Giving Fair Feedback

Private feedback undermines individual accountability.

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 Job interview in office sitting at desk
Job interview in office sitting at desk

There is an adage which states: Praise publicly, criticize privately. But while this practice may circumvent some awkward embarrassment in group situations, it does more harm than good. Private feedback undermines individual accountability among teams and it wastes important teachable moments.

Note my use of "feedback" rather than "criticize." The former suggests more constructive insight, whereas the latter denotes negativity. As I wrote in #HBRogue Twitter Chat 18 July 2013:  "Feedback is recognition of a job well done, suggestions for improvement next time & discussion of mistakes."

Managers should create a culture where employees are encouraged to learn from the past and apply this knowledge to future work. Offices ought to provide safe zones for employees to give and receive feedback. By allowing everyone to participate in this activity, the entire team benefits from different perspectives. 

Blue Sage Partners Principal, Ellen Meyer Shorb adds,

The most important element is that the manager at the top has to model this by soliciting, appreciating, and acting on public feedback for him or herself.  This will be supported by a sense of safety and respect – i.e. the feedback does not go beyond the group and is not reflected on performance evaluations unless the issue persists.  

Public feedback has a value in that it creates a group norm – one of valuing feedback and learning and growing because of it.  If done well, it can create an atmosphere of openness, diffuse defensiveness, and help individuals and teams improve and perform. 

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Managers need to remember to:

  1. Listen.  Give everyone the opportunity to speak.  Let employees share any extenuating circumstances that might provide additional information into why mistakes occurred. Keep the lines of communication open. 
  2. Focus on next steps. Yes, review why mistakes were made, but don't dwell or let the past dominate. Keep the emphasis on teachable moments to encourage imminent positive behavior, growth and solutions. 
  3. Be respectful and empathetic. Stay honest and fair. Don't demean, don't blame. Delivery makes a huge difference.

As with any situation that involves dealing with a group of people, interpersonal dynamics often require a delicate balancing act for positive outcomes. Recent MBA graduate, Kavita Chintapalli notes, "some see criticism as a personal affront while others see criticism as a learning opportunity to improve and correct their weaknesses."

At VizWerxGroup, co-owner and partner, Joy Guthrie uses After Action Reviews (AAR) to address:

  1. What happened?
  2. What was supposed to happen?
  3. What accounts for the difference? (Focus on the what not the WHO)
  4. What can we learn from those differences?

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Should There Be More Quantitative Easing?]

During these exercises, Guthrie is careful to consider influence:

When a person is influential, their opinion about someone is given a bit more weight than others. So, when that person provides positive feedback about someone, others in the group may look again at that person and begin to see that person more positively. It works similarly when the influential person provides negative feedback. You always liked Joe; but, Barbara gave Joe really negative feedback in the group meeting. You trust Barbara so you wonder, "what did I miss? Barbara saw something in Joe that wasn't working well." Your perception can be colored by the influential person's feedback.

Fair and firm leadership has been and always will be critical to the success of any team. Mistakes are inevitable.  The key is to recognize mistakes, review why they happened and prevent them from happening again. Transform problems into teachable moments for advantageous solutions and future improvement.

Lisa Chau is a private consultant focused on social media and cross-platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business.