The Vector View on Effectively Giving Feedback To Improve Performance

April 9th, 2015   •   no comments   

Companies call on Vector Group to help turn their businesses around, make certain that an integration effort goes well or just to make certain the organization delivers results as needed. We find that in almost all of these situations, organizational members do not receive adequate or appropriate performance feedback. This falls directly on the shoulders of those who manage them.

A number of reasons exist to explain this but a recent operational assessment of a manufacturing client revealed the following that we reported to senior management:

The most common style of management appears to be one consisting of rude, crude, and aggressive verbal behavior coupled with an openly stated general lack of trust in the willingness, competence, and ability of the workers. Threats and put-downs are far more common in terms of overt management practice, generally on a par with simple absence of any comments or feedback. Praise and appreciation are damn near non-existent other than in a few isolated teams.

I routinely teach a number of graduate classes within MBA curricula and I find graduate students who, as working adults and many working as managers even in some of the larger corporations, have little to no knowledge of the proper ways of providing feedback. Most have a semblance of an idea of what feedback is and at least a minimal idea that feedback is a good thing to do. Many class discussions tend to wrap around the axle of annual performance appraisals and their relative worth and meaning. Annual performance appraisals have inherent problems with the process and the effect on work performance.

Whether we focus on graduate students, supervisors, middle management or senior executives, few have a proper foundation in giving or receiving feedback. We provide feedback to others for improving work performance, personal effectiveness or anything in between. Feedback is helpful and most of us want to know how well we are doing and what we can do to do even better. People often describe feedback as a “gift” we give to each other in the workplace.

What makes giving this “gift” of feedback so challenging? Think about this. How do you like getting information about your own work performance couched in a negative context? Consider these terms and phrases:

• Negative feedback
• Criticism
• “Overall, you’re doin’ a great job but you really screwed this part up.”
• THE annual performance review
• THE work appraisal
• “I have some bad news for you about your work.”
• Bad feedback
• Corrective feedback
• (You fill in the blank)

With examples like that in mind, it is no wonder that people have difficulty delivering those kinds of messages. Having some solid people skills might be a good thing to have in difficult work discussions but having some common sense helps, too.

Few people question the value of feedback, yet many people would say they do not get enough feedback, or do not get the right kind of feedback. Many managers are dissatisfied with the quantity and quality of the feedback they provide. The following are some of the reasons many managers do not provide more feedback:

• Feeling uncomfortable about it
• Sensing that the other person is uncomfortable about it
• Not being sure how to give it effectively
• Not being sure of what words to use

Feedback as We See It

In transactional leadership or management, feedback is a mechanism to provide guidance to others. In a workplace setting, we use feedback to help a person improve their contribution to the organization’s overall effectiveness. We employ feedback to help a person:

• Do more of something

• Do less of something

• Start doing something

• Stop doing something

• Or do something differently (Specify the difference)

Based on some early and intensive research Vector Principals conducted several years ago in a number of client organizations, we made some fundamental changes in how anyone should and could provide performance feedback to organizational members. Who would be opposed to receiving encouragement from supervisors or co-workers? Who would want to turn down advice on how to do a better job from those same supervisors or co-workers? In our estimation there are very few who would not appreciate both.

Please do not view this as merely “sugarcoating” those more negative words or putting some sort of spin on what many still consider as negative feedback or criticism.

Feedback is information about performance that leads to action to change or maintain performance. We contend there are two major types of feedback: encouragement that is motivational, and advice that is formative or intended to be corrective.

Encouragement lets people know what they did well and recognizes or rewards them for it. Its purpose is to encourage the person to continue or even increase the performance of whatever it is.

Advice lets people know what to improve and how to make the improvement. Its purpose is to advise the person about how to perform better the next time.

Properly given, encouragement and advice can be very powerful tools for creating and maintaining an empowered work group.

Encourage whenever you can. If you want your feedback to make a difference, give it in a way that encourages others to think they can change. Emphasize what they can do and how it will help rather than what they are currently doing wrong. When people do make a change, even if not as great as you think they should, notice it, thank them or compliment them on whatever the change is.

