A Harvard Study Proves This Age-Old Saying Is True–And Every Manager Should Know It

Watch your tone.

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BY Michael Schneider - 16 Nov 2018

harvard study proves an old-saying is true

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

How you deliver a message is just as important as the message itself.

A 2008 Harvard Business Review study showed that people who received positive feedback accompanied by negative emotional signals reported feeling worse about their performance than those who received good-natured negative feedback.

Especially during performance conversations, it's critical that manager's focus on their tone just as much as they focus on the content. Feedback is essential, but if it isn't delivered in a way that fosters a positive mood and reaction, then it can do more harm than good.

This age-old colloquialism is actually rooted in science. Social Intelligence, as defined by Daniel Goleman (internationally known psychologist and bestselling author) and Richard Boyatzis (professor at Case Western Reserve University), is a set of interpersonal competencies built on specific neural circuits and responses that inspire others to be effective. In other words, certain leadership behaviors elicit positive emotional reactions in your team members.

One neurological discovery that supports the importance of social intelligence is "mirror neurons." In short, a mirror neuron fires in social situations telling our brains to mimic, or "mirror," what someone else does. That's why you might find yourself copying people's body language or drawing off of someone else's mood. As you can imagine, this research has extraordinary significance in organizations especially for those in a position to influence others.

To ensure that you set the right one, here are four ways you can tweak your delivery.

1. Get started on the right foot.

For employees to be open and receptive to feedback, it's critical that managers create an environment that's encouraging, supportive, and constructive.

Start by emphasizing the relationship and convey warmth and empathy to show the employee that they are valued, respected, and included.

Next, stress the importance of having a growth mindset. As opposed to a fixed mindset, a growth mindset suggests that skills, competency, and effectiveness can be cultivated over time. It means that mistakes and feedback are a vital part of the learning process and not something to be ashamed of. Feedback is a precursor to praise -- employees should crave constructive criticism just as they do encouragement.

2. Use structure.

To ensure your delivery is consistent, free from bias and effective, it's helpful to use a predetermined format to communicate feedback.

Two of my favorite models are SBI and GROW.

SBI -- (Situation, Behavior, and Impact) is my preferred method when delivering feedback involving corrective actions. You start by describing the specific situation in which the employee exhibited poor judgment or performance. Next, you recall the exact decision the employee made. And last, you help the employee understand the impact of that decision on you, the team, or the organization.

An example would look like this, "During our team meeting last week, you were 15 minutes late which threw off the agenda resulting in a follow-up meeting having to be scheduled."

This same format can be used to demonstrate desired behavior as well.

GROW -- (Goal, Reality, Options and Will) is my preferred option when providing direction and guidance. You start by asking the employee what they would like to accomplish. Then, you analyze the current situation to determine what stands in the way of achieving that goal. You discuss options for addressing those hurdles and then detail an action plan.

3. Give future-focused feedback.

Rather than harping on previous mistakes, future-focused feedback emphasizes important steps to improve future performance.

Instead of saying "You should have, " try to use phrases like "What can we work on so that this can be improved in the future?"

Although the constructive criticism approach is effective in some contexts, focusing solely on what the employee did wrong comes across as judgmental. The employee may understand what he or she did wrong, but they won't willingly accept feedback vital to their growth and progress.

How you say something is just as important as what you say. In addition to preparing materials and message points for employee performance reviews, it's also critical to practice your delivery. These three tweaks will ensure you start off on the right foot and increase the likelihood that your feedback will be received and more importantly, applied.

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