Actionable Feedback: Unlocking the Power of Learning and Performance Improvement

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Academy of Management Executive, 2005, Vol. 19, No. 2

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Actionable feedback: Unlocking the power of learning and performance improvement Mark D. Cannon and Robert Witherspoon Executive Overview

........................................................................................................................................................................ Critical Feedback It’s no secret that most people dislike giving critical feedback.1 To compound the problem, delivery of critical feedback frequently fails to lead to a desirable change in the recipient’s behavior.2 In addition, recipients of critical feedback sometimes retain hostile feelings towards the givers for years after the fact and may even lash out at them.3 Nonetheless, because assimilation of accurate feedback is crucial to employee learning and development,4 managers are charged with the responsibility of providing it. In an effort to assist managers with this challenging task, we will explore what makes feedback-giving so difficult and what can be done to make it less painful and more useful. More specifically, we will describe the cognitive and emotional dynamics— how we think and feel—that interfere with the quality of feedback giving and receiving. We will also explore how understanding these dynamics can help managers produce more actionable feedback. By “actionable feedback” we mean feedback that produces both 120

Delivering critical feedback can be brutal for everyone involved. Most managers hate giving critical feedback, and most employees detest receiving it. In addition, critical feedback often fails to produce the desired results. We describe how cognitive and emotional dynamics— how we think and feel while giving and receiving feedback— can complicate this process, making it more painful and less useful than it should be. These dynamics often interfere with the ability of recipients to process and respond constructively to feedback. They also interfere with the ability of feedback givers to formulate and deliver feedback that is high quality and does not produce defensiveness. Further complicating matters, both feedback givers and receivers have a difficult time recognizing how their own cognitive and emotional dynamics are hindering their effectiveness in the feedback process. We illustrate how these dynamics hamper the feedback giving and receiving process and how understanding them can help managers produce more actionable feedback on performance (feedback that leads to learning and appropriate results).

learning and tangible, appropriate results, such as increasing effectiveness and improving performance on the job. When we say “managers,” we are referring mainly to an employee’s direct boss, but also to other key parties (including one’s other superiors, peers, and subordinates) who may provide support and feedback to that employee over time. The Impact of Feedback on Learning and Development The importance of feedback for learning and improvement has long been recognized by psychologists.5 A McKinsey & Company survey of over 12,000 managers throughout the world also supports this recognition (see Figure 1).6 As Figure 1 illustrates, managers consider “candid, insightful feedback” extremely important to their development, but most do not believe their companies do a good job of providing such feedback. This finding parallels our experience in coaching a wide range of people who commonly complain that they get little guidance or feedback on their work.

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Figure 1 Factors that Drive Development

Talented people depend on others for honest assessments of their work in determining what to do better. Without feedback about their performance, they have a hard time figuring out how to improve.7 With constructive feedback,...
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