A Process for Even the Most Difficult Reviews
Have you ever had to tell an employee he needs to speak up more? Or that she is consistently a beat behind others on the team when it comes to contributing to a project? Better yet, have you ever had to inform the boss that his directions are often not clear?
Do you tend to resist giving feedback at all? Why is that?
Even if you have given a lot of feedback in your career, there is a way to polish those skills. Ask yourself, how can I do it in a way that doesn’t turn off the person receiving it? Having a high-performing employee makes it easy to give positive feedback. And yet you are potentially shortchanging that employee who could perform at a high level AND grow in the process with the right insights.
Likewise, giving feedback to a superior can backfire if not done right. You most likely avoid it for fear of hurting the other person or yourself. But that’s a cop-out. It’s an excuse and as leaders we must take responsibility rather than rely on excuses. Giving balanced feedback is one of the top leadership skills one can have.
However, there is good news: It’s not that difficult. With the right setup and process you could easily learn it, resulting in a more aware and developed person. Think of it as an opportunity to help someone grow.
I myself have fallen into the trap of not giving feedback out of fear. But I have practiced this skill over and over. Sometimes I didn’t get it quite right, but over time it became less of a challenge and people I have given feedback to have responded well and grown in the process. These have included direct reports, peers, bosses, board members, contractors, clients, partners, family members and friends. There is plenty of opportunity to practice. Don’t limit yourself to just the direct reports you are supposed to give feedback to. What I want for you is to get lots of practice, like training a muscle.
Let me walk you through it. By the time you are done reading you will know how to set the scene and how to give balanced feedback. Are you ready?
Setting the Stage
Before you start diving into a feedback process you want to set the scene. Just like you would for an important meeting with customers or investors, think through a strategy of how to best get your points across. Here is where I see most mistakes being made. A successful customer event after alcohol has been flowing freely is definitely not the best time to give feedback. As a matter of fact, it’s close to being the worst time to offer your observations, unless they are celebratory in nature.
• Set Ample Time
Pick a time to meet that is as stress free as you can make it. Also, you don’t want to have this discussion when everyone is coming off an adrenaline high, like the customer event mentioned above. Similarly don’t pick a time close to quarter end, if it’s an important deadline for either of you. Allow ample time for this so you don’t have to cut it short leading to unbalanced feedback.
• Create the Proper Environment
Equally important is the location to have a feedback conversation. Again, keep it as stress free and without distractions as possible. Move to a different floor of your office building, meet in a quiet restaurant or cafe, the lobby of a hotel or go for a walk. Don’t underestimate the impact the environment has on this conversation. Definitely make sure no one else can listen in.
• Ask for Permission
After you have established a good time and space to have a potentially difficult conversation make sure you ask for permission. Why? Without it, whatever you say will fall on deaf ears. You cannot coach a person without permission (don’t even try) and you can’t give balanced feedback. Instead it will become a “Here is what you need to do …” conversation, which is not helpful. How does one ask for permission? Here’s an example: “I have been working with you on this project for a while. I have made some observations I would like to share with you. Would that be ok?” Notice I didn’t say, “Can I give you some feedback?” The word ‘feedback’ is not charge neutral. The word ‘observation,’ however, is without charge. Can you see the difference? Choose your words with care.
• Establish Reciprocation
Keep in mind that you could learn from the other person as well. None of us has all of the answers. You might benefit from some feedback from the other person as well. So, offer to reciprocate. “May I share my observations with you? Likewise, I would love it if you would also share with me what you think I could improve upon.” You are demonstrating vulnerability and you might be surprised how much this sentence will increase the level of trust.
• Create Safety
The goal is to foster a safe environment to have a potentially challenging conversation. We have already taken some steps for that. However, there might be other things that hinder a feeling of safety. For example, one of you could be holding a grudge from the past. Or there might be a power play going on. Or maybe some bullying. Ask yourself: “What could be standing in the way of this being a safe zone for a mindful conversation?” Handle whatever is in the way before giving feedback.
