I confess this is something I struggled with in my 30 years as a manager.
I had a boss who excelled at pinpointing weaknesses, and I learned a lot from her. [Plus, my mother was pretty good at this too – but we don’t have all day here.]
Ironically, this same boss told me ad infinitum (whenever I wanted to give someone a raise), that money didn’t really motivate people. All sorts of other things mattered more, including work environment.
At the time, I didn’t really believe this. I was constantly advocating for well-deserved raises because I thought it was the best gift I had to offer. And, by golly, it seemed like the right and fair thing to do! She told me resources were limited, and the satisfaction from a raise is fleeting, compared with things like greater authority, autonomy, praise and recognition.
You know what? She was right about what is most meaningful to employees in a workplace.
Because as much as the people who worked for me enjoyed a good raise, they complained a lot more about lack of advancement opportunity, responsibility without authority, a top-down infrastructure, lack of job fit, unrealistically high expectations, shortage of support and an overall stressful work environment.
If money is really bad, of course, it will get in the way. However, it’s worth noting money is only fourth among the top five reasons people cite for leaving a job. In fact, the preponderance of research into the value of money as a motivator notes it is a motivator up to a certain point; once folks reach that level, more money has a negligible impact on their satisfaction.
[Background: I was fortunate during my career not to work at places where folks were expected to buy into the “starvation cycle” mentality and live below minimum wage. Where I worked, people generally were fairly and well-compensated. Sure, they’d likely tell you they wanted more money. But this was not the reason they left.]
“In a nutshell: money does not buy engagement.”
— Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and How to Fix It)
Employee engagement is a product of overall work environment (culture) and specific management support (feedback, praise and recognition).
Begin with an Engaging Work Environment
A huge part of what employees will describe as “work environment” has to do with meaningful engagement, or lack thereof. And there are two ways to promote this engagement:
- Develop a broad, organizational culture of philanthropy [See here, here, here and here.]
- Develop a feedback system incorporating authentic praise, recognition and focus on strengths, not weaknesses.
I talk a lot about the former. Today I’d like to hone in on the latter.
Because… for engagement to stick, the two types must go hand-in-hand.
In fact, research reveals in workplaces without strongly engaged cultures, recognition and praise have no effect on reducing turnover. You may be doing an A+ job with your feedback, but it’s not going to really help you if you’re stuck in dysfunctional work culture. So if this describes your workplace, first read more about what you can do to strengthen your culture of philanthropy. If you’re pretty good on that front, read on.
Because… in organizations with moderate to strong engagement levels, employees reporting they receive adequate recognition have 19% less turnover than those who do not receive recognition.
“When there is a contradiction between local and broad culture, people sense a lack of authenticity… It’s likely that employees perceive recognition as authentic when the overall culture is supportive — and inauthentic or even confusing when the culture is miserable,”
— James K. Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s chief scientist for workplace management
Incorporate Ongoing Authentic, Meaningful Feedback
Providing constructive feedback is too often overlooked as a management skill. People are often promoted to manage other people, staff and volunteers, without ever being taught how to offer regular, practical and sensitively-delivered feedback. Yet it’s critically important when it comes to employees feeling engaged, connected and satisfied at work.
Remarkably, offering feedback is a way of providing an important sense of community essential to moving people from a sense of surviving to thriving. You know asking donors for feedback is a way to develop deeper, more fulfilling relationships, right? The same holds true for your co-workers. In one study by Christine Porath and Tony Schwartz of over 20,000 people across industries and organizations, they found higher levels of employee feedback are associated with:
- 89% greater thriving at work,
- 63% more engagement,
- 79% higher job satisfaction, and
- 2 times greater likelihood the employee would stay with the organization.
8 Strategies to Improve Feedback Delivery
1. Hold Regular Progress Discussions
A sense of progress is the most powerful motivator in the workplace, even stronger than personal recognition or pay. Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer describe in The Progress Principle how this works, and Gallup’s chief workplace scientist agrees. You must assure you offer feedback within a supportive context, with the true intent of helping employees progress.
These sessions should not be perceived as critiques or evaluations.
“In cultures where engagement is low, progress discussions turn into performance evaluations. But when the team is engaged, progress discussions actually do what they’re meant to do: help an employee to progress.”
— James K. Harter, Ph.D.
Begin simply by asking people if they want feedback. For example, you might say “I’ve observed some things about your work recently. Would you be interested in some feedback?” If people take ownership of receiving feedback they’ll be more open and less defensive.
