What if we asked first and listened next

Feedback can demotivate an individual and lead to a drop in performance. And yet feedback is a critical component of any manager’s job.

Is there a better way to deliver feedback which leaves employees feeling motivated and positive about their performance potential?

It doesn’t matter if it’s negative or positive feedback in more than one third of the cases it is still demotivating

Prof Avi Kluger undertook a meta analysis of the impact of feedback covering 600 experiments on 20,000 people over 90 years. He found that on average feedback (that is, someone telling another person something about their performance) improves performance. However, in 38 percent of the cases performance went down after feedback. And it wasn’t anything to do with whether the feedback was negative or positive. In more than one third of cases, even when someone received positive feedback, their performance plummeted.

It’s about what’s important to the individual … and not to you as the manager

He attributes the difference to how people feel about the task they are performing. For example, giving an accountant negative feedback about how they maintain their systems for data collection and filing may mobilise the accountant into corrective action – that is, they will change their behaviour to get more organised. On the other hand, if an individual has an idea to change or embellish their role, but their manager says it’s a bad idea and gives the reasons why, the individual will feel deflated and demotivated. Both are cases of giving ‘negative feedback’ but one results in action and the other in demotivation.

So how can you as a manager predict how an individual is likely to respond to a piece of feedback and if you must discuss performance, how best to do it.

Ask what’s important to them… the feedforward interview

One way is to listen to the employee first before giving your subjective judgement about what you think has gone well. Prof Kluger calls this the feedforward interview. The feedforward interview involves asking another individual to tell them a story of a positive experience at work and then listen to the story intently to understand emotions experienced and the conditions that were in place to enable that positive experience. The story telling is important as it engages the individual in a non confrontational and non subjective way. The feedforward interview enables the individual to define the ‘gold standard’ and what good looks like for them in their context thereby encouraging ownership, reflection and self awareness. Managers also get to understand what’s important to that individual and how they are likely to respond to any future feedback – will it motivate or demotivate them?

Ask the right questions

The feedforward interview largely consists of the following questions:

1. Could you please tell me a story about a process at your work, during which you felt full of life (happy, energized), even before the results of your actions became known

2. Would you like to experience these emotions again?

3. What was the peak moment of this story?

4. What did you think at the peak moment? What did you feel at that moment?

5. What were the conditions

– in you,

–  in others,

– the organisation,

–  location, or

–  timing   that allowed this story to happen

Finally, to get the individual to think about how to recreate this performance again, Ask

6. To what degree do your current practices take you closer to, or further away from, the conditions that allowed you to be at your best?

Using this technique, the feedforward interview increased performance relative to the traditional performance appraisal.


Listening critical

First and foremost, the feedforward interview places emphasis on the listening skills of the manager.

Kluger’s research has found that managers that listen well are rated more highly by their subordinates, have subordinates who are healthier with higher levels of job satisfaction.

So, in order to increase your chance of raising performance through feedback, you better ask first and tell (much) later.