The management cliche you really can’t afford to ignore

A common workplace gripe.
A common workplace gripe.
Image: Reuters/Euan Rocha
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One of the most consistent pieces of advice given to managers is an incredibly simple one. Provide good, frequent, feedback. It helps make sure a worker is constantly improving, feels cared about, and doesn’t feel disconnected. Yet insufficient or bad feedback is a common complaint of employees, often rated as one of the biggest reasons they’re unhappy, that’s not related to pay or promotion.

Gallup’s years long survey on the American workplace finds that 70% of US employees aren’t engaged at work. Nearly half of the questions asked of employees relate to the quality, clarity and frequency of feedback. People clearly find their employers wanting.

A majority of people who plan to leave (pdf) their current job around the world cite ineffective or infrequent communication as part of the reason.

And a global survey of workers by consultancy Towers Watson found that employees define good leadership at their company by the quality of feedback and communication. They described insufficient feedback as one of their major sources of stress.

So what’s the answer?

Google’s Project Oxygen study, an attempt to quantify good management at the company, produced a set of eight key management behaviors that seemed almost too obvious. But when they were ranked by importance (using the same data-driven analytics Google applies to everything), the most important thing for managers wasn’t having the awe inspiring technical skills the company traditionally obsesses about. It was “being a good coach.”

In other words, it really matters to employees that their managers demonstrate interest in their lives, successes, and career trajectories.

On the flip side, surprise critical reviews, only hearing when something’s gone wrong, or a complete absence of information all contribute to a miserable work life. Uncertainty is one of the biggest drains on productivity (paywall). So why are so many workers complaining about a lack of feedback?

The primary culprit is the annual or semi-annual review, widely reviled yet surprisingly common.

Because they’re seen as important and tied to compensation, they take on an added pressure, making managers feel like that’s the one time that they really need to give feedback. And they’re used as tacit permission to leave things that really matter for that once-a-year meet up.

The often mountainous array of paperwork that comes with the reviews helps eat up time, and contributes to that behavior. Employees also discount other feedback because it’s not the one that really matters.

88% of companies have a formal annual or semi-annual review.

It’s often a rigid process, focused on turning people into numbers on a checklist instead of helping them be better at their job. People need praise more often than once or twice a year. And waiting until a high pressure moment to give negative feedback is a sure way to make someone take it personally, rendering it ineffective. If you wait a half a year to correct someone’s course, you’ve just wasted a big chunk of it.

What is particularly onerous is when stack and forced ranking comes into play. That technique forces managers to further skew ratings to fit a curve, and makes meetings more fraught and agitated, by making people scared for their jobs.

So what’s the right way to do it?

Organizations need to make it clear in the way they discuss, train, and reward managers that their job isn’t just to rate and corral people, but to take an active interest in making them better.

And they need to understand that good feedback isn’t easy. Research has repeatedly shown that people can respond poorly to negative feedback, even if it’s meant well. Some require more encouragement (pdf) than others. And this isn’t to advocate for micromanaging–going overboard with feedback ends up being irritating and distracting. There’s a happy medium that works for each individual.

But the best part about more frequent feedback is that each meeting isn’t make or break, so it feels less personal. Instead of employees abruptly switching gears to pursue new goals, or changing in a panic, it becomes a process, with support.

It’s certainly more work for a manager. But what else are they there for?