The Woes (and Highs) of Workplace Feedback

“You’re doing it wrong.”

“You could be doing it better.”

“I see room for improvement.”

“So I guess we should probably go ahead and have a little talk.”

“I'm also going to need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday, too.”

Workplace feedback from managers can be an anxiety-inducing prospect, especially when, from some managers, even an unqualified Good job can be patronizing or dismissive. Pep talks laced with comments such as “You’re not living up to your potential” can also elicit a sense of dread from employees when their managers stop by their desk or send an email.

Good managers are deft at getting the best from their employees, usually through a system of constructive workplace feedback laced with gratitude and patience. Self-confident employees will have a relatively easy time turning this constructive feedback into a positive experience and improve their performance. That’s not to say that even the most confident employees won’t take personally a certain level of criticism, even small.

In fact, it is human nature to see workplace feedback as a type of confrontation, and such employee-manager interaction signals a potential threat. Workplace feedback assumes a power disparity. Disparities lead to power struggles. This struggle is primal in nature and infuses nearly all relationships, but especially those that affect our livelihood (i.e., our survival).

Aside from primal inklings, perhaps this fear of critique goes back to childhood report cards, not the grades, but the work habits and cooperation comments section: Excellent, above average, average, below average, poor. Passable, unacceptable. Great, good. These are all abstract terms that can fill people with anxiety without giving them any real information, any specific and constructive feedback. Some students hear these terms applied to their performance and come to think of themselves as average, or below average. And at some point, most people have experienced corrective feedback given so poorly as to make them perceive all performance feedback as something negative. This often occurs first at an early age, and by the time they reach the workplace, these people live in perpetual workplace anxiety when their boss is near.

Tropes of the unhelpful boss offering maddening levels of negative feedback have been perpetuated (or called out) by popular culture with such examples as the British and American versions of The Office, but most acutely by Gary Cole’s character Bill Lumbergh in the 1999 film Office Space, cartoonishly over-the-top but still embodying the type of frustrating workplace feedback that made this character an icon of ineffective management.

A study by Zenger Folkman identified as a “pivotal competency” in distinguishing the most successful leaders the ability to inspire and motivate workers. Being able to do this, according to the study, has a direct correlation to high employee engagement and employee productivity.

While being an inspirational leader may seem an obvious necessity, many managers do little more to foster this than the verbal equivalent of a “Hang in There” cat poster. Some managers don’t want the extra responsibility of motivating employees and offering constructive workplace feedback on top of their daily duties. The good news is that motivating employees doesn’t have to be the burden it gets made out to be.

Motivating employees to create a productive and cooperative workplace doesn’t have to include a team-building retreat or a potentially patronizing pep talk. Simply, setting a good leadership example sends a message that managers and employers are in solidarity with the company and its employees. It is then important to foster teamwork and collaboration rather than competition and distrust. It is also critical to establish the organization’s vision in a clear and meaningful way and to make sure that employees fully understand their roles within the organization. Sometimes, being an effective leader will include taking a greater initiative to develop employees’ talents, serving as guides or even mentors. Other times, it can be effective to set stretch goals or at least to take risks and think of ways to innovate.

The negative feedback anxiety, from being fired to the crushing of ego or self-confidence, is far from irrational. But when good managers offer effective workplace feedback, they can improve the skill levels of the employees.

On the employee side, there are steps to take to view this workplace feedback constructively. When a boss offers critique or any kind of feedback, employees should take that opportunity to establish a connection with that boss.

Naturally, people want to hear that everything they are doing is great, but there is a risk of two things occurring when only positive feedback is given: one, the employee doesn’t get the entire picture of what is expected by management, and two, the employee can become complacent and lose motivation.

An effective strategy for employees with feedback anxiety is to seek out feedback from management or peers during a particular project, especially if there are questions during any step of the process. Getting an outside perspective can drastically reduce the overall feedback anxiety loop. Seeking out too much feedback, conversely, sets a tone of codependence, insecurity, and lack of understanding of the work. The goal is to find a balance in order to accept feedback without taking it too personally and then applying the critique in a way to boost performance—as well as self-confidence.

For workers who find themselves feeling hurt by workplace feedback, they should ask themselves whether it’s better to be hearing this information, even if negative, or if they would rather be oblivious to concerns of performance deficiencies.

It is always a good exercise to avoid emotional responses to feedback, including “shutting down,” as this often leads to missing the pertinent, constructive comments that would improve performance and possibly prevent future critiques.

As a way to improve the receptiveness to criticism, workers should try to feel and show gratitude, even if the first instinct is rage, frustration, shame, or defeat. The key is to avoid a defensive response, as it signals to management an unwillingness to either hear critique or make changes (i.e., improvements) to performance. Workers should then try to spin this experience in a positive light, and despite what they think of their managers, try to assume the feedback was given with good intentions.

Finally, workers should use workplace feedback as an opportunity to clarify their role in the workplace, assessing how much management relies on what they do and any goals that might go along with it.

If you’re sensitive about workplace feedback, or are suffering from workplace anxiety and want to discuss options to regain professional self-confidence, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or visit my website, www.pfeifferphd.com.

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