We bet we can guess two of your least favorite aspects of your job. We don’t even need you to take a BuzzFeed quiz to find out. Ready? Here we go, in no particular order:
Are we close? We hear this from our clients all the time. With so many people now having to do these activities remotely, we figured it was a good time to talk about how to do them effectively, even when you can’t be in the room. This week’s article focuses on giving feedback. Next week, we’ll talk about presenting online (which may seem easier but almost never is).
Here’s the thing: every manager has to provide feedback. Learning how to do it well can decrease your angst, increase your effectiveness, and help build better relationships with your team. We want to encourage you to think about how you give feedback. Is it always positive? Is it always corrective? Constructive feedback is both — together. Delivering genuine assessments of what is working well and what needs improvement is a fundamental skill of strong leaders.
We see the following as essential to delivering effective feedback:
When you routinely discuss specific skills and behaviors an employee is doing well, you build their confidence—and, in turn, their competence.
Make sure you are communicating what is working. This isn’t basic cheerleading, “Great job!” Nor is it the occasional recognition at a company meeting. When you routinely discuss specific skills and behaviors an employee is doing well, you build their confidence—and, in turn, their competence. Yes, some employees are already confident in their abilities. Some are even over-confident. But there is a significant portion of us, 70% in fact, who suffer from “imposter syndrome.” Ever felt like you’re in over your head and one of these days everyone is going to figure that out? That’s imposter syndrome. There’s also just lingering insecurity or uncertainty whether you’re doing a good enough job. Where there is insecurity, there’s more likely to be sensitivity to feedback. This is a breeding ground for defensiveness, denial, and catastrophizing. However, when an employee knows their boss values their contributions, respects their skills, and supports their growth, feedback can be seen as an opportunity to grow. In a healthy environment, feedback is actively pursued with the purpose to develop skills, receive mentoring, and be elevated as a professional.
So, even if you can deliver difficult feedback well, it won’t be as effective if your team members aren’t confident that you believe in them and their work.
In a healthy environment, feedback is actively pursued with the purpose to develop skills, receive mentoring, and be elevated as a professional.
Employees should never, ever hear about a performance issue for the first time during an annual performance review. Employees should be getting regular feedback so that beneficial behaviors are recognized and fostered while counter-productive behaviors are quickly addressed. When you don’t give ongoing feedback to your employees, performance reviews can become a source of stress because your employees have no idea what to expect. We recommend 1:1 meetings no less than once a month; every two weeks is even better to help keep the momentum going and the engagement consistent.
Structure the Meeting.
Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, recommends, “focus[ing] the discussion on three levels: the star’s current performance, her next performance frontier, and her future goals and aspirations.”¹ So, have an agenda. Better yet, have a form you and your employee fill out and review during each meeting. Use it to document new issues, track progress against goals as well as performance improvement plans, and capture any notes to follow up on. This is an extra step that requires a bit more effort from you and your team, but it should yield more structured and productive meetings and make assembling data and information for major performance reviews much easier.
Only after you both understand the reason for the issue can you work together on how to productively solve it.
Whether it’s a performance issue or resolving a work-related obstacle or challenge, the best solutions arise from conversations focused on pinpointing the underlying issues. Jean-Francois Manzoni, President of the International Institute for Management Development says, “Managers tend to frame difficult situations and decisions in a way that is narrow (alternatives aren’t included or even considered) and binary (there are only two possible outcomes—win or lose). Then, during the feedback discussion, their framing remains frozen—unchanged, regardless of the direction the conversation takes." ²
Keep an open mind. Consider various possible next steps, and together choose the best route to achieve the desired outcome. A proven technique to do this is to use The Five Whys. Walk through an example with your employee by asking them to state a problem while you drill down by asking “why” until the root cause is revealed. Only after you both understand the reason for the issue can you work together on how to productively solve it. Applying this technique circumvents dictating—your employee takes ownership resulting in buy-in. It can also decrease combativeness because you are working together, rather than against each other, to create a solution.
Many of us are of the Oreo/Sandwich/Build-Break-Build school of feedback—say something positive, then give a negative, and then end the conversation on a positive so the employee feels good. The trouble is that this doesn’t work. David Hassell, CEO of 15Five notes that, “Helping someone improve should always be the goal of feedback, but sandwiching corrective feedback between two pieces of positive feedback won’t soften the blow. This method creates confusion for the receiver, undermines your feedback, and can decrease levels of trust.”³ Instead, take a straightforward approach without judging or being accusatory, and be specific about observable behaviors. All of this can be documented on the form you are using to structure the meeting. The end result should be a clear message and offers targeted, actionable feedback your employee can understand.
Everyone is busy, and it’s easy to lose focus on those action items that aren’t followed up on. Ever set a goal during a performance review and not think about it until the next performance review a year later? Of course you have. You’ve got a lot going on. To help your teams make progress against improvement issues, follow up (again, the form is a perfect way to keep track of everything). At a certain point, you may agree the issue is closed and the goal achieved, but until then, keep following up and committed to resolving it together.
Following these essential elements of constructive feedback transforms the process from a negative, teeth-pulling ordeal to an asset that increases engagement, skills development, and trust, all of which are the hallmarks of strong leadership.
Look for next week’s article on how to make presenting a little less stressful and a little more effective, whether you are delivering in the same room as your audience or via conference call (and get ready: we’re going to again tell you how important is to be on camera).
¹ Gallo, A. (2009, December 3). Giving a high performer productive feedback. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2009/12/giving-a-high-performer-produc
² Manzoni, J. (2002, September). A better way to deliver bad news. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2002/09/a-better-way-to-deliver-bad-news?registration=success
³ Hassell, D. (n.d.). 9 ways to give effective employee feedback. 15Five Blog. Retrieved from https://www.15five.com/blog/9-ways-to-give-effective-employee-feedback/
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