Category Archives: Feedback

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Feedback: The Lifeblood Of Employee Engagement


Last night I performed a small set of stand-up comedy at the Auckland Town Hall as part of an ensemble line-up in a show for Amnesty International called ‘The Secret Policeman’s Ball.’ It was part of the New Zealand International Comedy Festival. Generally, I try and separate my two strands of business as a leadership speaker / trainer / author and as a stand-up comedian but last night reminded me of one important parallel – feedback.

The show went very well and every performer nailed it. Te Radar was MCing and did a fine job. About half the line-up were very good local comedians and half were visiting overseas comedians. This was my first comedy gig in a few months so I couldn’t have wished for a better re-entry gig. That said, if it isn’t funny, they won’t laugh. Instant, honest feedback that can be used (should be used) in real time to alter your performance for the better. What job wouldn’t benefit from that? (The instant honest feedback, not the being laughed at. Few jobs would benefit from that.)

What can you do in your workplace to enhance the timeliness of the feedback your people receive?

Comedians sometimes get reviewed as my show did last night:

Terry Williams provides some lovely comic moments throughout his time at the microphone, pulling laughs by chatting about his family life and his mid-life crisis trip to an Indonesian jungle away from civilization. He is very much at home on the stage, and from his entrance it is like watching an old friend: lovely jubbly, as Del Boy would say.” 

British-based American comedian Reginald D Hunter was opening the show and, in conversation back stage, he told me that I “looked like a kiwi JFK.” I hadn’t performed yet so it was a comedy reference but it was valuable feedback. I might get a haircut this week…

Why Are So Many Employees Disengaged?


This ‘Psychology Today’ article is grrrrrr8. Not just because it declares the obvious – that most employees are disengaged. Your first question should be, Why?” The answer is:

“The number one factor the study cited influencing engagement and disengagement was ‘relationship with immediate supervisor.'”

The article also addresses the second question that doesn’t get asked that often – WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE IMMEDIATE SUPERVISORS?!

Often shouted by bosses is the phrase, “Recruit attitude; Train skill.” That makes sense. BUT most don’t do it although they do say it. It’s even more true of recruiting frontline leaders – the ones whose relationships are the most critical for the business. And what should those attitude qualities being recruited look like. Psychology Today says:

“the qualities companies traditionally look for when selecting and developing managers and executives are often not conducive to building positive, productive, engaged employee relationships.”

The problem is that employers are recruiting for skill not attitude, despite many saying the opposite. They’re hiring or promoting people into leadership roles because “they’re good at their jobs” or “they deserve a promotion” and leadership roles are the only promotions available. Other options might be better for those people. They deserve something but not to be given a role for which they’re not suited. It doesn’t help them or those they end up leading poorly.

So, a primary focus for Brain-Based Bosses should be redesigning your recruitment processes to attract and snare frontline leaders who have a demonstrated track record of repeatedly being inherently good at building (and maintaining) positive, productive, engaged employee relationships. Then ensuring they’re developed as leaders as soon as practicable, with emphasis on those relationship skills. (Professional relationships – not relationships as Fonzie would have seen them. If you don’t know who Fonzie is, Google him…)

What Motivates Us At Work


I recommend this blog post from Jessica Gross summarising a TED talk from Dan Ariely. It’s a succinct capture of his key points about internal motivation and how we can tap into that (or at least avoid conflicting with that.) There’s some evidence that cute internet kitten photos can actually enhance your sense of focus on a proximate task and I’m definitely going to try the hand-washing motivation technique with my family!

His key points were:

  1. Seeing the fruits of our labor may make us more productive
  2. The less appreciated we feel our work is, the more money we want to do it
  3. The harder a project is, the prouder we feel of it
  4. Knowing that our work helps others may increase our unconscious motivation
  5. The promise of helping others makes us more likely to follow rules
  6. Positive reinforcement about our abilities may increase performance
  7. Images that trigger positive emotions may actually help us focus

Congratulations On Your Engagement


Today’s business section in the Herald runs my latest column on employee engagement.

Q: I want to be a great leader. What’s this thing called “employee engagement” I’ve been hearing about? Is it just consultants coming up with some new term to sell me their services, or what? I’m hoping it’s real. Economic times are tough. I need something to get more out of the team I lead.Bewildered of Birkenhead

A: Dear Bewildered of Birkenhead,

The phrase “employee engagement” might be new and it certainly is flavour of the month in leadership literature, but the underlying concept is true and timeless human nature.

