How to Take the Fear Out of Feedback (Because Everyone Hates It)
It seems that everyone hates feedback. Employers and managers hate giving it as much as employees hate receiving it. No matter how tactful you are, or how thick-skinned your employee is, it doesn't take much for it all to go pear shaped. We're sensitive souls when it comes to the judgment of our work effort. It doesn't take much criticism to shatter our self-esteem.
So, how do you tell an employee there's room for improvement and leave them feeling inspired? Here are some tips.
#1: Be Honest With Yourself
Did the employee understand what she had to do? Were your instructions clear and comprehensive? Or did your brief contain more holes than a pound of Swiss cheese? Basically, if you gave your employee a bum steer, you can't expect her to be responsible for the disappointing results. Before you give any type of feedback, ask yourself:
- Have I caused this problem?
- Did I provide the necessary support?
- What could I do differently next time?
Basically, start with the assumption that your employees want to do well and if they are not able to, it may not be their fault. This makes it clear to everyone involved that feedback is about support and making everyone stronger, not about singling someone out for blame.
#2: Make it a Daily Ritual
Saving up a year's worth of feedback for the annual performance appraisal is horrible for your employees. They inevitably start preparing for an attack on their self esteem in the days leading up to the appraisal, and they'll have a defensive mindset before they even enter the room. A better approach is to give feedback as part of your daily operations. Feedback should be like an echo, telling your employees how their work has landed as soon as it lands. This approach has two advantages. First, you can focus on a real-life situation that has just happened, which gives context to the problem. Much better to talk about a live challenge than take a walk through the history museum! Second, you're giving your employee the opportunity to course correct as he goes along. By the time the performance appraisal rolls around, there should be no surprises since you have already addressed most of the points you need to say.
#3: Don't Make It About Personality
Strange advice from a personality blog perhaps, but this is one situation where personality factors must be stripped from the equation. It's impossible to give a fair assessment of an employee if you are focusing on his personality traits, because it's too subjective. If you believe that a person's personality type doesn't work well within your team, or his communication skills aren't up to snuff, that might actually be true. But has the employee done anything wrong here?
Feedback should not be a value judgment, or moral condemnation, but a statement of the facts. Telling someone that he is blunt or graceless may come off as a personal attack, and your employee can do relatively little in terms of personality change. Instead, be specific about something the person has said or done. Give real examples. If his customer service is weak as a direct result of his bluntness, demonstrate how the customer responded and explain how an alternative approach might have achieved a better outcome. Address changeable behaviors, not personality traits over which the person concerned can exert little or no influence.
#4: Offer Solutions
Nothing is worse than receiving generic feedback: it's patronising, it doesn't leave the employee with a clear understanding of what to do next, and it certainly doesn't fire them up so they're ready to wow you the next time around. Be results-focused. There's a template you can follow here, based around the three aspects of perception, effect and desire:
- Perception: Say what you saw that went well, or which strengths were visible, and what didn't go well, or which weaknesses became visible ("You normally have such great customer service skills, but I noticed you getting short with Mr Smith on the phone this morning").
- Effect: Explain the result of the behavior ("That worried me because I'm in the process of renegotiating Mr Smith's contract").
- Desire: Specify your desired outcome and together, brainstorm what the employee could have done differently ("My wish is to blow him away with our service so he sticks with our company. I know he can be difficult at times. How can we make it easier for you to be more patient with him?")
The purpose of this structure is to move you away from "you did this and that" towards "how can we make this work better for everyone?" I'm sure you'll agree, the latter approach is much less intimidating.
#5: Discipline is Needed
Ever hear the expression "speech is silver, silence is golden?" That's always true in a feedback situation. You must have the strength to hang back and hear your employee out. They may throw some criticism back at you, and you need some discipline for that. You should only accept criticism if you really feel capable of it, so take a moment to prepare.
As a feedback giver, you need to keep your emotions off the playing field. Feeling wrong-footed, let down or angry will only lead to internal blockages and the quality of your feedback will suffer as a result. Remember, the employee should never feel as if she is on trial – and neither should you. All you're having is a conversation, to target one or two points that have bothered you lately. Not too much at once. If the conversation starts heading into conflict territory, stop. Take a break. Start again when you both have some perspective on the situation.
The bottom line is, if you want to manage a high-performing team you've got to put yourself out there and give plenty of feedback. You can't let busyness, personality factors, or the possibility of a negative reaction hold you back. All you're doing is giving insight into an employee's behavior and discussing possibilities for improvement. Focus on mutual problem-solving, give support where you can, and your people will soon realize that their fears are bigger than the reality. But they only discover this truth by your taking action.