep the blame game - and give staff feedback that actually works

Effective leaders provide employees the best possible chance to perform well.

By Karl Purcell Consultant, Carr Communications

IN AN SME, every person counts – one person rowing in the wrong direction can steer a whole team off course. That’s why it’s crucial for managers and team leaders to give effective feedback that helps people learn.

While most managers realise the importance of giving feedback, many fail to do it – and those who do often focus on the wrong things.

Here are some behavioural science techniques which can help in giving effective feedback:

Build a positive feedback culture focused on learning

First of all, it is important to build the right culture around giving feedback. The focus of giving feedback should be identifying opportunities for learning, not assigning blame.

Managers should do their best to treat team members as high performers, pointing out opportunities for further growth, rather than viewing people as fundamentally flawed to avoid the negative impacts of the blame bias.

In a study investigating the blame bias, conducted with the Israeli Defence Forces, trainers were told which of their trainees were average or top performers. Though the ratings were randomly assigned – that is, completely made up - trainees identified as top performers did much better than ‘average performers’.

When managers believe people are top performers, they look for problems with the system or themselves, identifying solutions and giving feedback, but when managers believe people are average or poor performers they simply blame them.

Make it comparable

The best feedback is comparable. It allows people to benchmark their behaviour, and the results of their behaviour, over time, in comparison to others like them and with targets that have been set in advance.

But be warned. When it comes to designing feedback, the devil is in the detail.

For example, while comparing people’s behaviour to the behaviour of others like them can be effective for encouraging some behaviours, it may not be suitable for every behaviour.

The same goes for giving feedback in relation to targets and highlighting the consequences of their behaviour. You should test any major changes to a feedback system before implementing them more widely.

For example, Virgin Airlines implemented a feedback programme designed to encourage pilots to fly more efficiently, reducing fuel costs and the environmental impact of their flights.

Pilots were randomly assigned to different groups to test which form of feedback was the most effective.

Some groups received personalised monthly feedback reports, while others received the same reports along with a promise that charitable donations would be made on their behalf if they reduced their fuel usage.

Pilots reduced their fuel consumption the most when they were set a monthly target for reducing fuel consumption and given personalised monthly feedback reports showing how their performance compared with last month’s.

As a result, pilots flew more efficiently, saving nearly $5.4 million and 21,500 metric tons of CO2.

Make it actionable

In order for feedback to be effective, it has to be actionable. When giving feedback to team members, managers should focus on highlighting behaviours that team members have the ability to change.

Feedback communications, whether they be written, spoken, or communicated through dashboards, should contain suggestions or ‘tips’ to improve performance that focus on behaviours rather than attitudes or personality traits.

For example, instead of saying to a salesperson, “You’re no good at selling”, suggest that they open their pitch in a different way or show them how you would like them to deal with a customer. Providing suggestions to improve performance can be incredibly effective.

Based on the latest research in behavioural science, good feedback practice:

  • Helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards);
  • Facilitates the development of reflection and self-assessment;
  • Delivers high-quality information to team members about their work;
  • Encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem;
  • Provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance;
  • Provides information to team members that can be used to help shape work behaviours.

Karl Purcell is a behavioural economics consultant with Carr Communications. He will be delivering training on how managers can use behavioural science to better engage with their team on Thursday, 22 June.

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