Talent Management
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By Leann Schneider, M.A. and Tim Jackson, Ph.D.

No one likes to be judged. Imagine yourself entering a performance review, or a debrief of your assessment results, and knowing that all of your strengths and weaknesses would be scrutinized, talked about in the open and evaluated.

Because receiving feedback isn’t easy, the challenge of giving feedback is just as tough. However, as HR professionals and consultants, we owe it to others to give them effective feedback that will work towards developing their capabilities. Part of developing our own coaching skills is learning how to provide feedback in a way that others will understand, accept and use to improve their performance.

Think about the last time you implemented a developmental assessment. This likely included a 360 component, and may have also included an assessment of personality and other skills through self-report questionnaires or simulation tasks. Ensuring that the right tools are used, and that these tools assess important aspects of individuals’ behaviours on the job, are primary concerns.

In addition, we know that goal setting is important to make changes based on the information gleaned from these assessments. What often gets glossed over is the stage in the middle – feedback. How do we bridge the assessment and goal-setting phases, and maximize the transfer of information about the assessment to the participant? How do we make sure they understand the results in as much depth as they want, and at the same time feel motivated to do something meaningful with the results?

Anecdotal advice is readily available on how to provide feedback. We may have also figured out what has worked in the past, and what has not, based on our own experience. Although these sources of information are useful, evidence-based recommendations for feedback can give us confidence in the feedback processes we implement, and increase the chances that the dreaded feedback conversation can have a positive outcome. We want to reduce the defensiveness that receiving feedback can often lead to, increase acceptance and promote taking action based on the results (i.e., setting goals). Whether you are a manager or a coach (or both), here are a number of recommendations you can follow to improve the quality of the feedback you provide, drawing from the latest research in the field.
SUBHEAD: Be transparent about the process

People are more likely to accept feedback if it is clear how conclusions were made. A recent study found that individuals reacted more positively to feedback when they received information on the process and procedures used to determine their ratings. This means clarifying what the assessments you used were designed to measure, and explaining how to interpret the results and what the results mean for the individual. Further, being open and upfront about how the assessment results will be worked into the overall developmental planning process will also increase the transparency of your feedback session.
SUBHEAD: Make the feedback specific and behaviourally focused

Providing specific feedback on observed behaviours as opposed to what this implies about one’s traits is said to reduce the ego-defensiveness that can surface when one receives feedback. Providing examples of a type of behaviour can also help persuade the individual to work on a key area. It is difficult to ignore feedback when it is objective and evidence-based. The implication is that instead of providing feedback such as, “You seem to be a person who crumbles under pressure,” it is more effective to give specific examples of a time when the person managed their stress ineffectively, and to discuss what strategies could be put in place next time to avoid this pattern in the future.

Although research suggests that specific behavioural feedback leads to better subsequent performance, it can also reduce the chances that people will try to apply their feedback to novel settings or situations. Therefore, during the feedback conversation it is important to emphasize the applicability of feedback from the assessment to multiple areas of one’s performance on the job. For example, if results from the 360 noted a lack of assertiveness amongst one’s peers, it is possible that a lack of assertiveness may also present itself in client interactions.

Provide more positive than negative feedback

The feedback that is most difficult to give is the negative kind – do we really look forward to the performance review with our most low-performing employee? It’s tempting to go into a laundry list of the areas that the person needs to improve so that they know where to change. Unfortunately, researchers have found that even if feedback is specific and behaviourally focused, when there is a lot of negative feedback, people are likely to react poorly. So, what can be done about it?

The evidence points to emphasizing a greater amount of positive relative to negative feedback during these conversations. Research suggests that individuals who react more positively to developmental feedback are more likely to engage in developmental activities, and less likely to experience negative emotions. Importantly, positive feedback leads to positive reactions and greater feedback acceptance. The positive reactions that people experience from receiving positive feedback can be leveraged to facilitate improvement in areas of weakness. For example, researchers have found that individuals who are given positive feedback are more willing to devote attention towards accepting negative feedback.
One possible exception to this recommendation is when an employee is derailing.

It is likely that a struggling employee has ignored and defended themselves against negative feedback in the past. Providing too much positive feedback could do them a disservice – giving them the impression that there is little wrong, when in fact, they need to make drastic improvements to keep their position. Therefore, in general, it is important to spend adequate time on positive performance markers to lessen the blow of negative feedback. However, there are some individuals who will benefit from a “tough love” approach, where they are forced to face the reality of their inadequate performance.

Keep it to two to four developmental recommendations

At some point in the feedback conversation, you will have to move past the positive feedback and provide recommendations for areas that the individual can improve upon. The question, then, is how many recommendations should be given for optimal facilitation of behaviour change? The research suggests that keeping it to a maximum of two to four developmental recommendations reduces the chance that individuals will be overwhelmed with areas for improvement. It is important to choose your developmental message. A recent study found that performance improvements were greater for managers who received a small versus a large amount of negative feedback.

In addition, studies in the coaching literature point to positive outcomes of coaching sessions where a maximum of two to four areas of improvement were focused on. These findings can be directly related to the developmental planning process; by focusing on only a few areas of improvement, two to four manageable goals can be set to address these needs, which requires an amount of effort and attention that is sustainable.

Be supportive

The recommendations reviewed above focused on characteristics of feedback that facilitate success in feedback provision. However, there is also a need to consider how the feedback is delivered. A perhaps obvious but important aspect of feedback provision is that it is delivered in a supportive manner. A supportive feedback environment has been found to relate to perceptions of feedback accuracy and acceptance.

Starting the session by giving the participant some control over how they will receive their feedback (e.g., “Should I lead you through the feedback, or do you have questions you would like to ask?”) sets the stage for a supportive environment. Additional strategies that you can use to establish a supportive feedback session are being mindful of how you are giving feedback, displaying empathy, gently probing the person on their thoughts about the feedback and framing the session around goals so the person can visualize the eventual outcomes of the process. It is also important to normalize the person’s feelings.

Haven’t we all felt discouraged about feedback we have received at some point in our careers? Normalizing any surprise, disappointment or discouragement that the individual feels, while encouraging an orientation towards doing something with the feedback to improve, will reduce feelings of hopelessness and work towards resolving issues that have arose.


Although a difficult process, providing feedback can be a rewarding one if it results in personal insight, developmental growth and performance improvements. By being transparent about the feedback process, making your feedback specific and focused on behaviour, giving more positive than negative feedback, focusing on two to four areas for improvement and being supportive during the process, you can increase your chances of getting these valued results out of your next feedback conversation.

Tim Jackson is the president of Jackson Leadership Systems Inc.

Leann Schneider is an independent consultant who works as an associate for Jackson Leadership Systems Inc.

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