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October 10, 2019

Do you 'sugarcoat' employee feedback? It's likely backfiring, experts say.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Apr. 28, 2021.

    When managers give feedback to direct reports, they tend to inflate it so it comes across more positively than intended, but this tendency can "make it impossible for employees to learn," Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab write for Harvard Business Review, outlining why managers sugarcoat criticism—and how they can stop.  

    Slide deck: How to deliver effective feedback

    Schaerer is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Singapore Management University and Roderick Swaab is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a business school.

    Why managers sugarcoat things

    According to Schaerer and Swaab, previous research on feedback inflation has focused on the idea that managers soften criticism "for fear of retaliation, or to protect their employees from feeling bad about themselves." However, Schaerer and Swaab in their research found that many managers actually believe they are being far more direct in their feedback delivery than they actually are. 

    This belief can be explained in part by a cognitive bias called the "illusion of transparency," Schaerer and Swaab write. This bias "is one of the most common causes of misunderstandings when we communicate with others," Schaerer and Swaab explain. It occurs when people "are so focused on their own intense feelings and intentions that they overestimate the extent to which their inner worlds come across to others," Schaerer and Swaab write.

    To learn more about this cognitive bias, Schaerer and Swaab surveyed 173 managers and 566 employees at a nonprofit organization. For the study, the researchers asked employees to rate how well they performed in a recent review, while managers were asked to specify what they thought employees would say. "As we expected, the employees perceived their feedback as being more positive than their managers thought they would," Schaerer and Swaab write.

    In a related study, the researchers investigated what could be done to reduce the gap between managers' and employees' perceptions. For this study, the researchers assigned a group of MBA students to act as managers or employees. Managers were asked to evaluate employees based on data the researchers gave the managers about the employees' capabilities. One group of managers was told their feedback wouldn't be "evident" to the employees and that employees likely would not see the evaluations the same way the managers did.

    "We found that the managers who were given this warning delivered much more accurate feedback than the others—the gap between the perceptions of the evaluation disappeared," Schaerer and Swaab write.

    How to overcome the illusion of transparency

    "While it can be helpful to become aware of unintentional behaviors, overcoming them is notoriously difficult," Schaerer and Swaab. Based on their research, they share several ways to overcome the illusion of transparency.

    First, managers can increase the frequency of feedback by adding weekly or monthly check-ins or annual appraisals to communicate more clearly with their direct reports. Organizations should also promote a culture that encourages employees to seek feedback, the researchers write. "Research has found that giving feedback more frequently makes feedback more accurate. This repetition will also help reinforce your message," Schaerer and Swaab write.

    Another way to communicate feedback more candidly is to use clear language. Clarity and specificity are "managers' best tools," according to Schaerer and Swaab. "One phrase to avoid," according to Schaerer and Swaab "is 'a real possibility,' which people interpret as conveying a likelihood of anywhere from 20%–80%."

    To ensure an employee understood feedback, managers can ask them to paraphrase the feedback. "Managers also need to actively encourage employees to tell them how they see their own performance," they write. "As a manager, ask open-ended questions like, 'What am I not seeing here? What may I be overlooking?'"

    Meanwhile, employees can overcome incorrect assumptions by asking questions in return and asking managers to use clear language when giving feedback. "Employees want more accurate and candid negative feedback," Scharer and Swaab write, "so it's a win for all if managers can give it" (Schaerer/Swaab, Harvard Business Review, 10/8).

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