Four more reasons giving public feedback backfires

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In my previous post, I described some examples where a manager tries to give “public feedback” in an effort to change the behaviors of a few people through mass communication.  The communication may be efficient, but the outcomes are not there, and could actually make things worse.  Today, I discuss four more reasons why public feedback is rife with unintended consequences.

Public Feedback” is when a manager notices or learns something he or she doesn’t like on the part of a few, and instead of addressing it with those individuals, addresses it with the entire team.  Three simple examples are:

1)      Employees not following a dress code. Manager: “Reminder to everyone: Follow the dress code.”

2)      Employees late on their status reports. Manger:  “Everyone, I need the status report by end of week, no exceptions.”

3)      Employees gossiping. Manager:  “I will not tolerate gossiping from anyone.”

In the previous post, I detailed what happens with the people whose behaviors are targeted.  But what is the impact on those who are actually doing things correctly?  Not good.

a)      Those who are actually doing it right start to think that they are doing it wrong, and will actually change behavior.

A pernicious effect of public feedback is that the people performing properly will start thinking that they are underperforming, creating worry, angst, and bother where there really shouldn’t be.  They’ll suspect their dress code isn’t good enough.  They’ll fear that their productive conversations are actually gossip and stop collaborating, lest they are accused publically of gossiping.  They’ll drop other things to get the status report in before the deadline.   In all of these cases, the chances are actually quite good that their behavior will change – and in ways that are uneven and unpredictable.  Imagine someone who is already in the dress code trying to get more in the dress code — that could create some odd fashions.

b)      Those who are doing it right will make an extra effort to confirm that they are doing it right

You have 98 out of 100 people who are performing correctly.  You give public feedback to change behavior for the remaining two.  Now you have 98 people not sure if they are doing it right.  These 98 people will be knocking on your door, asking if they are the one who is doing it incorrectly, and asking what they are supposed to do differently.  It won’t happen all at once, but will be a steady trickle.  You don’t have time as a manager to correct the behavior of people already doing it right.

c)       The entire team will doubt your ability to manage—you have no courage.

With public feedback, you are actually hiding from the people who need the feedback.  You don’t have to look them in the eye.  You don’t speak to them directly.  Your public feedback will readily be interpreted by your team that you don’t have the courage to confront someone directly or take on even an obvious managerial task.  This begets a problem that undermines your ability to manage, as people learn that you won’t address issues directly.  On issues such as dress codes, it may not have serious financial consequences, but on issues of strategic direction, it becomes a big deal.   

d)      It is inefficient and ineffective

Public feedback doesn’t work; it might make things worse; it might change behaviors of those doing it right; and it undermines your ability to manage.   It is safe to say that doing public feedback in the spirit of efficiency is actually inexpensive and ineffective.

So don’t provide public corrective feedback.  Always do your best to isolate the issue to as few people as possible, and start providing feedback from there.  Save your team meetings and emails for positive intent areas such as strategy, successes, team forming, problem solving, and anything else that actually moves the team forward, rather than backward.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how public feedback causes more work for the manager.

Have you ever given or received “public feedback”.  How did it work out?  What are your stories?  I look forward to hearing from you!

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


3 Responses to “Four more reasons giving public feedback backfires”
  1. Pat says:

    My first experience with public feedback was when I was an assistant to a professor during my undergraduate days. I received a notice from the Dean of Women to come to her office for a meeting at 5:00. It was a very inconvenient time for me, but I struggled to make it because I thought it was important. Only three of us made it to the meeting, and after ‘waiting for the others’ a while, she gave little talk about the importance of personal hygiene and told us about a ‘trick’ her friend used–she frequently raised her arm and smell under it–to be sure that she was not offensive. We stunned silent three sat there, waiting for the point. She then confessed that a professor had told her his assistant had body odor and asked her to ‘talk to the girls’. She then asked each of us who we worked for and determined that the offender in question was not there. The professor was obviously so discreet he (or she) did not even tell the dean who the offender was–why, if he had done that, the assistant would know her boss found her body odor offensive. The only solution was for the dean to give public feedback. And you know how effective that was. Not only had she not reached the offender, but she lost her credibility as the wise person in charge of guiding us. However, it taught me that public feedback did not work. A good unintended lesson.


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