2. Explain Why You’re Offering Feedback
Starting with your intention can lower defenses. In one study a team of psychologists found prefacing feedback with something this simple could make feedback 40% more effective.
“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
You could also say “I believe in you and I know you’re up to this challenge.” When people know you have their back, and your intention is helpful not hurtful, they will be much more open to criticism and apt to perceive it in a positive light.
Try relating on a personal level too. You might try “I had mentors and managers who really helped me along the way, and I’d like to pay it forward.” Or “I’ve been studying good managers, and have learned they give a lot of feedback; I’m working on doing more of that.” Or even “I think it would be great if we worked on giving each other feedback about ways to be more effective.”
3. Don’t Do the “Feedback Sandwich”
While it’s human nature to want to soften the blow, this can be confusing at best or downright counter-productive at worst. If you start with a compliment and end on a high note, sandwiching the negative news in the middle, it can get lost. It might make you feel good, but it won’t help the feedback recipient.
In situations with power dynamics at play, people tend to brace themselves for the worst. If you begin with praise, even if sincere, they won’t hear it because they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Or they’ll hear it, but won’t give it any credence as they’ll reason you were just trying to sweeten the pill.
People remember what happens first and last in a conversation. This is known as the primacy and recency effects in psychology and learning. The middle gets glossed over. When the middle is your important feedback, the whole purpose of your meeting gets discounted.
4. Use Radical Candor
Begin with acknowledgment, attentive listening and gratitude. According to Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, this means showing you care before offering a critique. She calls this “caring personally while challenging directly.”
Remember to offer feedback within the context of managing your employee’s personal growth. As a human being, that’s your mission. And using radical candor can help you get people to achieve more collaboratively than they might on their own.
5. Offer Feedback Sooner Rather than Later
Don’t let problems fester. It’s not helpful to people when you tell them something vague like “I’ve noticed you tend to overreact,” when you can’t give them a specific example. They’re likely to have forgotten whatever situation you’re remembering, so they won’t be able to constructively work on ameliorating things. They’ll simply feel criticized.
6. Offer Negative Feedback Privately
Just as public recognition is powerful, so is public criticism – but in a negative rather than positive way. Your aim is not to shame or punish your employee, but to help them progress.
7. Check Your Body Language
How you say something is just as important as what you say. This may be something you pay attention to in conversations with donors; do it in conversations with staff as well. If you’re saying nice words, but folding your hands across your chest in a closed position, subtly nodding “no,” speaking with the corners of your mouth turned down, or simultaneously checking your phone for messages, the employee will feel you more than hear you.
Exhibit empathy and be attuned to the other person. Researchers have found this will alter both of your brain chemistry, helping you to be “in tune” and receptive to one another.
8. Play to People’s Strengths
Too often in our society we focus on weaknesses over strengths. It’s paradoxical and counter-productive.
“[T]urnover is lower in work units in which the manager adjusts jobs based on individual talents and strengths and actively removes unnecessary barriers.”
— Jennifer Robinson, Senior Editor, Gallup
Adjust your feedback to offer opportunities for employees to do what they do best. Rather than honing in on weaknesses and asking people to improve in those areas, ask people to do more of what they’re really good at. The Gallup research found 20 – 40% fewer managers and skilled or semi-skilled employees quit when allowed to play to their talents.
Employee Engagement in a Nutshell
If you seek higher performance, less staff turnover and an overall productive and fulfilling workplace, don’t neglect the role played by positive feedback, authentic praise and meaningful recognition. This will not only create more fulfilling relationships, but will also create a feedback loop within your culture where each person gets and receives useful advice.
“The more this happens, the stronger the connections among team members, with those who receive this feedback feeling that those who provide it are partners or coaches who have a personal stake in their development. The workplace thus becomes an incubator, a safe, protected space, within which its members can grow stronger.”
— Christine Porath, author, Mastering Community
Meet employee needs by:
- Setting clear expectations
- Providing support, such staff and infrastructure to do the job right
- Offering the opportunity to do what staff do best every day
- Showing you care
- Demonstrating a commitment to quality, growth and learning across the organization
- Offering opportunities for growth and learning
- Encouraging development by listening
- Sharing the organization’s mission and helping staff understand the importance of their role within that mission
- Providing specific feedback on how they are helping your team and community
And don’t forget to focus on how you deliver the feedback. By providing compassionate, careful, thoughtful and candid criticism you can help your team members do their best work, and make your workplace an engaging and thriving environment.
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