Stunningly Simple Ways to Give Effective Performance Feedback

Ten Deadly Manager Mistakes and Solutions

I speak to thousands of executives and managers every year. When the topic of giving performance feedback comes up, as it frequently does, I hear the truth from managers about their uncertainties and anxieties in doing this critical task effectively.

This is especially the case when sensitive or negative feedback needs to be conveyed. The all-too-human temptation in these cases is either to avoid the issue, hoping it will go away, or to spend as little time as possible on the unpleasant matter. However, neither approach typically works well in achieving sustained on-the-job performance improvement.

If you’d like to be able to deliver feedback that keeps your people on track, heed these common manager mistakes and apply the stunningly simple remedies I provide for them.

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11 minutes 24 seconds

Mistake #1. Focusing on the negative.
Some managers give feedback to others only when something goes wrong.

What to Do Instead: Feedback is not just about correcting problem behaviors or unsatisfactory performance. Feedback – especially when linked to formal reviews – should be balanced. It should consist of praise where praise is warranted – for example, when a person has exceeded expectations or targets. When you need to give constructive criticism, don’t forget the employee is often working very hard and making valuable contributions. Mention the positive first. This primes the person’s attention and motivation for the rest of your remarks. Also remember to focus on actual performance, not the person or personality.

Mistake #2. Waiting too long.
Supervisors err when they wait until a person’s performance or behavior has fallen substantially below expectations before speaking up.

What to Do Instead: Be proactive and nip issues in the bud. When you give feedback on a timely basis, you and your supervisee are better able to examine what’s what rather than rely on hindsight or memory. Reinforcing high-performance behaviors right away also encourages the person to do them more often!

Mistake #3. Giving negative feedback in public.
Some managers have a misconception that public shaming – such as a dressing down in a meeting or in the hallway – will improve a person’s attitude and performance. In fact, a person’s motivation and morale may suffer more. And you’ve certainly not inspired others in your group to come forward with any work performance challenges that might be important for you to know.

What to Do Instead: Negative or sensitive feedback should be delivered in private, where the person is less likely to be defensive or resistant – and more receptive – to what you have to say than in a public setting. And don’t allow yourself to be interrupted by others or phone calls during your meeting. Interruptions are not only distracting for both of you, but they can interfere with the clarity and weight of your message.

Mistake #4. Using “hit-and-run” feedback tactics.
Commenting about a person’s performance via e-mail messages or voice mail doesn’t allow for two-way dialogue. Delivering feedback via third-parties, such as using your assistant to pass along criticism or praise, really means that you’re either too busy or too cowardly to do this yourself. Or the matter really isn’t that important that you.

What to Do Instead: Schedule sufficient time with the person to accomplish your feedback goal(s). This can range from an impromptu matter, such as “come into my office for a minute” to a longer session that’s planned in advance. Ideally, you will meet face-to-face so that you can both communicate on all channels, including body language and facial expression. But if you can’t do this in person, then a phone conversation is second best because there’s genuine dialogue. You both also get the benefit of hearing vocal “tone” – which is something email simply cannot convey.

Mistake #5. Minimizing or obscuring serious performance problems.
This mistake can take a variety of forms including speaking in euphemisms, such as saying a person’s sales numbers were “disappointing” when you really mean they were abysmal. Another faulty tactic involves conveying disapproval via indirect strategies, such as excluding someone from a meeting or an important communication. You’re leaving it up to the person to figure out indirectly why he or she is in the dog house.

What to Do Instead: Be candid and direct. Choose words that accurately describe your assessment of the situation and the person’s performance. Be ready with comparative or historical evidence that backs up your points. The more factual and precise you are, the easier it will be for the supervisee to understand the context and also what needs to improve or change. Remember too that being candid does not mean “brutally honest” in terms of your word choice. Offensive or disrespectful language has no place in a professional setting.

Mistake #6. Giving feedback based on assumptions, hearsay, or incomplete information.
If you don’t actually know what your employees are working on or what problems they’re facing, your feedback will not be valid. You’re likely to lose credibility and respect in their eyes.

What to Do Instead: Managers need to be sure their information is accurate and complete before they deliver feedback. If, for example, your information is not from personal experience or observation, are the sources reliable about both positive and negative performance? If you’re not sure, then you should prepare further and possibly raise the issue as a fact-finding discussion with your supervisee. Of course, avoid giving feedback when you’re angry or upset. Strong emotions tend to drown out any other message you’re trying to communicate.

Mistake #7. Giving vague or non-specific feedback.
For example, telling someone, “You know what I mean,” or “Go figure it out on your own,” is not an effective approach for raising performance quickly. Focusing on how someone’s behavior or attitude makes you feel also does not tell the person anything that he or she can act upon.

What to Do Instead: Be specific in your praise, your criticism, your suggestions, and your requirements. Cite examples of behaviors, events, or metrics that support your points. When you provide evidence, you have the basis for a powerful, results-oriented discussion of what the person should continue to do, or start doing, and what the person should do less of, or stop doing altogether. For example, “Getting tech support involved fast saved that account” is more meaningful feedback in identifying what a person did right than just saying, “Great job.”

Mistake #8. Limiting feedback sessions to one annual performance review.
Managers who operate on the basis of “no news is good news” are missing an opportunity to keep top performers highly motivated and identify ways to take their game to the next level. On the other hand, managers who avoid difficult conversations are themselves contributing to that person’s problematic performance.

What to Do Instead: Giving regular feedback to your people is an important and ongoing managerial responsibility. This gives you a chance to align – or realign as necessary – your employees’ individual performance to departmental and organizational goals. You’re also able to remind them how their work and positive behaviors contribute to the bottom-line and stakeholder relations.

Mistake #9. Displaying a patronizing attitude.
Managers who come across as if they know exactly what is best for an employee without asking about the person’s perspective and personal goals will generally be tuned out. In fact, the employee receiving the feedback may feel resentful and take the opposite of any advice.

What to Do Instead: Ask questions to learn what’s on your employee’s mind. And really listen. Take notes. Ask if there are any barriers or obstacles that are impacting the person’s job performance. A two-way conversation, conducted in a manner aimed at facilitating success, can yield important information that can boost both individual and collective productivity going forward.

Mistake #10. Not following up with your supervisee.
If a performance issue or goal falls off your radar, it may fall off your employee’s radar too.

What to Do Instead: If you want to see something improve or change with your employee’s performance, then set a follow-up date when the two of you will review progress against this target. And if you’ve promised to do something, be sure to do it. Don’t overlook the fact that showing your ongoing attention and interest can be a great motivator, and can reinforce what the person is doing well or better.

In conclusion, remember that your credibility as a manager is on the line. Be prepared. Give feedback that is timely, accurate, important, and actionable. Even when people don’t like what they hear, if they believe the feedback is accurate and fair they are more likely to accept and act on it.

Put these stunningly simple strategies to work and increase your confidence and success at giving performance feedback.

Copyright © Susan Battley. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Susan Battley

An advisor to Fortune 100 executives and world-class institutions for more than twenty years, Dr. Susan Battley is an internationally recognized expert on CEO and leadership effectiveness. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional service firms, and elite research institutions. She has worked with chief executives, university presidents, Nobel laureates, and prominent scientists, diplomats, and educators. A respected media source for analyzing leadership in the context of news-breaking events and key trends, Battley has been featured in outlets worldwide including CNN, CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg, and National Public Radio, and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chief Executive, Business Week, United Press International, Harvard Management Update, Entrepreneur, Science, Leader to Leader, Investments, and Worth. She is the founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, a leadership strategy and organization effectiveness consultancy.