There is a lot of commentary about the value of formalised performance reviews. Unsurprisingly, when only 37% of employees in a major survey reported that they had never received valuable feedback from their employer or manager, the majority of comment seems to suggest that feedback processes are a waste of time.
Feedback is imperative to enhancing performance, however giving and receiving feedback is fraught with problems, often institutionalised in such workplace processes. Understanding the true nature of feedback, and how to use it successfully to enhance performance is a critical leadership skill.
Feedback on our performance comes in many forms – from what we see happening as an outcome of what we do, how we personally feel about what we do, and what other people observe, interpret and communicate to us. Feedback is important for developing performance at an individual, team and organisational level. Without feedback, we would perform a task – and that would be it. Feedback allows us the opportunity to observe the outcomes, to reflect and evaluate on these outcomes, and decide on changes which may make performance more efficient or effective in future.
Of course, there is positive and negative feedback. Both are critical to enhancing performance. Positive feedback can act as a reinforcer of actions and behaviours that drive performance, whilst negative feedback can demonstrate where actions and behaviours are not effective or efficient, and need to be altered to achieve high performance.
People often find giving positive feedback so much easier than giving negative feedback, but both are required to develop sustained high performance.
We only learn what we need to learn after we have learned it. We all advance along learning curves until we shift from novice to expert in tasks that we are performing, and it would be rare to start doing a task in ways that cannot be improved. Feedback is a critical step to adding evaluative information to our process, so that we can reflect, learn what we need to learn, and perform at a higher level. It allows us to become more efficient and effective at important tasks and behaviours, building sustainable high performance into our processes.
Where can feedback come from?
This feedback can come from ourselves (feelings and reflections) or from external sources, such as colleagues, leaders, coaches or even objective measures like sales results, business metrics or other established proxies. Both internal (self) and external sources are valid and serve a purpose in interpreting performance, and evaluating what can be improved. Internal sources can offer a view on how we feel or think about our performance, whilst external sources provide objective data or third person’s reflection and interpretation.
Having the capacity to be open and reflective on information from both internal and external sources of feedback is critical. Imagine if I feel I have done an outstanding job, but my boss things otherwise? Or, what if I think I have been lousy, but the sales numbers are the best ever?
Being able to make valuable use of feedback is about being able to be open to both internal and external sources of feedback, and to have a process where these are weighed up objectively and their worth to your future performance and learning evaluated. No feedback by itself is more valuable than any other. It is how we evaluate it, reflect on it and choose what to learn from it that counts.
Take a moment and answer these questions:
• How do you determine what sources of feedback are valuable?
• How do you determine the importance you place on different sources of feedback?
• How do you determine which pieces of feedback can be dismissed, or are critical?
How you answer these questions will have a large bearing on how you can use feedback to enhance your performance, and how you will likely give and receive feedback.
The problems with giving feedback:
Why is it so hard to give people honest, authentic and valuable feedback? If our aim is to help someone enhance their performance, then ensuring that we deliver quality feedback is perhaps the best way to achieve this.
Whilst objectively giving feedback sounds like a simple thing to do, it is often mired in emotion, uncertainty and self-assessment of identity. Giving feedback always involves uncertainty – we can never know how the person we are giving feedback to will respond. We also often do not know if we have the skills to cope with their response to the feedback that we give. What if they react badly? What if they get highly emotional? Angry? Depressed? Anxious? What if they get defensive? What if they won’t accept our feedback?
This uncertainty, and the possibility of being put into an uncomfortable emotional position is often enough to trigger defensive reactions in the person who has to give the feedback. Often demonstrated in the 5 defensive behaviours (deny, blame, justify, avoid and attack), givers of feedback often do not bring their best self to the conversation as they attempt to protect themselves from this uncertainty. This negatively impacts on what is actually shared.
At a deeper level, this uncertainty can trigger identity self-reflections – what does it mean about me if I give them this feedback? What does it mean about me if it goes well or poorly? What if they don’t like me? What if I am not competent or lose control? What if they don’t think I am significant enough to listen to?
It is when our self-image and identity is challenged that we can really become defensive. It can be painful to test (and find out) if we are as significant, competent or trusted as we would like to believe that we are, and the uncertainty of giving feedback can be a real pressure test of these ideas. We can therefore avoid what we believe might be tough or negative feedback, in case it causes a situation which tests our self-identity perception.
Making feedback valuable
Although we are taught to talk from a young age, we are often not taught how to truly communicate. If we learn the skills of true communication, including giving feedback, then we can increase our comfort in having feedback conversations, and readily engage in them when it is appropriate.
It is important to ask who really benefits from the feedback you are giving. If you are focused on truly helping the person improving their performance, then your feedback is valuable. Often, people only give feedback because it is in their interest, rather than in the interest of the person receiving the feedback. We offer ‘feedback’ not to help them develop, but to modify their behaviours to suit our personal needs. We also provide feedback as part of a rigid process, where we have to give feedback at a certain time (performance reviews in organisations are a great example), however often both parties have little desire or interest in the feedback done for such purposes. Systems used in workplaces often work to diminish performance, rather than enhance it.