Employee engagement is not “morale” or “satisfaction” or “happiness”. Plenty of unhappy people are highly productive and plenty of deliriously happy folk are fine with showing up, punching a clock, getting paid and going home regardless of whether anything productive happens. Employee engagement is the extent to which an employee chooses to apply discretionary effort. It’s doing more than you have to because you choose to.

So, there are engaged employees doing more than they have to, present employees who do only what they have to, and disengaged employees who are reading this careers section at work to find a new job with anyone who isn’t you.

The numbers vary a little across time, industry and geography, but they’re remarkably consistent: 26 per cent are engaged, 28 per cent are disengaged and 46 per cent are present.

These are averages. What are the proportions in your workplace?

Click here for more…

Feedback: What Happens In Vagueness Stays In Vagueness


Here’s a blog post about the dangers of non-specific feedback. The blogger references the work of psychologist Carol Dweck who I also quote in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ on the subject of fixed versus growth mindsets. Here’s an excerpt:

The work of psychologist Carol Dweck is germane here. What she’s found is that, when children are praised in abstract–“You’re so smart” or “You’re so creative”–rather than concretely about how they improved their performance–“You put in an enormous amount of work, and it paid off”–the feedback is diminished. How come? Because the child takes from the teacher or parent the idea that she is innately smart or creative, and that she doesn’t need to work at it–so she doesn’t.

On the other hand, very specific feedback–especially about something an individual can control–can work wonders.

Quite rightly, the blogger points out that general statements such as ‘Good job’ might make you feel better and make you think that you’re dishing out some positive feedback but it needs to be more than merely positive to be useful and conducive to enhanced productivity. That phrase would need to:

  • be said at the time the specific action warranting praise occurred or as immediately afterwards as possible.
  • be said to the specific individual performing and controlling the praiseworthy action that you’d like to see more of.
  • contain a few more details and expectations than 2 words of generality (what exactly was the bit that was good?)
  • some connection to a greater goal, the wider team or higher purpose.

So, here’s some specific feedback to several new Twitter followers I’ve gotten recently – If you’ve only got 17 Twitter followers yourself, best not describe yourself as a ‘social media guru.’

The Future Of Employee Engagement Surveys

Crystal Ball

This HR Magazine article  by Samantha Arnold makes some excellent points about the problems with surveys as they are commonly conducted and gives some advice for using them effectively. Its well written, concise and agrees with what I think. I like it.

Don’t get hung up on response rates. Create a results focus. Make it easy for managers. Make it business-relevant. All good ideas. Even the one commentor so far makes a great point – you absolutely must provide follow up!

My own two cents’ worth would be about the very existence of a survey in the first place. Mailing out sheets of paper or emailing a link to an online survey to already very busy people is only going to be a great idea if the information coming back is going to be both useful and used. HR folk and managers reading articles or approached by consultants quoting other bits of research often provoke some employers into conducting a survey of their own. I applaud research and information gathering. I’m less enamoured with the shotgun-spraying of surveys.

Even if you find out that x% of those of your employees who responded think they’re engaged or not engaged compared to y% which is the national or industry average, what do you do with that? AND whether or not employees think they are engaged isn’t the actual indicator of engagement. That is their behaviour. A self-completed survey of what people think is interesting and may reveal actions that need to be taken BUT it won’t and can’t reveal engagement. That needs to be observed.

Engagement is not morale or climate or happiness. It is the observation of discretionary effort. Make the effort and get out and observe. That’s useful, accurate, objective and gets to your brain a lot quicker than the aggregated results of a survey.

Can Crowdsourcing Improve Employee Performance?

This recent item from CBS News considers how looking to co-workers for feedback might be an improvement on the traditional linear boss-worker performance reviewer-reviewee relationship. According to a study it cites, 45 percent of HR leaders don’t believe that employees’ annual performance reviews accurately reflect the quality of their work. As an employee, I certainly never believed that (unless it equaled or exceeded my own expectations.)

The article doesn’t go into the practicalities of how it could or should be done but they stipulate 3 benefits:

  1. Capture feedback continuously
  2. Widen the circle
  3. Feedback is genuine

For all its downsides, the traditional one-on-one approach is simple. (But is that sufficient reason to keep it alive?) Probably all the benefits of a peer-to-peer feedback system could be incorporated into a traditional approach – if the manager could be bothered getting out and seeking and aggregating the feedback. Which is, of course, where it falls down.

The aggregation is important to keep it honest and timely so it’s not just all warm and fuzzy cuddle feedback but open and honest corrective feedback too. As grand as crowdsourced feedback would be if it could be practically done, there definitely needs to be a means of keeping a practical ratio of positive and negative.

