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What I Learned about Giving Employee Feedback from Teaching Writing

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

To be an effective leader, you have to be able to give good feedback. It's the secret to developing positive professional relationships and growing the talent on your team. It's also a skill many managers and trainers struggle with.

There is perhaps no job that requires you to give feedback more often than being a writing teacher. Students need constant real-time performance feedback, formal feedback, and feedback on their reflection processes in order to improve their craft. Give too much feedback and students become overwhelmed. Don't give enough feedback and students feel confused or ignored. Balance is key.

I'm going to share with you a few of the techniques I learned while teaching writing that helped me be a strong department leader.

Feedback develops the conversation in one's mind. One of the most important articles I've ever read about giving feedback is Nancy Sommer's "Responding to Student Writing." Sommers explains that the feedback teachers give replicates the voice of the audience and helps writers start to develop conversation frameworks in their minds. They start to think "how would the reader perceive this?" and understand the responses they might hear to specific choices that they make.

The same is true regardless of the performance task. When I point out my employee's strengths and weaknesses, they make mental notes. When they do the same task later, they start to think "how would the customer/my boss/my coworker perceive this choice?" whereas they may have had no awareness of the issue before.

It's important to keep in mind that they also hear that voice as either a positive guide or a defeating enemy based on the way that feedback has been framed. This is why it's essential to focus on areas of improvement and specific moments in their performance. People feel they can't change who they are, but they can change their behavior. Never makes feedback personal.

Here are some examples:

Bad feedback: "You just don't seem to get this. Are you sure you read everything in the training guide?"

Good feedback: "This part of the process trips up a lot of folks. Next time, make sure the thingamabob is lined up with the hoozawhatzit before you pull the pieces apart."

Bad feedback: "You're just not performing at your potential. You need at least 30% more sales."

Good feedback: "I noticed that you're great at creating rapport with clients but haven't closed on many deals this quarter. What do you think might be getting in the way? Let's try to develop a strategy together so that you can get at least 30% more out of this territory next quarter."

Prioritize HOCs vs LOCs. HOC (higher-order concerns) and LOCs (lower-order concerns) is a strategy for prioritizing feedback. It puts the emphasis on things like demonstration of understanding before style choices and mechanical errors.

Let's look at an example in the workforce:

Elliot has to fill out form 212a every time he takes a customer call. He doesn't really understand the purpose of the form or what all of the fields mean, so he misses a lot of information. He also formats the call tracking ID wrong. How could you help him?

Keeping HOCs and LOCs in mind, you want to make sure that you address higher order concerns before getting bogged down on the lower ones. You focus on teaching Elliot about the purpose of the form, the fields, and why they're important first. Forget about pointing out the formatting of the call ID number at this moment. You don't want to overwhelm him or put equal weight on something less important.

As Elliot comes to understand the form and its purpose, the formatting will start to make sense to him. But he needs time to focus on those bigger issues first. He may also self-correct the formatting once he understands the form, much like a writer may fix their grammar as the concept becomes clearer in their own mind.

People who are learning make mistakes. This is especially true of new employees who are trying to learn job tasks, company policy, office layout, new people's names and roles, and how to fit in with the company culture all at once. If you don't emphasize the most important things to know, they will create prioritization schema themselves, and these may not align with what you feel is important for them to know now.

Acknowledge power dynamics. New managers often struggle with feedback. It's not only because they haven't been given many opportunities to give feedback, but also because they're learning how their new position shapes their interactions with those they lead. Giving a peer feedback can be different from giving a subordinate feedback. There is a different power dynamic at play.

Remember that people may not be comfortable coming to you with questions at first, and they are most likely scared to fail in front of you, even though making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process. It's important that you create opportunities to give feedback that isn't just "you need to fix this." Help employees recognize their strengths. Guide them with specific improvements. Always refrain from making personal judgments and focus on specific behaviors. Paraphrase and offer to clarify.

Most importantly, be open to feedback and collaboration from those who report to you. Model the way to give and receive feedback.

Eventually, employees will see you have their best interest in mind.

Create opportunities for practice and feedback in a low stakes environment. If the only feedback someone gets is when they're doing something job-critical, it's going to cause a lot of anxiety, and it doesn't leave a lot of room for them to improve. However, if they do similar tasks or related tasks along the way and get performance feedback, they will feel less anxious and less surprised when they get to the major test of their abilities.

Leave time for reflection and discuss what was learned in reflection. Reflection is an important part of the learning process. It gives people time to assess their own strengths and areas for improvement, develop strategies, and innovate. But of course, the quality of reflection is dependent on the questions asked. As employees learn how to assess their own success, insist on reflection. Guide that reflection with key questions and discuss the things they learned through reflection. This will help them create a rubric that aligns with company values.

Be timely. Students in my dissertation study told me that they were much more engaged when they got feedback on their writing quickly and had an opportunity to improve specific skills before the next task. The same is true for employees. Feedback needs to be relevant and applicable, otherwise, they start to feel that no one truly cares about their performance.


Looking for help improving the way your ID manager's deliver feedback on writing? Contact us about our workshop series.

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