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Bogus Excuses: The Real Reasons Why Bosses Aren’t Giving Feedback

Bust your own myths about feedback and start helping your team improve.

Bogus Excuses: The Real Reasons Why Bosses Aren’t Giving Feedback
[Holding megaphone: vectornova via Shutterstock]

Despite the fact that millennials, hard-to-retain workers, and a large percentage of employees at all levels are screaming for more frequent feedback from their bosses, they’re not getting it.

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I’ve seen this up close and personal in my role as an organization consultant for companies of diverse sizes, industries, and geographies. Over the last 25 years, I’ve interviewed more than 2,100 individuals, supervisors, managers, and executives and tracked the supply vs. demand for feedback from bosses. The conclusion: A growing gap between the amount of feedback employees want and how much bosses deliver.

Employee engagement surveys bear this out. Gallup’s massive longitudinal study shows there is no more important indicator of satisfaction and willingness to stay on the job than whether or not “someone in their workplace (usually a manager) has talked with them recently about how they’re doing on the job.” Over sixty percent of global employees report receiving too little feedback and a quarter of them report that they received no feedback at all from their supervisors–a major factor in their workplace dissatisfaction.

Other research points out that employees want more constructive criticism, not just positive pats on the back. The WorldatWork website published Leadership IQ’s study of more than 3,600 employees, in which 51% of them said that they received too little constructive criticism from their boss, and 65% said they didn’t receive enough information to know what to repeat or change.

What’s The Holdup?

Younger workers, used to streaming information from every other source, want to know exactly what they need to do to perform well on the job.

In interviews with employees, I heard the resounding message: “Tell me how I can improve right away” and “Please DO NOT hold back this information!” If you understand feedback as information first and foremost, those who are used to massive amounts of it in their everyday environments are shocked when crucial information from this one important source–their boss–is missing.

There are many reasons bosses offer why they can’t satisfy the hungry lions with more feedback. But the real truth is that giving feedback has always been fraught with emotions such as fear, avoidance, and fight-or-flight stress that is triggered in the brain. In addition, personality tendencies such as the need to be liked or reluctance to trigger others’ emotional responses play a role.

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Modern HR approaches that attempt to mitigate the “pain” of giving feedback–promotion of a 360 degree or other anonymous feedback culture, excusing some technical managers from having to personally deliver feedback, and outsourcing the feedback role for a growing percentage of contract employees all send a message that feedback is too hard.

Managers themselves, trying to respond in real time to so many other demands, offer a number of reasons why they can’t give employees as much feedback as they’d like. However, the root causes that can lead to solutions all lie in the realm of human psychology.

Bogus Excuse #1: “No time to give feedback.”

Real Reason: Most bosses dread the task of giving honest feedback and they delay it until it’s required for performance review. Leaders who are comfortable with it, do it at least weekly, and see it as a way to build–rather than tear down–trust, discover that great feedback takes 30 seconds to 5 minutes and actually saves time.

Bogus Excuse #2: “Feedback will create unhappiness and lead to turnover.”

Real Reason: These bosses don’t calculate that the lack of authentic feedback from a boss leads to more unhappiness and greater turnover. Employees who have bosses that coach and challenge them are much happier than employees who receive vague or scarce feedback.

Bogus Excuse #3: “Feedback will unleash drama and hurt productivity. It’s very likely that some employees will either cry or have an angry outburst.”

Real reason: These leaders (and there are many of them) have an exaggerated fear of employees’ reacting emotionally and of the effects it could have on workflow. They fail to see the dramatically positive impact of honest feedback on results.

Bogus Excuse #4: “Feedback will do no good. People are either capable or incapable and feedback is a waste of time.”

Real Reason: This is a mistaken belief that people don’t learn, grow, or change much. Such leaders underestimate the power of feedback loops and how the employees absolutely must have the information they need to change the way they do their work–for the good of the company and for the employees’ careers.

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Bogus Excuse #5: “Top management doesn’t do feedback well and therefore it’s not welcome in this culture.”

Real Reason: Misunderstanding of the huge potential for feedback to benefit the business and the likelihood that upper management will reward such a high-performing team. Even when executives avoid giving feedback themselves, they usually welcome it in other leaders.

Bogus Excuse #6: “We haven’t been trained in the proper method for giving feedback.”

Real Reason: Although training can help, almost anyone’s natural style of giving feedback can work well when and if the fear factors are transformed into a new belief: “This is the best way to help my team members grow and develop.”

Anna Carroll, MSSW, is an organization development consultant, facilitator, coach, and speaker. She designs and leads training and group planning experiences and creates learning tools and assessments to speed up group success. Most recently Carroll has focused on the power of feedback loops and how leaders and team members can overcome their barriers to exchanging valuable feedback in the workplace. Her book, The Feedback Imperative: How to Give Everyday Feedback to Speed Up Your Team’s Success, was published in July 2014 by River Grove Press. For more information, please visit www.everydayfeedback.com.