Feedback needs to be specific, accurate and timely, to reinforce the positive and allow reflection on what can be improved. Waiting until the end of the quarter to give feedback is virtually useless as an exercise in improving performance, and is really only about ticking the corporate boxes.
A further issue relates to the person giving feedback. Are they qualified (in the eyes of the receiver)and trusted enough to offer the feedback? Or is it only through the virtue of their more senior position in the organisation that they provide the feedback? Feedback offers value when the person’s insights, the interpretations and the suggestions to the person receiving the feedback come from a qualified and trusted source.
Although many managers are great at telling people how they have performed well (or poorly!), they are often unskilled at using this as a base for helping the person develop from here. Understanding how to lead such a performance development conversations on the back of the actual feedback is what makes giving feedback truly valuable.
Issues with receiving feedback:
Giving feedback to someone who is not prepared to receive it is also a recipe for failure. For the same reasons as mentioned above (in giving feedback), the person receiving feedback may be defensive and not open to listening. Further, they may not have the skills to process the feedback and act differently. Feedback needs to be delivered tactfully, so that the person can hear it, understand it, and act upon it. By using language that is understood by them, by framing things up to avoid defensiveness, and breaking it down into things that can be reflected upon and actioned, the feedback becomes valuable. Offering global feedback (“you always mess that up”) is particularly unhelpful. Feedback should be specific to both the situation and task, and the elements which are targeted for development or reinforcement.
You may have heard of the ‘feedback sandwich’, where we give feedback on poor performance in a sandwich of good feedback. That is, we say something good, say the ‘bad’, and finish with something good. This is designed to ‘soften’ the conversation, deliver the rebuke, and then placate them on the way out. If you do this then my feedback is- STOP it! This method is born out of fear, wanting to soften a message and it feels inauthentic and often confuses the person being ‘fed’ the feedback sandwich. I would suggest you take a more mature, authentic and helpful approach.
By putting the two positives around the negative, we often dilute the key message that we are trying to deliver. Further, we are potentially confusing the person as they may only focus on the positive thing that we have mentioned, or interpret the relative value of the three messages differently to how we intended. Often, managers add inauthentic platitudes in an attempt to ease into the issue, or ease out of it. These are both a waste of time, and demonstrate a disrespect for the person, their performance and the issue that really matters.
How to give great feedback
So how should we give feedback?
The first step in giving feedback is preparing for the conversation. It is no use giving sensitive feedback to someone by surprise, in the crowded lunch room or without evidence and support. Consider the OPEN model for your preparation:
• O: Objective. Make sure you have objective information on the performance elements that you wish to address, or specific proxies or evidence to support any feedback (positive and negative) that you will offer. Also understand the objective of what you are wanting to achieve by giving feedback
• P: Prepare. Not only your material, but also the logistics – do you need to book a room, schedule a time, organise a chaperone? What other feedback has been given in the past, and in what ways can you be tactful in delivering your message?
• E: Engage. Phones off, laptop closed. Feedback is from one person to another. Being engaged with them directly, face to face, is the best possible way to give feedback. Keeping them engaged is also critical (if they check out and shut down, your feedback will fall on deaf ears.)
• N: Navigate. Know where you want the conversation to go, what next steps would be useful, and make sure the conversation does not end without agreement and action steps planned.
By following these steps, you are ready to deliver the feedback.
Delivering the message
When feedback, positive or negative, is delivered clearly, accurately, objectively and for the benefit of the person receiving it, it can aid in enhancing performance. Here are a few steps to help get it right:
• Start with the intention of the conversation. “It is my intention to give you feedback on your performance on project X” – there are no surprises. It sets the scene and allows the objective discussion to follow.
• Follow with the expectations. “It is my expectation that we can review all elements of the performance, and see how we can help you do even better in future”.
• Check to see that they are open to receiving the feedback.
• Ask how they would evaluate their performance at the specific time and task. Start from their subjective experience and work forward from there. Asking first gives you a strong sense of how to structure your approach to make it tactful and valuable. It can allow you to determine how they evaluate feedback, so that you can speak to their style.
• Introduce the objective facts and third party perspectives in an authentic and open way.
Coaching them forward
Once the feedback has been delivered, you have completed the first half of the performance equation. The second half is to use the feedback discussion to identify gaps, and to coach the person forward to learning and adapting new skills and processes to enhance their performance. This requires an understanding of what is needed to operate at that higher level of performance, and the steps needed to get there.
The responsibility of giving feedback can then extend to working with the person to move forward. Rather than having a performance discussion once every 6 months, it can now be the basis for having a conversation at any time. “Hi Debbie, how are you going with…” Every conversation then becomes a performance development and coaching conversation.
Now your feedback becomes valuable, and is directed to helping the person develop sustained high performance.
Giving feedback should be a clear, objective process designed to help the individual become more efficient and effective in their practices and processes to help them achieve sustained high performance. By understanding feedback, and adopting a great process for delivering it, can help people accept the feedback and utilise it to positively develop.