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No-Fear Feedback

It’s a give and get strategy that can reap great rewards

Because most of us dread being called out for mistakes or weaknesses, leaders who hope to give honest feedback run the risk of angering employees and decreasing their productivity if it isn’t delivered correctly. This explains research findings revealing a negative relationship between feedback and employee engagement—it’s often given ineffectively. In one study, researchers analyzed more than six hundred studies of performance evaluations.* Their results were astonishing. In 30 percent of cases, performance reviews made performance worse. I’ll pause for a moment so you can read that again. The authors suggest that as feedback feels more and more personal (and less about behaviors or tasks), it becomes less and less helpful in driving improvement.

Your goal is to give “no-fear” feedback: There should be no fear for employees in receiving it, and no fear for you in delivering it. If you can help employees know what they’re doing well and have the courage to help them be more successful, they’ll pay you back with performance.

Imagine you’re driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour. There are two possibilities: You’re either pointed in the right direction and need to keep going, or you’re headed in the wrong direction and need to reroute. Likewise, there are two types of feedback: behaviors employees should “duplicate” in the future (the equivalent of staying on the same route) and behaviors employees should “deviate” from in the future (the equivalent of getting off the road you’re on and onto a new one). This is the 2D Feedback Model.

There are two important aspects of this model. The first is that it’s future-focused. Because the purpose of feedback is to help a person be successful in the future, there isn’t a lot of value in dwelling on the past. I’ve seen many leaders deliver negative feedback that points out the bad choices the employee made in excruciating detail. But beyond identifying the behavior that needs to change, what good is it to focus on mistakes? Most employees already know when they’ve messed up, and further emphasizing it only creates fear and self doubt.

The second important aspect of duplicate or deviate feedback is the fact that it’s behavior-based. I often see leaders give feedback that’s so general it’s useless. They say things like, “You need to be a better team player” or “You need to show more commitment.” For feedback to do any good, it must be specific. The standard I use is this: If you were watching a movie, would you be able to see what you’re describing? If you tell someone that they’re “aggressive,” they won’t know exactly what behaviors to change. If you say, “You pounded your fist on the table two times and interrupted me three times in the course of a thirty-minute meeting,” then you’re getting somewhere.**

Give it a try– you can thank me later.

Note: This article was adapted directly from Dr. Tasha Eurich’s book, Bankable Leadership.

*Avraham Kluge and Angelo DeNisi, “The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-Analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory,” Psychological Bulletin 119 (1996): 254–284.

**I want to thank my colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership for this learning.

Dr. Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, speaker, and New York Times bestselling author of Bankable Leadership. Her life’s work is to help organizations succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams. With a ten-year track record in the Fortune 500 world, her expertise has been featured in outlets like The New York Times and Forbes.

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