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On Sunday my youngest son’s soccer team opened their 2024 season with a 0 – 3 defeat.

The new coach was very instructive from the sidelines throughout the game, in contrast to the team’s most recent previous coach.

Last night the coach had the players watch the entire game on the big screen at the club so he could specifically show them where, and when, he wants them to be, depending upon whether we have possession, or the opposition does.

When I collected my son from the clubrooms I asked him about the session. He said he found it very helpful. I asked him why and he replied “I now know exactly what I’m doing right and what I need to do differently in each match situation.”

Unsurprisingly feedback features heavily when employees are asked about their job, their manager and their employer.

A recent Ipsos survey of 1,000 Australians revealed that 69% feel proud to work for their organisation, and 67% would recommend their employer as a great place to work however, 35% of the respondents said they still plan to leave their organisation within two years, with “Not feeling valued, appreciated, or recognised” as the second-most nominated reason (after pay and benefits) for prompting their exit plans.

Similarly, the Arbinger Institute’s 2024 Workplace Trends report, which surveyed over 300 business leaders from across the world noted the largest two contributors to employee job satisfaction were work-life balance and salary, followed by meaningful work; recognition and appreciation; and opportunities for growth.

From my experience and observation meaningful work, recognition and appreciation and opportunities for growth are all factors directly linked to the quality and quantity of feedback a leader provides to their direct reports.

These two recent pieces of research reinforced a much more substantial piece of research from employee engagement consulting form, Gallup, based on a survey of 15,000 employees and published in May last year.

In all the recent debate about return-to-office mandates it was rather stark to read that meaningful feedback was a much more important driver of employee engagement than days in the office.

Gallup’s conclusion was: “80% of employees who say they have received meaningful feedback in the past week are fully engaged — regardless of how many days they worked in the office. In fact, the boost from meaningful feedback gives four times the lift in engagement than having the “right number” of days in the office.”

Gallup researchers studied the most common characteristics of extremely meaningful and less meaningful conversations to identify the key differences.

The top five characteristics of meaningful conversations, in order of importance, are:

  • Recognition or appreciation for recent work. Gallup and Workhuman found that only 10% of employees are asked how they like to be recognised and appreciated. And only 23% of employees strongly agree that they get the right amount of recognition for the work they do. Those who do are four times more likely to be engaged.
  • Collaboration and relationships. Gallup found that the correlations between coworker relationships and intention to stay as well as likelihood to recommend the company were stronger post-pandemic compared to pre-pandemic. Managers play a key role in connecting employees in the workplace.
  • Current goals and priorities at work. Clarity of expectations is the foundation of high performance. Most managers act like their direct reports are mind readers. More remote work means weekly check-ins are essential to ensure expectations are aligned with work activities and results.
  • The length of the conversation. Between 15 and 30 minutes is enough time for a meaningful conversation, but only if it happens frequently. Shorter, more frequent conversations are more impactful than longer irregular conversations.
  • Employee strengths or the things they do well. An employee’s strengths are much more likely to be consistently applied to work activities if the manager identifies the employee’s specific strengths and helps the employee understand how those strengths play a role in the employee delivering quality work.

The Gallup research identified the conversation topic employees perceive as less meaningful, yet it’s the one that frequently becomes the default reason for a conversation between the manager and employee – discussing the employee’s weaknesses, unmet expectations or what they don’t do well.

The Gallup research concludes that feedback is meaningful to employees when their manager focuses on recognition, collaboration, goals, priorities, and strengths.

When a manager frequently engages in those types of conversations with their employee it’s much more likely that when weaknesses and unmet expectations need to be addressed the employee is more willing to listen and act. If a employee agrees with their manager about their strengths they are much more inclined to believe and accept their manager’s opinion when weaknesses need to be identified and addressed.

It’s human nature to respect the opinion of a person who sees and acknowledges both our strengths and weaknesses.

When we only hear (no matter how well-intended) feedback-to-improve or criticism we feel unappreciated.

As the research clearly shows an employee who feels unappreciated invests less effort in their current work, suffers declining motivation about their future at the organisation and, inevitably, is more likely to direct their time and effort towards finding alternative employment.

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Galop researchers seem to have missed one important point (maybe it comes in as “6”?). While it is great to be all positive, when/where there are shortcomings or learning areas for a staff member, a manager is derelict in their duty if they do not bring these issues up, and work through them in a positive and constructive fashion with the staff member. How else does the staff member grow?

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