Delaying Feedback? No News Is Not Always Good News

Avoid Word On Keyboard Key, Notebook ComputerAre you so skittish about damaging a relationship or de-motivating a team member that you don’t give developmental feedback? Who can blame you, really? Everyone wants to be liked, and we all know you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.

However, you aren’t doing anyone any favors if you don’t give feedback. The employee suffers, and in the end so does the whole organization.

I recently spoke with a leader in a company who wanted me to coach a director-level person who had been with the organization for nine years.

As he explained, “Her first manager was a wimp and no one has ever given her any feedback. All of her bad habits just got more ingrained. When she finally came to work for me, I gave her some sorely needed feedback and her response was ‘No one has ever told me that before. It must be you.’

“We have to shift this situation,” he concluded.

I had to laugh because it was the perfect scenario of what happens when managers don’t give feedback right out of the gate. The employee in question goes along unaware thinking “no news is good news,” and gets transferred—or promoted—to other managers who are too freaked out by the person’s obliviousness to say anything.

And the problem just grows and grows. Each manager solves the problem by foisting the employee onto someone else. This can go on for years. When the time comes to cut the person loose, you have the perfect recipe for a lawsuit because the employee had no reason to believe they weren’t the perfect employee all along. Michael Fertik, founder of Reputation.com, calls this “The Long Linger” in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post The Problem with Being Too Nice.

Is this you? You know who you are. Cut it out. Give the feedback. Use a neutral, nonjudgmental tone of voice, make an observation, offer redirection, and make a clear request for a change. Make sure you are clear about what the change looks like and that you find ways to measure or track whether the change is being made. If you are a manager, this is your job.

Need more help? Here are some expanded guidelines for giving feedback:

  • Before giving feedback, be sure clear agreements have been established about goals, norms, roles, and expectations.
  • Make sure the relationship has sufficient trust. Ask the direct report for permission to give feedback, or at least prepare them if you need to share something that might be delicate or hard to hear.
  • Use a neutral demeanor to eliminate blame and judgment. Be aware of your nonverbal communication and tone. If this is a challenge for you, practice using neutral language.
  • Be timely and give feedback immediately or as quickly as possible, but not in the heat of the moment. If you can’t control your emotions, wait until you can before giving feedback.
  • Be relevant. Feedback needs to be focused on moving forward—not about something in past that will never happen again. Giving feedback about past events that are unlikely to recur serves no purpose and can damage trust.
  • Focus on behaviors that are within the employee’s control. Beating people up for things outside of their control is unreasonable.
  • Be specific and descriptive. Describe the behaviors or data rather than giving generalizations.

Feedback given soon, fairly, and within the bounds of a trusting relationship can be a gift. The other person now has the opportunity to examine and make changes in their behavior, knowing their manager has their best interests at heart.

About this column

Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard, and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Previous posts in this series:

Providing Clear Direction—You’re Not Being Bossy; You’re Being A Boss

Setting Boundaries: 7 Ways Good Managers Get It Wrong

The Well-Intentioned Manager’s New Year’s Resolution: Have More Fun

The Top Three Mistakes Good Managers Make

Managing Polarities: A Key Skill for the Well-Intentioned Manager

13 thoughts on “Delaying Feedback? No News Is Not Always Good News

  1. I heartily agree with your post, Madeleine. On several occasions during a 43-year career in HR, I dealt with employees who were so good a most things they did that they never received feedback on the few important things they never did well. Once I had to terminate the employment of a pregnant payroll clerk whose work was full of errors, but who refused to change. Her previous manager admitted she had given her a good reference for the transfer into HR because she just wanted to get rid of her. What a disaster! Let’s all make sure that we give negative feedback timely, and insist upon change. Short-term or long-run, it can only help if done in the ways you suggest.

    • Chelsea,
      I, too, understand the desire to be kind to others but is it kind not to offer feedback (both good and bad)? Consider a situation in which your employer noticed that you behaved in a particular way when doing a certain task and this behavior was not well received by customers or coworkers. By not speaking with you about a better way to complete this task, you may always have wondered why you were never promoted. On the other hand, had your boss given some constructive feedback perhaps you would have become an exemplary member of the work team and been offered a promotion. Something to think about.
      Laurie

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