To Motivate Your Employees, Give Honest Feedback

Feedback should be tailored to the individual, well thought out and delivered close to the event. Anything else will limit the motivational effect.
To Motivate Your Employees, Give Honest Feedback
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Betsy Allen, a consultant-friend of ours, once said, “Leadership is cause; all else is effect.” And, while we may not like to admit it, she’s more than a little right.

Related: Is Employee Feedback Missing at Your Company? Here's Why and How to Fix It.

Many organizational issues that at first seem to be caused by employees actually stem from a reaction to management decisions, practices and policies. Management determines, and employees respond. Sometimes, they respond in the manner that management would like, sometimes not. Therefore, motivating a favorable response is critical for organizational effectiveness.

This is the fourth in our series on improving employee performance. We've already discussed how to define and deliver clear objectives, remove roadblocks and train employees. The fourth way to increase performance is through motivation. 

Employees need both rewards and consequences to perform well. An environment that is skewed heavily as overly positive or negative will result in dysfunction. Motivational rewards come in many different forms, including those that are tangible (e.g., merchandise, time off and money) and intangible (e.g., feeling included, development opportunities and additional responsibilities). Both can be highly effective. However, the least expensive, and often the most appreciated form of motivation, is performance feedback. 

Most employees want to be recognized, to be contributing members of a winning team, we've found. And to achieve such recognition, they need feedback. But, in our experience, many managers find giving frequent, meaningful feedback difficult.

To be most effective, feedback should be tailored to the individual, well thought out and delivered close to the event. Anything else will limit the motivational effect. 

Positive feedback

To give positive feedback, the easiest way to start is to see employees doing something right and comment on it. We coach the managers we work with to make it a practice to praise employees on at least one specific item each week. Thanking them for a job well done will often result in the employees repeating the behavior.

Our next piece of advice: When praising employees, make sure that you are: 1) specific about what you liked; and 2) you link their behavior back to the goals of the organization. For example:

Mary, I wanted to thank you for helping Mr. Smith with his order this morning. You were polite and answered his questions quickly and thoroughly. When we serve our clients well, they come back and bring their friends. Happy customers equal more sales for the company. Again, thank you. Keep up the good work.

Related: 4 Ways to Get Truly Honest Feedback From Employees

While the specific praise you give may take more words, it will mean more to an employee than the usual “Good job!" or “Thanks for all you do.” Generic praise that is not specific and not linked to the organization leaves employees wondering what they did right and unable to repeat the behavior.

Negative feedback

Negative feedback is more difficult for most managers. But, here are a few tips: First, don’t layer negative feedback in between positive comments:

Mary, you are a valuable employee and we really appreciate what you do for our team.  But, you need to come to meetings on time more often. You know we really appreciate your contributions and value your input. You are an important part of the team.

While some people believe that this “Oreo” approach softens the blow, we believe it sends mixed messages and gives little guidance. 

Instead, the first time you have an issue with an employee’s performance, let him or her know. Your comments do not have to be harsh. Rather, they should be assertive and factual. Begin with a neutral comment to reduce defensiveness. Then, while using a pleasant but firm tone of voice, explain how the employee’s behavior affects you, your team or the company and why it is a problem. Next, ask for the behavior/performance you expect. Finish your feedback with a question asking the employee to fulfill with your request:

Mary, I understand how busy we are. However, when employees are late for meetings, it causes particular problems. We have to stop the meeting to fill in the late comer on our discussions. This takes up valuable time and interrupts the flow of the meeting. Mary, I would appreciate your being on time to future team meetings. Can you do this for me?

The question obliges the employee to either answer in the affirmative or give you a reason for being unable to comply. If you get a negative response, you can discuss the issue further and hopefully come to an understanding. Obviously, if the employee continues to perform poorly there are techniques for escalating your feedback. 

Giving employees negative feedback is uncomfortable for most managers. But, ignoring performance issues is unfair to both the employee and the organization. Remember, employees want to be recognized, contributing members of a winning team.

Related: 'What Did You Say?' Is Your Employee Feedback Getting Through?

To get them there, be willing to give both positive and negative feedback, both rewards and consequences. One without the other will fail to get you the performance you desire.