The Critical Difference We Found

Giving both encouragement and advice at the same time sends a mixed message, with an unpredictable effect and usually less-than-effective results. Giving both encouragement and advice at the same time, the following might happen:

1. The person might not appreciate the encouragement because the formative or corrective feedback provided for development might overshadow it.
2. The person might easily forget the developmental feedback when the time came to use it.
3. People can react in unpredictable ways to mixed feedback (also known as the “good job, but…” or the “sandwich” technique). They may:
a. Try to respond to both the encouragement and the advice
b. Respond only to the encouragement and discount the advice as “less important
c. Hear only the correction

Separation or “splitting” these two forms of feedback is critically important.

• If you give only encouragement immediately following a person’s performance, you help him or her to gain confidence; to feel good about the job he or she just did with the anticipation of feeling good about the next opportunity.

• If you provide advice separately, timed just before the next performance, you help the person do better the next time, increasing competence.

Separating the two types of feedback gives you greater confidence that both messages are getting through.

Here is a further caveat on predictability if giving both encouragement and advice at the same time:
• Your best performers will be the ones to “hear only the correction.” This is greatly demotivating to this population.
• Your poorest performers will be the ones to “respond only to the encouragement and discount the ‘advice’ as less important. This creates even more of a performance problem.

Some Additional Guidelines for Giving Feedback

There are many reasons that we are not fully open with each other, particularly in giving each other performance feedback. Probably the most common reason is that people feel that giving others feedback will somehow hurt, embarrass or anger them. However, we found this tends not to occur when giving feedback openly and respectfully—and when it focuses on something the person can do about it.

We designed some guidelines to increase comfort and confidence in giving feedback, and providing its usefulness and value to the recipient. Following the guidelines below will do much to make sure that feedback is both acceptable to others and results in helpful change.

Timing Encourage when it is most meaningful; advise when it is most helpful.

Encouragement is most effective if given as soon as possible after someone has done something well. Advice is most effective if given when the person is ready to perform again. If this is impossible, it will help strengthen both competence and confidence if you try to engage the person in a problem-solving discussion, rather than give advice in the form of directions.

Publicity Publicize the good things; privatize the not-so-good ones.

Giving encouragement publicly often benefits the recipient. This is a generalization and you should determine the level of comfort the recipient feels in receiving public motivational feedback. If the recipient is significantly ill at ease with public praise, it could turn the effect from positive to negative and not only lose the value of the feedback, but potentially lose the performance to avoid future public praise.
It is best, however, to give advice privately. This ensures better attention and a voids potential embarrassment or resentment.

Intentions Assume a positive intent from all parties.

When receiving advice, assume the person delivering it to you is doing so for the purpose of supporting you and helping you to succeed and be as effective as possible either as an individual or as a team member. When giving feedback, assume that the person will receive the feedback as a contribution to their success rather than an attack upon them or their performance. In some situations where there is a pre-existing level of mistrust, you may need to specify and formally agree to these assumptions.

Usefulness Whenever you feel you have the right to give someone feedback, you have the obligation to make sure it is useful.

For example, giving advice about someone’s “shifty eyes” is not very useful. It might be both more acceptable and more useful if made more neutral and specific … “You know, when we’re talking, it seems as though you look away a lot, and it makes me uncomfortable. Is there something we could do to make us both more comfortable?”

Support Do not help the other person downplay, deny or negate the information.

We are often tempted to follow advice by quickly saying something like “Well, it’s really not that noticeable” or “Maybe this is just the exception.” This is not usually helpful. It can encourage people to discount your feedback rather than think about how to change. If it was important enough to raise the issue in the first place, do not immediately diminish its impact with a disclaimer.

Confidence Act as if you expect good things.

If you want advisory feedback to make a difference, give it in a way that encourages people to think they can change. Emphasize what they can do and how it will help, rather than focus exclusively on what they are doing wrong. When people do make a change, even if not as great as you would like at first, notice it; thank them or compliment them.

