Whether put in a sandwich, sprinkled with sugar or spun around 360°, no one likes the F word. That moment when someone says, "Can I just give you some feedback?" is enough to make any employee’s stomach churn as they wait for what's to come.
Feedback is telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better – examples may include whether they're completing a task, leading a project, managing people or working in a team.
Most leaders dread giving negative or constructive feedback. Some avoid it altogether, others use a 360-review process to build a case, some use "radical transparency" to blurt it out, and others sandwich the negative between two slices of positive.
What we do know is that the research is clear. These methods don't work. The sandwich method dilutes both positive and negative feedback. Open communication only favours those with a thick skin or who don't care. Avoidance isn't about saving the employee; it is about protecting the manager. Concerns over 360 feedback systems grow as they erode trust between peers who need to work together.
New research shows that no matter how it is delivered, telling people what we think of their performance and how they should improve doesn't help them thrive and excel, it instead hinders learning. Further, when employees receive negative feedback, they start to avoid those people who are giving the feedback and adjust their roles to seek out those who are more likely to give positive reviews.
With this in mind, it is interesting to think that each year managers are tasked with the job of undertaking a performance review. By the very nature of the process, they are required to provide both positive and negative feedback. Our minds apply more focus on the negative which we know then hinders learning and breaks the relationship between the giver and receiver.
On the flip side, we know that people want to hang out with those who offer a positive environment and will more likely excel in that culture when using their strengths to achieve. That doesn't mean managers have to be all jokes and smiles, but those who consistently approach feedback in a way that is positive build excellence.
With this in mind, how exactly can you approach feedback for high performance – here are three ways:
1. Fostering Excellence – Positively
As leaders, we often jump into damage-control when things go wrong, and when the dust has settled, we spend time doing a review of the situation to ensure we learn from it in the future. While there are times this is necessary; we never apply the same time, effort or energy when things go right – yet great leaders make this one of their highest priorities.
It is too easy to say "good job" in passing, and while simple praise isn't a bad thing, you are not necessarily the authority on what objectively good performance is, and your team members know this. By describing what you experienced when their moment of excellence caught your attention, your feedback will have a far more significant impact both personally and in terms of learning.
Use phrases such as "This is how that came across for me," or "This is what that made me think," or "Did you see what you did there?" Those are your reactions, and when you share them in specific detail, you aren't judging or rating or fixing. And because it isn't a judgment or a rating, it is far more genuine and more powerful.
Whenever your team does something that rocked your world just a little, stop for a minute and highlight it. By helping your team member recognise what excellence looks like for them—by saying, "That! Yes, that!"—you're offering them the chance to gain insight; you're highlighting a pattern that is already there within them so that they can recognise it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it. That is, learning.
2. Take a partnership approach
Joe Hirsch, the managing director of Semaca Partners and TEDx, and keynote speaker, suggests that instead of telling employees what you want to see, guide them in where to look. Engage your team in thoughtful conversation about their current strengths, future goals and how, together, you can bring those elements in focus. Rather than offer directives, ask open questions that help them better understand the picture of work and trust your employees with opportunities to shape the way forwards.
Take Jodie, who was working as a customer service agent. Her skills on the phone and in solving problems were second-to-none – she was a shining star who earned the business hundreds of five-star reviews. Yet one aspect of her role required her to complete a financial spreadsheet each month which she found incredibly challenging. Every performance review would start with a quick observation of how great her customer service skills were and then move on to her weaknesses including the financial spreadsheet and a development plan for how this aspect could be improved.
Jodie would go away and spend more time on yet another Excel course. She would neglect to continue to develop the skill that made her an exceptional employee. Over time her financial skills never really improved, her customer service skills stopped evolving, and Jodie went from being a high performer to merely average.
A partnership approach would start by asking Jodie what aspects of her current job light her fire, what aspects drain her energy and where she would like to focus for the future. A strong leader would then try and look for alternate ways to structure her tasks around her strengths. It may just turn out that Jodie's colleague loves spreadsheets which would free Jodie up to do more of the work she is good at, enjoys and would like to develop further.
3. Guide self-directed feedback
When a team member comes to you asking for feedback, then you can apply the "Past, Present and Future" coaching technique to guide them to high performance.
First, ask them to tell you three things that are working well for them – (related or otherwise). By asking the question, it causes the centres of their brain linked to creativity, problem-solving and new ways of thinking to fire up.
Next, ask them to recall a time they faced this situation in the past and what had worked well for them? Given the nature of workplaces it is likely they have encountered this problem a few times before and on one of those occasions they are likely to have found a way forward or learned what they would have done if they had their time again.
Finally, turn to the future and ask the team member what they already know they need to do. What do you know works in this situation? By all means, share your own experiences if it is necessary to clarify their own, but operate from the assumption that they already know the answer to the solution – you are just helping them recognise it.
Mastering the art of feedback is an act of service to your employees, and with a few research-based techniques, your leadership can go from good to great. By ditching some of the old school methods, you can help create a learning culture, inspire and motivate employees to use their strengths and maintain a positive, high-performing environment.
•Feedback is about telling people what we think of their performance and how they should do it better.
•Employees want more feedback but don't respond favourably to the typical modes of delivery.
•Telling team members what we think of their performance doesn't help them thrive and excel while telling team members how we think they should improve hinders learning.
•Making positive feedback a priority and examining moments of excellence helps reinforce the desired outcomes.
•Coaching techniques such as "past, present and future" can help guide employees down a self-directed path.
•Respect that everyone has their strengths and work out ways to help employees use them more often.
•Instead of telling employees what you want to see, guide them in where to look through a partnership-based approach.
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