One of the manager's least pleasant tasks: the bad news interview. To make it more bearable, the well-known 'shit sandwich' is often taken out of the closet: first a positive message, followed by the bad news, and then concluded with a positive message.
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American research shows that managers like to blow up their feedback in these cases: compliments are made just a little more positive than they actually are.
It is a noble endeavor: you do not want to offend someone's feelings with the message that someone is not doing well. But the danger of doing things more nicely than they are is that the situation does not become a learning opportunity for your employees and thus damages their careers in the long term - and yours as a manager.
However, research shows that managers do not just sugar-coat their feedback so that employees do not feel bad, but that they also unconsciously package it nicer than it is. And where conscious behavior is easy to tackle, unconscious behaviors are sometimes so ingrained that it is difficult to change anything.
The illusion of transparency
Two researchers from INSEAD and Singapore Management University, who investigated this phenomenon, dedicate this behavior to the cognitive bias they call "the illusion of transparency." "People are so focused on their own intentions that they overestimate how this message comes across to others." Everything is clear in their heads, but the message is often too vague to actually arrive.
And so the two scientists started a study to prevent this softened feedback. The first step: testing their own assumptions. Is it really the case that managers make their feedback unintentionally more positive? 173 managers in multinationals were asked what feedback they would give to certain employees. The employee was then asked about their own experience. It turned out that managers were a lot more positive, especially if they actually had to bring bad news.
Timing is often not ideal
Why should managers be more positive? The two researchers suggest, among other things, that the timing of this type of feedback is often not ideal. The performance appraisal at the end of the year is often accompanied by a lot of other duties for managers. Completion, are targets being met? Thinking about exactly what message they want to convey is the first thing to do. It has been suggested to spread this type of feedback talk over the year, a message that is heard more often.
Another thing that would help close the gap between message and what the recipient actually hears is awareness of cognitive prejudice. In another trial, the two researchers allowed 117 MBA students to present themselves as managers, with one half of the group being told about the illusion of transparency, and the other half not. What turned out to be? The person who was more aware of the fact that the message would not come across, did extra effort to ensure that the assessment was clear.
Be especially clear
Yet there cannot always be someone present who makes managers aware of their own behavior. The researchers therefore advise you to be clear in your message. Turning around the hot mash may seem like the best solution in the short term, but in the end you won't help anyone with it. After the interview, also check whether your employees have understood everything and adjust where possible.
In addition, manage as a manager in a culture where people dare to ask questions about their own behavior. If an employee needs feedback, he must therefore dare to ask. Moreover, this helps in the actual feedback conversation to find out if you understand each other.