• Explain the process
Before you start the actual session, explain how the process works and clarify the expectations. The goal of the feedback conversation is to discover blind spots that can only be identified through the perspective of others.
Give Balanced Feedback
All right, the scene is set. Both of you want to engage in this conversation. Let’s get started, shall we?
1) Write down up to three key points of acknowledgement
You could use one, two or three points depending on how much time you have set aside. However, my experience is that you don’t want to go higher than three. It just becomes too overwhelming.
On a piece of paper draw three bullet points and write down behaviors, actions, and successes you want to acknowledge. Make them as specific as possible and as relevant to the job or position the other person currently holds as you can.
2) Write down up to three key points of improvement
Focus on what behavior frustrates you about the other person, rather than what you don’t like about the person. This is very important and I can’t stress this enough. People can change their behavior if they want to, but they can’t change who they are. What, if they had done it differently, would have been more impactful, result oriented, powerful, etc.?
Give both of you ample time to write down three positives and three negatives. Don’t start the process unless both of you (assuming this is a reciprocated session) have written down an equal amount of pluses and minuses.
3) First person provides balanced feedback
The first person starts by giving feedback on three positives and three areas for improvement. Again, choose your language with care. You don’t want be a cheerleader or a motivation crusher. People often find it easier to acknowledge the positive traits. Just don’t ignore them. It is important for the other person to hear those coming from you.
When it comes to the areas for improvement, make it as charge neutral and constructive as you can. Be specific and avoid being judgmental. For example, “I noticed in the meeting yesterday you weren’t speaking up a lot. You are an integral member of our team and we do want to hear from you.” Or, “I have noticed that you sometimes push your solution as the best solution to a problem. I like your enthusiasm and appreciate your knowledge and experience, but feel sometimes this excitement squashes other voices being heard, voices that might lead to an even better solution. I particularly noticed it this past Monday, when ____ happened.”
At the end of this round of feedback, the person receiving it simply says, “Thank you.”
If there is need for clarification, now is the time. But this is not the time for justification of certain actions taken. That would be an excuse. The receiver might not agree with all points made and that is ok. It is important to just hear the points, even if no action can be taken for now.
If on the other hand there is agreement, which is most likely the case (we tend to know when we messed up), the receiver can now think about what actions he can take to improve the behavior. Write it down and address any potential roadblocks that might get in the way of success. One possible action that is often useful is to solicit feedback from others as well, to verify what was brought to the forefront.
Agree on a set date when you will check in with each other again on the same issues to see if there was improvement.
4) Second person provides balanced feedback
Repeat Step No. 3 for the other person
If you run out of time, schedule another meeting to finish the process. It would feel unfair if you have a chance to give feedback, but can’t receive any due to time constraints.
Word of caution
• Be timely
Try to give feedback as soon as possible. Don’t hold back for fear of offending the other person. If there is something that needs to be said, address it in a timely fashion.
• Give feedback often
Many companies have a formal performance review process. Unfortunately, this is often the only time of year an employee receives feedback. Once in 12 months is simply not enough. In addition, the performance review is typically tied to a specific outcome.
Bonuses and career advancement depend on the performance review document. There shouldn’t be any surprises. If you have not given frequent feedback you have let down your employee, not the other way around. It is your responsibility as a leader to help develop and grow your direct reports. Lack of time is not a good excuse. We are talking about people that deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Giving people frequent feedback is respectful and everyone deserves it.
You are ready to give balanced feedback. Role modeling this will set you apart from other leaders. And you know the best part? Next time you give someone feedback it won’t be quite so daunting.
Now, it’s your turn.
Choose three people to provide feedback to.
Choose three people you want to solicit feedback from.
Start with people who are not threatening. With enough practice you will become really good at giving balanced feedback.
I am sure this is not an exhaustive list. Please comment on your experience with giving feedback. Have you been taught how to do it well? What has or hasn’t worked for you? If nothing else comes to mind, please provide me with feedback about how useful/relevant this article is for you.
You might also like these articles:
If you have a particularly difficult case and you want to bounce your thoughts off of someone, please contact me directly. I would love to coach you through the process.