How to Enhance Effective Employee Feedback

Giving effective employee feedback can be a challenge.  The employee evaluation is complete. Now it’s time to give feedback. Telling someone what they did well is the easy part. Giving constructive feedback on what they could improve upon can be a sticky wicket.

How does one give constructive feedback without hurting feelings or arousing defensiveness in the recipient of the feedback? There are four gifts I want to give to you that may help enhance your ability to give effective employee feedback.

The first gift is understanding how fixed and growth mindsets react to feedback.
The second gift is being able to give feedback through the framework of The Theory of Overdone Strengths.
Thirdly, we will discover how to praise effort, not ability.
Finally, you will learn how to phrase feedback in terms of “This Time/Next Time” format.

The First Gift: How mindsets react to feedback

Psychologist Carol Dweck has created a theory of Growth v. Fixed mindset. People who have a growth mindset are open to feedback, and believe that with more effort, they can improve. People with a fixed mindset believe they are born with all of the talents, skills and abilities they will ever have, and feel that feedback is not a negative mark against their performance, but to them personally.

Fixed Mindset and Feedback

When someone with a fixed mindset gets feedback, they usually don’t take it well. Fixed mindset self-talk might include phrases like: “The boss doesn’t even know me like I know me. I am great.” Maybe they start to justify. “Yeah, if he only came in during another one of my presentations instead of that last presentation. That didn’t go well at all”, or “It was the last day of the quarter when he talked to me. Everyone was crazy that day, what does he expect, miracles? Then maybe self-doubt creeps in. “Maybe they really don’t like me”. The self-talk switches from “I got a bad evaluation” to “I am a bad employee”.  After a while, they may use justification to make themselves feel better, and they work hard to convince themselves that their first impression was correct—the boss really doesn’t know them, the evaluation was unfair, and they go merrily on their way.

Fixed mindset people also can be in denial and get very defensive when given feedback.. They believe that it’s not their performance that is flawed. They think that, at a fundamental level, they are flawed.

Growth Mindset and Feedback

If you have a growth mindset, feedback is welcomed, and even sought after. Suggestions to improve are welcomed gratefully, even with excitement, because the feedback has presented an opportunity for personal and professional growth. I believe that unless a growth mindset is cultivated in the person to whom feedback is being given, giving feedback is not exactly a waste of time, but darn close to it.

The Second Gift: The Theory of Overdone Strengths

The second gift I would like to give to you is the Theory of Overdone Strengths, the brainchild of psychologist Donald O.Clifton. If the idea of getting criticism is not palatable to you, one idea to help with giving and getting feedback is the idea of overdone strengths. This theory states that, when it comes to human behavior, there are no weaknesses, just overdone strengths. For example, if I am trusting, that is a wonderful strength. But if I am too trusting, if the strength area of being trusting is overdone, then I am gullible. If I am confident, that is a wonderful strength. If I am too confident, I could be perceived as arrogant, which is an overdone strength.

When giving feedback, phrasing in in terms of an overdone strength rather than a character flaw can go around defensiveness and the feedback has a chance of actually making an impact. For example, if someone was always joking around during meetings, the feedback might be that he has a wonderful sense of humor and that is a gift to be cherished. But it’s an overdone strength when they try to be funny at inappropriate times. So the employee just needs to work on pulling back that wonderful strength of his. Phrasing feedback in terms of overdone strengths rather than weaknesses can help reduce resistance to change.

The Third Gift: Praise effort, not ability

The third gift is learning how to praise effort, not ability, to reinforce a growth mindset in the employee. Effective employee feedback is always enhanced when the employee has developed a growth mindset. To reinforce the growth mindset, what you praise and how you praise is very important. The important thing is to praise the process that was used, or the effort that was put into a great presentation.

In one study, children were given puzzles to solve. Over the course of the session, the puzzles got progressively more difficult. Some students were praised for their ability or talent, with phrases like “Wow, you did really well at that puzzle, you must be good at them.” Can you hear the fixed mindset implied by this simple, innocuous phrase? “You are good at puzzles” implies that you either are good at puzzles, or aren’t good at puzzles. Like you just came out of the womb just knowing what to do to solve any kind of puzzle. Ridiculous!

The second group of children were praised for their effort with phrases like “Wow, you did really well solving that puzzle. You must have worked really hard at that.” This encourages a growth mindset. The implied message here is “You may not have been born being great at doing puzzles, but with enough effort, you can learn anything better!”
The real kicker came at the end of the study. Students were told the study was over, and were asked if they would like to do a few more puzzles for fun. The students that were praised for their ability either did a few very easy puzzles, or did not do any extra puzzles. The reason for this is the fixed mindset. The child was thinking along the lines of “I am supposed to be good at these puzzles. If I try one and fail, then it’s not a failed puzzle—I am a failure.”

Students whose efforts were praised not only wanted to do more puzzles, but when asked which ones, asked for the tougher puzzles because it would make their brain grow!
It may seem obvious, but which mindset would you rather encourage when giving or getting feedback? Which employee would you rather have? Or colleague?  For me, growth mindset is the only way to go, and effective employee feedback can help create that growth mindset.

The Fourth Gift: This Time/Next Time Feedback

The fourth gift to help with effective employee feedback is the This Time/Next Time feedback framework. During an evaluation review, the evaluator makes notes of positive skills being effectively used, and they mark that skill in the “This Time” column. That means that this time during the evaluation, that particular skill was noticed being used. The “This Time” column is meant to recognize those skills which are at the automatic level, and are executed effortlessly and masterfully. These are skills to celebrate and acknowledge the effort that must have gone into making them an automatic part of their practice. There are many ways to give effective employee feedback, such as keeping it specific and pointing out great work.

Go to the Car Wash!

I would suggest writing as many skills in the “This Time” column as you can possibly, honestly check. There is a psychological advantage of this we can learn from by looking at the research on car washes.
Have you ever had one of those punch cards that you keep track of the number of car washes you have had, and after the tenth car wash, the next one is free? Many times, the car wash proprietors will use a bit of motivational psychology on you, and tell you that you have to get 10 punches to get the 11th car wash free, and—they punch the first four washes for you (Nunes, 2006)!
Well, why wouldn’t I go back now? I am almost halfway to a free car wash! While keeping track of the card and remembering to go to the same carwash ten times may seem to be a daunting task, if I only have six car washes to go, that doesn’t sound too bad! I think I can do that.

That’s the idea behind recognizing as many legitimate skills in the “This Time” column as possible—you are ”punching their card” and flattening the road to success for them.

Next Time

The “Next Time” column is another way to overcome the brain’s automatic negative thoughts, and not arouse the defense systems and rally our brains to create excuses and not allow legitimate feedback into our practice.

A check in the “Next Time” column means that the employee’s performance was fine, and to make it even better next time, they may want to try to incorporate some specific skills. The employee should think of this as a negative, what didn’t go well, or what totally bombed. Suggest to them that their self talk should be something innocuous, like “Hmm, interesting. The next time I do this presentation would probably change….” That’s all. They should beat themselves up. They are getting some feedback to make their performance even better the next time.

Those four gifts for you can help immensely when giving feedback to employees, and having that feedback be taken in and incorporated into their practice. If you would like to read more about growth mindset, check out our other interesting blogs on that very topic!

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