Manage with Effective Feedback - PictureIn a previous discussion, I discussed a rather strange metaphor called the “Feedback Bucket.” It represents how the interpersonal feedback each of us receives goes into our feedback bucket. Feedback, we learned, leaks out over time because there are holes in the bottom of the bucket. We learned where holes come from and some was to plug them up. Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to think about the bucket metaphor.
In this article we’re going to briefly look at the four types of interpersonal feedback that go into the bucket. The feedback bucket is placed in the middle of a model, because all feedback, whether positive or negative, desired or undesired, flows into the bucket. Mentally healthy people prefer positive feedback, but with an empty bucket, a person will actually look forward to negative feedback. That’s because the emotional pain of an empty bucket is greater than the pain of inappropriate feedback. The four types of interpersonal feedback are supportive, corrective, insignificant and abusive. In future articles, we’ll discuss about methods of delivering supportive and corrective feedback, and find out how to minimize insignificant feedback and avoid abusive feedback.
The primary purpose of supportive feedback is to reinforce a behavior you want repeated. When someone gives a behavior that you would like repeated, the most important thing you can do is make a strong supportive deposit in that person’s feedback bucket reinforcing that specific behavior.  If you don’t, because you’re too busy, or you don’t think it’s necessary, you may not see that behavior repeated any time soon.

The purpose of corrective feedback is to change a behavior. If a person’s behavior needs to be changed, the best chance of making that happen is properly applied corrective feedback. The problem is that many people don’t know how to give corrective feedback-they confuse abusive feedback for corrective feedback.  Without training and practice, most people are ineffective at giving corrective feedback: it can be a challenging conversation.

Feedback that has little importance or meaning, or carries little impact is called insignificant–because compared to other types, it really is insignificant.  Feedback that is so vague or general that the person receiving it could be unsure of its purpose is likely to feel insignificant.  Too many of us use insignificant feedback believing it will have a huge positive effect. Actually, it doesn’t. It brings only a minimal response from the other person for a short period of time.

All other types of feedback fall into the fourth category called abusive feedback. So in other words, the feedback you give other people in your interpersonal relationships is supportive, corrective, insignificant, or abusive.  And the type of feedback you choose not only determines the response you are likely to get, but it also defines the quality of the relationship.

It’s usually at this point in my workshops when someone asks, “So when I’m upset at someone, and tell them to ‘shape up or ship out,’ I’m actually abusing that person?”
When asked that question. I respond with, “When you tell someone to ‘shape up or ship out: are you supporting a behavior you want repeated, or are you trying to correct a specific behavior you want changed?”

If it’s obvious that telling a person to “shape up or ship out” is an effort to get an improvement in performance. In other words, it’s an attempt at corrective feedback. But it’s not. It’s actually abusive feedback—and if it works at all, you’ve most likely damaged the relationship and you’ll probably have to solve the same problem again tomorrow.
Consider the example of Jerry, a produce manager in a fairly large supermarket. For several years he consistently produced good financial numbers for the store.  He was a dedicated leader of his crew and did his best to demonstrate good customer service. Clearly, he was one of the best produce managers in his company.  A new store manager decided to leave Jerry alone, because as he said, “Jerry obviously didn’t need my help.”  The new store manager’s rationale was that he had “more important problems to solve than to waste his time in the produce department.”  Over the course of a year Jerry’s numbers began to fall.  He became disenchanted with the routine of the job and the pressure of controlling a critical perishable department began to wear on him.  Finally, he told his district manager that he was considering quitting.  When asked why, he said, “This place isn’t worth it anymore.”

Fortunately, the district manager was sharp and looked for the root cause of’ the problem. What he discovered was a produce manager who had been deprived of attention (feedback) from the new store manager. The previous store manager had regularly given supportive feedback to Jerry, but the new manager focused his attention elsewhere.

The interesting part of this example is what happened to Jerry when the district manager helped the store manager improve his coaching shills. The store manager began spending a few minutes each day in the produce department discussing successes, plans and issues. He offered suggestions and asked for Jerry’s ideas.  At first Jerry was skeptical of the change, thinking there might be a hidden agenda. But after the store manager faced up to his culpability in the situation and apologized for what he had done, Jerry’s performance began to improve.  In fact, within 90 days the old Jerry was back. Department gross returned and complaints disappeared. So how much do people need feedback? Ask Jerry; he has a strong opinion about how important it is.

As we analyze the example of Jerry and his store manager we see that the amount and type of feedback a person receives are directly related to a number of workplace issues.  For example, as appropriate feedback declines, and/or as inappropriate feedback increases respect and then shortly thereafter trust, decline. Note that Jerry’s reaction to his store manager’s attempt at coaching was met with skepticism. When there are deficiencies in feedback, it is very common to experience problems with respect, trust, performance, production, honesty, teamwork and morale. Very few people are able to consistently deliver a high level of work production and a positive mental attitude while not receiving appropriate feedback in their bucket.

In a future discussion, we’ll look specifically at supportive feedback and see how it can be used to not only reinforce good behaviors, but also correct some minor problems as well. In the meantime, get a general sense of what percent of your overall feedback to employees is supportive, corrective, insignificant or abusive.

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About the Author
Richard Williams, Ph.D.
Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.

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