This article originally appeared in T+D magazine on ASTD.com – April 9, 2012
Some of the best informal learning occurs from consistent and candid performance feedback. Are you practicing this skill capably in your workplace?
The process of giving and receiving feedback has the potential to be a win-win experience for employers and employees alike. In a productive performance discussion, organizations have the opportunity to reinforce company values, strengthen workplace culture, and achieve strategic objectives. Ideally, employees feel respected, invested in the company’s success, and committed to their own learning and development.
Repercussions of inadequate performance feedback
Unfortunately, all too often feedback is poorly offered, unbalanced, and serves to undermine employee engagement and commitment. Inadequate feedback can do more harm than good, and may compromise the very values you are trying to reinforce. Employees can become defensive rather than receptive, managers begin to dread initiating performance conversations, and the organization loses the potential innovation and engagement benefits a healthy two-way dialogue fosters.
In those organizations that consistently land on the “best places to work” lists, good leaders provide relevant feedback and conduct productive performance discussions on a regular basis—it is integral to their communication. They seek opportunities to share performance information, and their employees take ownership of and use the feedback they receive to meet the organizations’ goals, as well as their own. In this paradigm everyone benefits.
An organization’s culture provides an important backdrop for creating an environment conducive to productive performance feedback conversations. In companies where people feel valued, trusted, and empowered, employees are likely to welcome such feedback as a tool for their growth and development. Conversely, in organizations where people fear the repercussions of honest dialogue, receptivity is low.
Elements of effective feedback
In a meaningful and productive performance feedback discussion, both parties don’t necessarily need to agree, but they must feel heard, understood, and respected. As you work to incorporate effective feedback into your daily leadership activities, keep the following in mind.
Share thoughtful and informed feedback on a regular basis.
Consistency is vital—feedback should not be an event that is tied only to annual or quarterly performance reviews or improvement plans. The most respected leaders are those who take the time to provide meaningful feedback to their employees on a consistent basis.
Acknowledge employees when they do good work, and quickly address in the moment any areas that need improvement. Completing these actions consistently builds trust and respect: Employees will know that they are getting the straight story from you in real time, and that they won’t get ambushed during their annual reviews.
Ask questions before you deliver information based merely on your impressions or assumptions.
For example, if you want to give an employee feedback regarding his poor handling of a client request, you could ask some questions about what he was hoping to accomplish in the interaction. What did he think the client was really asking? How did he decide on his approach? What type of outcome was he hoping to gain?
By asking open-ended (rather than yes-or-no) questions and assuming positive intentions, you set the stage for a problem-solving discussion in which you and your employee are both invested in reaching a better solution. It takes more time to engage in a two-way dialogue than to conduct a one-sided information download session, but investing those few extra minutes will yield a far greater return.
Encourage employee-generated solutions.
The more you can partner with your employees to determine new solutions to any behavior changes you’d like to see, the happier you are both likely to be. Whenever possible, be open to alternative approaches to problem solving, and try not to dictate your approach if others would work equally well.
Focus on the desired outcome, and foster employee creativity to develop new ways to reach it. You will build trust and encourage ownership when you show employees that you believe in their resourcefulness and want them
Become an ally rather than a critic.
Tie performance feedback to your employees’ personal or professional goals. If you know an employee is working for a promotion, but needs to improve her presentation skills first, look for opportunities to hear her speak, and then tell her when her content or delivery is less than optimal. Give thoughtful suggestions, encourage her to practice with you next time, and tie your feedback to the achievement of her goals. Simply put, let her know that you are in it together.
Consequently, your communication becomes less about “fixing” or criticizing, and more about helping your employees get to where they want to be. Employees will be much more open to hearing your feedback and concerns when they know you have their best interests at heart.
Tie your feedback to the bigger picture.
Good leaders connect individual performance feedback to the needs and values of the overall business and its stakeholders—customers, investors, suppliers, and other employees.
The workplace culture has developed over time to support your organization’s mission and strategic objectives. When conducting a performance conversation, ensure that your feedback is linked to these overarching drivers. Connecting constructive—or potentially unpleasant—performance information to the bigger organizational picture makes it much easier for employees to receive and most likely captures the real purpose of the specific feedback.
Model the behavior you’d like to see.
Be open to and seek constructive performance feedback for yourself. Share your own career aspirations, and enlist the support of your colleagues and direct reports to help you get there.
When employees see that you walk the talk by searching for information that addresses your own learning and performance, you become partners with them in professional growth. People often are more open to hearing your feedback when you can model how and why it’s done, and will feel less vulnerable when receiving “difficult” information if you’ve shown them that you are willing to be vulnerable, too.
Don’t miss the opportunity
Creating a culture where co-workers feel comfortable giving and receiving performance feedback requires commitment and perseverance. It cannot be a one-time or annual event, and it shouldn’t catch employees off-guard.
When leaders deliver performance feedback well—as an expression of organizational values such as growth, mutual respect, excellence, and service—the resulting dialogue serves to reinforce those values and strengthen the workplace culture. Giving timely, meaningful feedback is an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.