One of the most difficult challenges that managers face is providing feedback to their employees. Indeed, the annual review is often one of the most dreaded times of year for everyone involved. But I don’t think it has to be that way. In fact, there’s a tremendous potential in the review process to build trust with my employees, help improve the performance of my team, and perhaps most importantly, help my team members to achieve their potential.
The key, I’ve found, is to give people feedback in ways that lead to change. I want people to walk away from a performance review with the knowledge and perspective they need to make a difference over the next month, quarter, or year. I use the following steps, which can help any manager to steer the conversation in a more productive, more empowering way so they can deliver the kind of feedback that counts:
1) Set the right context:
I always send employees a simple, one-page summary in advance of our review meetings so they can give it some thought beforehand. This way, no one is taken by surprise or feels ambushed in the meeting room. This gives people a chance to prepare themselves for what’s coming, which is especially important if there is a difficult conversation ahead.
When employees show up for their performance review, I like to sit next to them, rather than across from them, with the one-pager in front of us. When you sit across the table from someone, there’s a barrier between you, and it feels more confrontational. I like to try to make people feel like we are on the same side.
2) Start with the opportunities:
I start the conversation by talking about the person’s opportunities, and then I move on to their strengths. I do this for the simple reason that it allows me to get the tough stuff out of the way first, and then we can end the meeting on a more positive note.
3) Keep it simple and focused:
I always fit the review on one page, highlighting no more than three to five things in the two key categories: opportunities and strengths. That is plenty for a person to focus on over the course of a single quarter. More than that is just too much. If you really want to help someone grow, you have to help that person stay focused on the key things. It’s far too easy in today’s business world, with all the information that comes at us, to have divided attention in which a person may never make significant progress in any one area of work.
4) Be objective and offer proof:
It’s important that you don’t allow your feedback to come across as overly subjective. That will carry less weight and often make people feel it’s about whether or not you like them rather than how they are performing for the company. My one-pager provides me with information to back up each and every one of the points I have made –
opportunities and strengths. I take an objective position as I go through each point, give examples, offer other people’s point of view, and mention any relevant figures like sales numbers or customer feedback scores. This helps make the feedback more concrete and digestible for people.
5) Make it personal (in the right way):
Too many leaders neglect this point. You don’t want people to feel personally attacked. At the same time, feedback is so much more effective when it helps someone grow, when it’s about skills and attributes they can use anywhere, not just in their specific role in this specific company. By this I mean things like their leadership skills, communication skills, networking abilities, strategic thinking, etc. Of course, you need a balance. You want to talk about business results and about their personal qualities. It’s the latter, however, that I believe too many leaders forget to focus on.
6) Allow them to react:
Once we have talked through all the elements on someone’s review, I always pause for a moment to let him or her take everything in. Then I give them a chance to react. As leaders, we aren’t always right, so when processing feedback, people should be encouraged to respond and give their point of view about what we have said. Hearing people out conveys empathy and respect, making it more likely that they will walk away willing to seriously consider what you have said, even if it has been critical. I even give people the opportunity to give me feedback in return.
Typically one of three things happens:
1) they accept everything I have said without protest (this is particularly likely with those who have received positive reviews), 2) they tell you, in their own words, what you have shared with them in an effort to process the feedback or to show you that they have been listening, or 3) they protest certain things that you have said. Any of these responses are valid. In fact, the second and third responses help to further the conversation and promote clarity. Sometimes people need to talk things through in order to really understand and internalize the feedback.
7) End with a question:
At the end of every performance review, I always wrap things up with a question: “Did anything that I presented to you today catch you by surprise?” Because I use the same format for performance reviews every quarter, people can look back and see for themselves if they have made progress or not. I also have regular contact with my direct reports throughout the quarter or year, so they should never be caught by surprise. The degree to which people are surprised by your feedback will provide you with a measure of how you’re doing as a leader in terms of keeping them informed, on task, and growing in the right direction.
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