Three Rules of Feedback

There are three main “rules” for providing feedback that are critical in delivering effective feedback leading to a behavior change. They include:

1. Fit the advice to the need.
2. Focus the advice clearly on the behavior.
3. Timing of advice should match the performer’s needs and the importance of error.

(With our apologies to Mother Goose and other literary sources)


1. Use small steps. Be sure the amount of behavior you are dealing with is within the person’s ability to understand and accomplish.

Good: “Little Red Riding Hood, you need to know how to tell wolves from grandmas. See these pictures: Which one has the sharper teeth: Right– the wolf, on the left. Now see the difference in the eyes.”

Poor: “Okay, Red– now here’s how to tell wolves from grandmas. See these pictures: The one on the left is a wolf; the one on the right is a grandma. Got it?”

2. Tailor your advice to the person’s ability to benefit from it. The feedback must be useable — so make sure the level of detail of your feedback fits the skill and knowledge of the person receiving it.

Good: “Little Pig, this time build your house with brick instead of straw so it can’t be blown down.”

Poor: ”Well, Little Pig — better build a wolf-proof house this time.”


3. Avoid put-downs. Avoid insulting remarks that may anger people or damage their self-confidence.

Good: “Son, as you go through the gate this time, make sure it’s locked behind you; last time, the sheep got into the meadow.”

Poor: “Idiot! Can’t you remember to lock the gate? Now the cows are in the corn.”

4. Avoid diffusion. Aim feedback at a single person and do not spread it across a group.

Good: “Mary, I’ve received complaints from your teacher, and I’d like to be sure your lamb doesn’t follow you to school today.”

Poor: “I wish you kids would control your animals!”

5. Avoid overload. Do not overburden people with too much advice at one time.

Good: “Jack, we’ve got rats in the house. What can we do to get rid of them?”

Poor: “Jack, we’ve got rats in the house. We need to get rid of them. We also have cat problems. What can we do about that, huh? And while we’re at it, how am I supposed to pay for all these maids?”

6. Avoid ambiguity. Keep advice clear; specify exactly what you want.

Good: “Next time you swing on that vine, Tarzan, remember to give your terrific yell.”

Poor: “I do not know what it was, Ape-man, but something was missing on that last swing.”

7. Check receptivity. Make sure the person to whom you wish to give advice is interested, receptive, and ready for advice.

Good: “Yes, I realize you’re busy with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. When you’re finished, why do not you come and talk to me?”

Poor: “I know you’re busy directing all the king’s horses and men, trying to put this mess together again—but I’d really like to talk to you right now about proper egg storage.”

8. Refer to the performance, not the performer. Focus on changing behavior rather than on personal traits.

Good: “Jack, if you and Jill didn’t run down the hill, your water delivery might improve.”

Poor: “Jack, you really need to overcome your carelessness; you’re on 25th percentile on the bucket-carrying dimension.”


9. Give when most usable. Provide advice when the person can benefit most from it.

Good: “This time, Jack, you need to jump a little higher; last time you singed your trousers.”

Poor: “Too bad, Jack — you should’ve jumped a little higher. Look what you’ve done to your trousers.”

10. Give frequently. Provide advice often enough to prevent too serious an error.

Good: “It’s not a good idea to put cradles in tree-tops; better find another spot.”

Poor: “Oops! I forgot to tell you about the possible dangers of cradles in tree-tops when it’s windy.”

When the need arises as it usually does, we provide our clients with this information on giving feedback. We caution them all to evaluate provision of feedback on an ongoing basis to ensure that they follow these guidelines and rules consistently. It is very easy to fall back into old behavior that is neither helpful nor effective.

There is also the other side of the coin in receiving feedback. More on that later.
© 2009 & 2015, Vector Group, Inc.


Gary W. Craig is Managing Partner and COO for Vector Group, Inc. You may reach him at [email protected]. Vector Group is a global consulting firm specializing in systematic organizational diagnosis and interventions to ensure that corporate strategy, culture, and infrastructure are aligned to achieve breakthrough success. Visit our website at or call us at (800) 566-0877.

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