How Public Feedback Can Make the Situation Worse

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A quirk that many managers have is the willingness to provide feedback publically.  That is, the manager will identify something that is going wrong on the team, and then tell the entire team to stop doing that.  An example is, say, one or two people are violating the dress code.  The manager sends an email to the entire organization (let’s say, 100 people) stating, “As a reminder, we have a strict dress code, and all people in the organization are expected to adhere to it.”  Another example is that someone on the team is habitually late with status reports.  The manager writes an email to the entire team stating, “I would like status reports by end of day Friday, no exceptions.”   Here’s a third example:  One or two people have been to gossiping about the latest re-orgs being planned.  At a team meeting, the manager says, “There’s a lot of gossip going around about a potential re-org.  I will not tolerate this, as there is no information about this to discuss.”

This is what I call “Public Feedback.”  The manager is attempting to correct behavior by telling everyone on the team to stop doing what a small segment is doing.  This doesn’t work, and may make things worse here’s why:

a)      It dilutes the message by a huge factor

When you give the message to 100 people, and only 2 people need to change the behavior, your message has, in my estimation, 2% impact.  That is, if you provide the feedback directly and privately, it would be 100% impact, as the receivers are 100% sure it is aimed at them.   A broadcasted message loses clarity of intent that it is aimed at them, and there is even a chance that the target doesn’t see or pay attention to the email.  If their behavior is trending in the wrong direction, it will continue that way.  Additionally, the receiver can logically conclude, “Since I know that very few people are violating the dress code, then it is unlikely that this is aimed at me.”  While the email is very efficient to send, it is inefficient in its impact. 

b)      It doesn’t actually change the behavior of the person(s) you’re aiming the message to

As a consequence of the message being sent to all members of a team or group, you are not actually capable of engaging in a constructive conversation on how to change the behaviors.  You’re missing the corrective part of providing performance feedback.  Without all of the steps of providing feedback, you will not attain your goal of changing behavior.  

c)       It may even increase the undesirable behavior of the persons you’re aiming the message to

Here’s how it works:  The receiver of the message may think that they are actually exceeding expectations, and find a way to keep pushing the envelope.  In the dress-code scenario, the person who violates the dress code, “Max,” reads the email requesting that employees adhere to the dress code.   Max has a choice:  a) Start dressing according to the dress code, b) keep the same dressing style, or c) go further away from the dress code.  In this case, Max can logically conclude, “I wasn’t singled out, so thus my dress code is OK.”  Max can then say, “Well, I want to dress even more on the edge, and since I’m already within the dress code, perhaps I can push it a bit more!” 

In the late status report example, “Francis” can conclude, perhaps sub-consciously, “I must be OK will sending my reports later than the due date, since my manager isn’t calling me out specifically—someone else must be really late! — perhaps I can be just a little bit later with the reports.”  In the gossip example, “Jones” can say, “Well I’m not gossiping, I’m sharing important information.  And since I wasn’t singled out, I guess that my manager must think I’m doing OK.”  Jones then gets the idea that perhaps there is even more gossip to be obtained, and will actively seek it out and share it.

d)      It doesn’t allow for follow up to identify the correct behavior

Even if the receivers of the message correctly identify that they were the target of the message, they won’t know what to do differently, or be able to discuss an alternate path.  The dress code violator doesn’t know what is acceptable and what is not, and doesn’t have a channel to discuss what the correct dress is.  The late-status report person may have other deadlines at the same time as the status report, and is then required to drop something else, but doesn’t have a means to discuss this bind.  The gossipers don’t have a means to find out what counts as gossiping and what doesn’t.  As a result, similar behaviors will persist, and perhaps get worse.

So in an effort to be efficient and solve a problem, you may actually make it worse.  Instead, you need to be target your message to the audience that can actually correct the behaviors.

In my next post, I’ll discuss some more issues that providing “public feedback” can create — with the people the manager isn’t targeting. 

Does your manager provide “public feedback?”  Have you ever tried to do this?  Did it actually change things, or did it even make it worse?

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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 .


5 Responses to “How Public Feedback Can Make the Situation Worse”
  1. Aaron says:

    I worked at a company where there was very little feedback from management given to employees and, when feedback was given, the quality of feedback was poor. Also, feedback was not given in a manner that was constructive. Rather, it was seen as a mark on your permanent record.

    It typically went like this: an executive one layer of management removed from the employee is MBWO or attends a meeting and hears something they don’t like or understand. Rather than ask a clarifying question or provide feedback at that point in time, the executive decides to recount their interpretation of the situation in the next management meeting (a public feedback forum) with multiple managers present. Suddenly, managers are compelled to spring into action to “fix” the situation; so they start calling and e-mailing the “offender” about the event they heard about through the grapevine. The employee then provides to their manager (multiple managers at times) the facts of the situation, including the background of the event which provides the answer to the question, “Why did you handle it this way and not another?”

    Once the direct manager fully understands the facts and the circumstances surrounding the event, they offer the following advice to the employee: “Ok… well, be careful next time (executive) is around because they don’t understand all this stuff.” The manager later informs the executive that they “talked to” the employee about the issue, but does not provide the details, facts, and “why” back UP the chain to the executive, nor the other managers.

    Now, because the employee has been talked to by two managers about the event (neither of whom witnessed the event), they are left wondering a) whether they are incompetent and (b) why everyone is talking about them at the managers meeting. Also, since the information flow did not go back UP and ACROSS the management chain effectively, other managers in the group may have a negative perception about the employee, direct manager, and possibly the executive (someone’s got to be incompetent here, right?). As a result, the collective stress and anxiety levels in the office increase and begin to negatively affect performance.

    It’s a sad situation that is so easy to remedy. I’d like to use an internet colloquialism to sum up these mistakes: “Communication FAIL!”

  2. Great comment, Aaron!
    This is a great (and unfortunate) example of a situation where Management doesn’t really have a way to identify and address performance issues, and in this example, it appears that the assessment of performance comes from someone not directly observing the performance. Chaos ensues!


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