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Balancing the art of feedback

January 24, 2022


By Annie Mueller, Illinois Society of CPAs

Every manager has experienced it at one time or another: the feedback void. A careful delivery of pertinent feedback is answered by silence. “A lot of people become what I call ‘blank starers,’” quips Brad Karsh, founder and CEO of JB Training Solutions and author of “Manager 3.0.” “You give feedback, and you get someone sitting there blankly.” Further discussion leads to defensiveness or more awkward silence. Finally, the meeting is over. Both manager and employee part ways and breathe a sigh of relief. What, exactly, has been accomplished?

“Feedback is very difficult for people to deliver and it’s even harder for people to receive,” Karsh states. Steven Stosny, Ph.D., founder of CompassionPower and author of “Soar Above,” notes that feedback often fails because it’s based on criticism, which calls for submission and makes people feel devalued. The human drive for autonomy makes submission to others unpleasant, even when warranted. Of course, no one enjoys feeling devalued, and the instinctive response is to argue for one’s value, defending against criticism rather than accepting it passively.

“A big part of the problem is that we have not been socialized to have these conversations,” states communication expert Gregory Tall. “We’re not comfortable, so we avoid them. A lot of issues start with that avoidance.”

Feedback is often delayed until it can’t be avoided. Then an already on-edge employee reacts defensively, a stressed manager feels resentful of the whole process, and nothing actually changes. It’s no wonder many of us would drop feedback altogether if we could.

Here’s where things get trickier: “Nine out of 10 people want the feedback,” Tall affirms. “If there’s something they can do differently to be more successful, they want someone to tell them.” What employees don’t want is meaningless criticism or micromanagement, which engenders a back-and-forth of defensiveness and frustration.

Too little, too late

Typical feedback provides too little: it is vague or generic, too specific for application, or too focused on managerial preference rather than meaningful change. Employees don’t know how to respond to directives like “You need to be better at interpersonal relationships in the office,” or “You were too harsh in this one client email.” Instructing a direct report to “have a more positive attitude in meetings” sounds nice but overlooks two essential points: First, why does it matter? And second, how will anyone know when it’s been accomplished?

Feedback also fails on timing: Annual reviews present feedback weeks or months after an incident has occurred. Directives become retroactive rather than proactive, bringing up behavioral issues too far in the past to be relevant. The employee leaves with the justifiable sensation of having been kept in the dark.

“Just-in-time feedback is important,” Karsh says. “It’s not helpful to say, ‘Hey, remember that meeting we had months ago? You said that one thing. Don’t say that thing again.’”

Removing resistance

Some essentials must change to make feedback welcome and effective: timing, delivery, and support.

Stosny points out a key to making feedback work: Humans like to cooperate. “Partnership is a big part of successful feedback,” Tall adds. If supervisors offer feedback in a way that asks for cooperation—rather than submission—there can be better conversations, creative solutions, and effective behavior change. In the long term, building an organization with a culture of cooperation— rather than an authoritarian lead-and-follow hierarchy—leads to more autonomous and happier employees. This doesn’t mean that organizations must dismantle their hierarchy, only that leaders seek to establish their leadership through relationship rather than rule. “It’s acting more as a coach,” Karsh suggests.

In general, more feedback is also better. But this doesn’t mean a more detailed quarterly review. It means giving feedback more often, even daily. Karsh calls it “just-in-time feedback”: When the undesired behavior occurs, address it immediately, or as soon as possible after. The moment is now, always now. Don’t wait for a pre-scheduled meeting. In fact, there’s no need to make a meeting out of it in most cases. The key is conversation. When you’re delivering help in the moment, or immediately after, feedback is much easier to deliver and to receive.”

“Aim for simplicity,” Tall advises. “You don’t need graphs and charts.” Ensure that there’s adequate privacy and say what needs to be said. Immediacy has benefits for everyone: employees aren’t left wondering how many unspoken mistakes are hanging over them; supervisors aren’t carrying a laundry list of frustrations and corrections. Further, it’s easier to measure feedback efficacy: Does the behavior change, or does it repeat? You might not know today, but you will know by tomorrow.

