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How to Avoid Feedback Failure in Project Management: Try One of These Methods!

written by: Sylvia Cochran • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 1/9/2013

A project manager relies on periodic feedback sessions to keep a team on track, within budget and cohesive. There are three techniques that promise success -- if you know how to properly apply them. Be aware that user error can result in project management nightmares!

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    Understanding the Nature of Feedback

    Encoding Communication Dartmouth College experts separate feedback into two possible areas:

    1. Reinforcement: Pinpoints highly and moderately desirable traits and encourages continuation in the future.
    2. Corrective: Highlights areas of desired improvement and offers ideas for achieving progress in short and/or long-term

    For feedback to be helpful and productive, it needs to be based on measurable data, consistent in delivery, and constructive in approach. This methodology results in steady doses of reinforcement or slight course corrections during the duration of the project. Since team members can focus on the modification of only one or two actions taken, feedback is not overwhelming to the point of frustration. This approach also eliminates the need for major course corrections that can easily destroy team unity.

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    Enemies of a Constructive Approach

    The human element adds potential of failure into any feedback session. While honest mistakes, misunderstandings and communication errors do happen, project managers occasionally set themselves up for failure from the onset. In these situations the urgency and poignancy of the message gets lost due to an inept delivery.

    Common traits shared by professionals frequently erring here include:

    • Feedback relies on personal impressions, not verifiable data.
    • Requests for behavior modification are issued in judgmental language.
    • Rather than encouraging self-evaluation, the project manager demands blind obedience to a business model, unquestioning loyalty to a figurehead or adherence to a group-think mentality.
    • Feedback sessions are sporadic, tackle a broad spectrum of tasks and behaviors, and fail to offer hands-on ideas for change implementation.
    • Feedback is given in a group, in front of team members or in an adversarial fashion.

    Generally speaking, these feedback mistakes happen to untrained, disorganized or autocratic project managers. While the first two groups can change their leadership styles rather quickly, the last group -- made up of autocratic leaders -- must re-evaluate the benefits of this leadership style and make much more far-reaching behavioral change modifications.

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    Three Useful Techniques in Organizational Performance Communication

    Feedback Sandwich

    The American Academy of Family Physicians explains the sandwich technique couches a bit of corrective feedback between two elements of reinforcement. Use this type of feedback when data shows a mix between improvement needs and benchmark adherence. The trick to using this style of communication effectively is clarity. As a project manager, you must be extremely succinct in pinpointing the area of needed improvement, as well as the two areas of performance excellence. A common mistake is the use of specific criticism and vague or generic praise.

    E(vidence), E(ffect) and C(hange) or EEC

    In this model, improvement is the focus of the feedback. Communication tools are strictly clinical and intentionally devoid of emotional terms. For example, the project manager corrects a team member for schedule deviations. The evidence presented is a mix of print-outs, data and verifiable incidents of the inappropriate schedule variation. The effect is another print-out that shows concrete cause-and-effect chains brought on by the schedule deviations. The desired change may not be readily apparent to the project manager, and it is here that she should carefully inquire about the possible reasons for schedule divergence. In some cases, it may be a personal problem that took the team member’s focus off the tasks at hand. Self-assessment will lead the worker to the right change response.

    Group Feedback

    While the other methods of communication assume a one-on-one setting, group feedback affects the entire team. It is a dangerous method to use and inevitably leads to misunderstandings and frustration, simply because the delivery of the message cannot be tailored to individual recipients. In this setting, the team -- as a whole -- is the recipient of the communication given by the project manager. It is time-saving but frequently unproductive.

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    A Word on International Teams

    Project management recurrently takes on an international component. Missing or incomplete language familiarity is a huge contributor to misunderstandings, mixed messages and workplace dissatisfaction. An effective project manager recognizes the potential for miscommunication and counteracts it with a feedback method that is rich in bullet points and devoid of cultural or societal nuance. Avoid metaphors, plays on words and colloquial expressions. Instead, adopt a clear method of formal feedback delivery that is brief and to the point.

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    It is clear that using different methods of project feedback to your project team is an integral part of the project’s success. In the same vein, failure at this juncture may quite easily derail an otherwise viable project. Even if the benchmark adherence remains satisfactory, there is a good chance that losses take place in the realm of employee satisfaction, motivation and perhaps even retention.


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