Psychologist Marcial Losada’s 1999 study looked at communication in teams, particularly the ratio of positive to negative statements. Various teams were tagged as being high, medium or low performing teams based on profitability, customer satisfaction and evaluations from management. The lowest high performing teams has a ratio of positive to negative statements of 2.9013:1. (For us non-academics, let’s round that to 3:1.) The highest performing teams averaged around 6:1. But there were diminishing returns and eventually a negative effect. Some of the worst performing teams had an 11:1 ratio so everyone must have been so busy hugging and bestowing warm fuzzies on everyone else, that no one ever did any actual productive work. That level of positivity is over-the-top, unrealistic and evidently not productive.

What’s so special about this magical zone of positivity? Losada says a highly connected team balances internal and external focus while also balancing enquiry and advocacy. If you’ve ever been in a highly negative workplace, you’ll know what he’s talking about. If you do something and make a mistake and you get slapped with blame and negativity, that drives the behaviours of avoidance and defensiveness.

Isn’t that right, you moron?

5 Things Remarkable Bosses Never Do

Yes we laugh but only because of the fear that in some ways we’re a little bit like him…

This TIME Magazine article by Jeff Haden is short, sweet and worth a read. It’s theme to me seems to be that effective leaders deal with things in the ‘now.’ It suggests that many of the formal structures of organisations in dealing with people such as performance reviews, formal meetings and development plans occur too late to be useful. I agree… IF those reviews and plans are all that is done. My advice to leaders in the workplace is to do both – deal with stuff as it happens, which really is the smart and effective approach, BUT also keep thin but useful records so you can plug things into the formal structures. You don’t want to create a massive administrative workload but you do want to capture an ongoing record.

Memory in a tricky thing. It isn’t like pulling discs out of a video library and replaying exactly what happened. For a start, even your initial experience of the event is distorted by your perspective, as opposed to the perspectives of the other players. Whoever said that there are two sides to every story were severely underestimating. Time, emotion, biases and other stuff further distort memory. By the time we do need to recall a past event, our minds don’t replay, they recreate. Assuming, of course, that it ever gets recalled at all. I barely recall what I had for breakfast yesterday. How could I, or my employees, be expected to accurately and fairly recall something that happened six months ago? You can’t. You shouldn’t.

Feedback (of whatever kind) to be effective needs to be as close to the event as possible. Saving it up for a performance review in six months is of little use and perhaps even counterproductive. I agree with Haden on that. BUT I do think that all those little events in all those ‘nows’ across a year or six months or whatever the review period is, need to be captured somewhere, so they can be presented in summary to give all concerned a holistic picture of performance.

Now I need to attend to what I’m going to have for breakfast today. I’m not one of you same-thing-for-breakfast-ever-day people. Your stomach might thank you but your mind gets miffed. I must search for research on what what this reveals about our mind and character. I suspect you same-thing-for-breakfast-ever-day people would make good accountants and proof-readers. I know I wouldn’t!

Making Your Own Luck

The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get

The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get

There’s a cliche in business that, “The harder you work, the luckier you get,” implying that we make our own luck and that it isn’t random at all but simply a set of circumstances within our control that we choose to (or choose not to) control to varying degrees. (Much like I lost control of that opening sentence. Oh blogs with your laxness.)

This article from Psychology Today by Rebecca Webber outlines a few simple, easy, cheap and obvious things we COULD do to increase the odds of something ‘lucky’ happening to us. In short, the more things in total we allow or engineer to happen to us, the greater the number of good things that will occur, increasing our subconscious perception of being lucky. Get out there, meet people, do things, attempt stuff and, in relative terms, more good things will fall into your lap than if you stayed home to watch that solo Battlestar Gallactica DVD marathon you’d planned this weekend.

So, what does this have to do with engaging employees?

Webber cites one experiment by one of my favourite ‘making psychology fun guys’ – Richard Wiseman. In this study, participants were asked to count the number of photographs in a newspaper that he gave them. There were 43 photographs and the average participant only took a few minutes to get a usually accurate answer. It would’ve taken them 5 seconds if they read the bold headline of the newspaper which said, ‘There are 43 photographs in this newspaper’…


People, eh?

As with our search for luck, or our search at work to achieve narrowly focused goals, too often this overly lazerlike blinkedness prevents us from seeing fresh or different opportunities outside what it is we’re focused on at the time. I’m not trying to diminish the power of goal-setting and so forth, just identify the risks of sunk costs, missed chances and wrong paths taken. Today’s environments are unsuited for longterm and fixed goal-setting approaches. Flexibility, vigilance and adjustment are keys.

Wiseman’s experiment’s newspaper also had another headline that few participants saw, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.”

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