Tall also recommends customizing how often feedback is delivered. Employees of the millennial generation prefer feedback on a daily or near-daily basis. Others, particularly those from Gen X or prior, prefer a hands-off approach: Let them know if there’s a mistake or an incident to correct, otherwise leave them to the work. “Managers need to pay attention to their employees and where they fit on this spectrum,” Tall advises. “When the communicator considers what’s going to work best for the other person, everything works better.”

Karsh subscribes to monthly sessions of informal feedback. “No forms, no numbers, nothing even needs to be written,” he says. Sit down and talk about how things are going. Ask questions. “These are the conversations that create a culture of feedback,” Karsh states.

And does it really take too much time to customize one’s feedback approach for each employee? “It’s a choice between prevention and treatment,” Tall suggests. “You invest time up-front to be thoughtful and intentional about what’s going to work well for your people. Or you let things deteriorate into turmoil and deal with it then.” Prevention is less painful and time-consuming than dealing with an escalated, emotional situation. Urgency adds both stress and complication. On the other hand, proactive, customized feedback allows small incidents to remain small.

Delivery without drama

The now-infamous “feedback sandwich” approach—smushing a negative between two positives—is too well-known (and universally disliked) to be respected or effective. Frameworks inevitably become formulaic. Pulling a ho-hum framework out of the supervisorial pocket sends a clear message: Dear Employee, I need you to change, but you’re not worth my individual attention. It’s difficult for employees to hear anything else over the noise of nonchalance.

The ideal feedback framework is no framework. Instead, managers can rely on values of honesty, respect, and cooperation to guide them through each situation. Honesty is essential, as there’s no trust in a relationship without it. “We need to be more direct when we deliver feedback,” Karsh encourages. “Avoid weak words. You can be both assertive and nice. When we deliver feedback in a passive, indirect way, it leads to miscommunication and frustration.” The value of respect helps leaders to keep their own egos in check, and to choose carefully what merits feedback and what does not. “As a leader, you have to be objective,” Karsh continues. “Am I giving feedback because I want them to do something the way I do it, or am I giving feedback because fundamentally there’s a mistake or behavior needs to change?”

Tall uses a simple formula to evaluate what needs to be communicated: “Expectations minus actual outcomes equals feedback,” he explains. “If the result is as expected, we finish with zero feedback needed and move to praise or recognition. But if the results fall short of the expectations, we have a deficit.” It’s good to create a set of criteria to help anyone in a managerial role determine what should be addressed. Depending on how important something feels in the moment is the downfall of the immediacy approach. Immediacy can become an excuse for unnecessary urgency; objective criteria provide a counterbalance. “Specificity is so important. We don’t want to waste our time on things that don’t matter,” Tall adds.

Support systems

A culture of open, ongoing feedback must be supported from the top or it won’t last, Karsh says. Leaders can demonstrate their commitment by asking to receive as well as give feedback. Specific requests will help when employees are reticent: “Tell me three things I could improve in meetings” is more likely to get a response than “Let me know if you have any suggestions about my leadership style.”

Of course, anyone delivering feedback must also learn to anticipate defensiveness. Karsh prescribes a slow approach. “Do a little bit more listening as opposed to a little bit more talking,” he says. “You want to find out their perspective on things.” Take an inquiry based approach. The point is to get to the core, the reason for defensiveness; once that’s done, future moments of feedback become easier.

In the end, feedback that’s delivered well but instigates no change is as useless as too little, too late feedback. “The ultimate proof as to whether the feedback got through is whether the behavior changes,” Karsh says. Leaders who commit to delivering feedback that can be measured specifically and objectively via adjusted behavior create a safeguard against micromanagement and preferential directives. Focusing on feedback that gets desired results frees everyone to focus on what matters. “It feels great to get feedback with a specific thing you can track, then improve, and see yourself becoming better,” Karsh states. “That’s a victory for everyone.”

This original article was published on the Illinois Society CPAs' website, (Fall 2019).


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