Leadership through feedback Leadership through feedback

The leader’s role is to ensure that employees know if they are achieving their goals or not. Providing feedback is an opportunity to foster and enhance goal achievement and employee performance with fulfilment, says Stephan Melchior, Managing Partner, Wilson Learning Middle East.

A typical statement from employees about their leaders can often go a little something like this: “If they don’t say anything, I must be doing alright.” As much as we have heard this statement, the reality is that a lot of employees know very little about what their manager is really thinking. What management must understand is that in its basic form, workers want to know if they are doing well so they can keep doing it; they want to know when they are not doing so well, so they can change it.

On the other hand, leaders sometimes complain about their employees, “I tell them what to do, but they don’t do it.” While many causes may underlie this statement, one critical component is that employees frequently do not receive enough feedback to deliver on their goals. Hence, they don’t know whether they are doing the right thing or not.

A contemporary definition of feedback is: “A two-way communication that provides information about performance and instils feelings of fulfilment or satisfaction.” An effective leader must utilise feedback and dialogue to:

– Reinforce factors that are helping the employee achieve his or her goal

– Redirect employees when they do not meet objectives, for example support or coach them

– Renegotiate the goal itself or the methods used to achieve it, if the goal seems to be set too high

Leaders should prepare for feedback dialogue and have a general sense of tactics to recommend, but then have the flexibility to change tactics if the dialogue indicates other, more appropriate solutions. The greatest productivity comes from using a consistent approach or process to providing feedback. In addition, not giving feedback is simply not fair to employees.

Consistency is key

Feedback is the main mechanism for leaders to redirect, reinforce or renegotiate employee behaviours and goals. For many leaders, this is the most difficult aspect of their job. Learning and using a consistent feedback process guides dialogue to increase comfort and ensure results are achieved.

Test yourself by answering the following question: “Do you feel you are receiving enough and regular feedback from your employees?” Feedback can be translated into a simple process with a high impact:

Step 1: Reinforce positive intent

Open the conversation by demonstrating positive intent through adopting and conveying a win-win approach:

– Begin with an opening statement that explains the overall goal of the meeting

– Show interest in what the employee wants

– Ask the employee pertinent questions to draw out his or her point of view

– Volunteer information about your own point of view

– Work with the employee to find mutually satisfying solutions

– Demonstrate honesty and integrity

Step 2:  Explore performance with fulfilment

– Ask questions to elicit the employee’s own perception of his or her performance in the situation

– Ask questions to elicit the employee’s perception of his or her level of fulfilment or satisfaction in the situation

– Share your own perception of the employee’s performance and fulfilment and agree on both your viewpoints

For example, if an employee constantly fails to give powerful presentations, but you find out he/she feels awful giving presentations, you first need to work on the motivation, and then tackle performance.

Step 3:  Assess the environment

– Determine factors that are helping the employee achieve the goal

– Determine factors that are getting in the way of goal achievement

Step 4:  Decide on actions

– Given the degree of performance with fulfilment and the current environment, decide what to reinforce, redirect, or renegotiate

– Identify what processes, resources, tasks, and behaviours may need to be continued or changed

Step 5:  Seek an expression of confidence

– Ensure that the employee is confident about his or her ability to commit to the action plan.

– Add your own statements of confidence as appropriate

– If he or she is not confident, discuss concerns and identify what is getting in the way; explore ways to remove the barriers

– End the feedback dialogue on a positive note

Effective feedback is compassionate, timely and accurate

A frequent excuse for avoiding initiating feedback dialogue is fear of hurting a person’s feelings. Yet, without feedback, people are hurt more.

An all-too-common situation is when the whole work unit has difficulty with one person and no one will tell him or her that there is a problem. How would you feel if you were that person? In which way are the employee’s feelings best protected – by ignoring the situation or by providing effective feedback?

It is important to consider feedback from the recipient’s viewpoint prior to providing it. The leader should imagine how it would feel to receive the feedback and the consequences if the feedback is not given. This will help guide a more compassionate approach.

Timely feedback is important because things happen so fast in business today. Providing feedback on something that was done even two weeks earlier loses its power to influence change. The most effective leaders develop a habit of giving feedback frequently, which creates comfort with feedback among employees.

Feedback is not an annual event; it is continuously provided and sought by the leader as goals are being implemented.  Waiting until the goal is completed is too late to develop the employee’s skills and approach to goal execution.

The need for accurate feedback cannot be understated. There are eight errors that leaders frequently make when observing employee behaviour, which result in providing inaccurate feedback to employees:

1) Accuracy of recall

If you rely on memory alone, and keep no records, you may distort the actual event or behaviour

2) Halo effect

One very outstanding characteristic may determine your perception of an employee’s performance. Your feedback on less prominent aspects of the employee’s performance may be distorted in a positive or negative way.

3) Contrast

You compare the employee with someone else, instead of seeing an employee’s own merits.  You may provide feedback that is better or worse than reality.

4) Stereotyping

In stereotyping, the individuality of a person is ignored, and he or she is seen as behaving in a way that is supposed to be characteristic of a particular group.

Stephan Melchior

5) Differences in standards

The standards you use may be unique to you and different from those commonly accepted by other leaders in your organisation, or you may apply standards differently to different employees.  This lack of uniformity will result in employee resistance to feedback and feedback to be unsupportable.

6) Fixed impression

An earlier observation or impression of your employee may remain fixed in your mind and colour all of your later observations. In effect, you will continue to see the employee as he or she was rather than as he or she is now.

7) Projection

You see your own characteristics in others and perceive them accordingly to your feelings about those characteristics. The employee may actually be very different from you.

8) Inference

You draw conclusions about an employee’s behaviours, which are based on limited behavioural observations or hearsay.

Building a balance between following the five-step process and avoiding the eight points above helps creating and maintaining a common and consistent approach to giving feedback.


Stephan Melchior has been working in the learning and development field for more than 15 years; designing and delivering training programmes in more than 20 countries. He is well known for the graphic facilitation approach he uses in his courses. Today, Stephan is Managing Partner at the Middle East office of Wilson Learning Worldwide, based in Dubai Knowledge Village. As a global organisation, Wilson Learning is the founder of the Performance and Fulfillment concept, and was rated among the Top 20 Leadership and Sales Training companies in 2010 and 2011 (www.trainingindustry.com). Wilson Learning Middle East was also recently ranked among the TOP100 SMEs in Dubai.

Wilson Learning Middle East can be contacted at info@wilsonlearning-me.com, or at +971 50 7553800.


Rushika Bhatia Editor

Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.

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