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Foolproof Feedback

“I love my job except for the two times a year when I have to review my eight direct reports.” Sound familiar? If you are like most managers, you would prefer to concentrate on the “real work” rather than dealing with those dreaded performance appraisals. Well guess what? Dealing with employee performance is your “real work.” If your employees don’t receive ongoing, appropriate feedback, they cannot perform at their best. Simple logic tells us that eight people performing at their peak enhances company productivity far more than the peak performance of just one person.

The problem, according to most managers, is most companies do not provide their mangers with enough training on how to give feedback. The problem is exacerbated because four generations of workers must now coexist in today’s workplace—Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, Gen-Ys and the Millennium group—each of whom regards feedback differently.

Numerous studies have shown that exceptional companies have higher levels of feedback and debate than mediocre ones. Unfortunately, the stark reality is that most people aren’t very good at giving or receiving feedback. This applies both to positive feedback (praise, thanks, recognition) and negative (confronting poor performance). Many workers could count on one hand the number of meaningful conversations they’ve had with their manager about their performance and personal development.

Why does feedback get the short end of the stick at most companies? The first reason is that many people think they are too busy to deal with it. Additionally, feedback is fraught with emotional snares and pitfalls. Whether feedback takes place in a formal performance review or an informal conversation in the hallway, you have to demonstrate a tricky balance of candor and sensitivity to tackle difficult issues with a subordinate or co-worker. When receiving feedback, you have to endure judgmental conversations that may feel like a personal attack.

But it’s essential that these feedback conversations take place. They force you to face reality, confront the problems that are causing your team to underperform and allow the team to attain higher levels of productivity and a more enjoyable work environment.

With training and practice, you can transform feedback conversations into productive dialogue that promotes strong relationships and yields great results, rather than frustration and negativity. Don’t say that you’re too busy to give and receive feedback—as former Intel CEO Andy Grove says, “It’s one of the highest leverage activities you can perform.”

Here are seven ways to make your feedback experiences more effective. You may even begin to look forward to performance reviews!
  1. Ask permission before giving feedback
    Asking permission places a positive framework on a situation that could be perceived as negative. Examples: “May I have permission to give you some feedback?” “I have a couple ideas…can I share them with you?” “Do you mind if I give you a suggestion on how to…?”

  2. Set a tone of energy and optimism
    Consciously assume an attitude that embraces both candor and sensitivity. If it’s going to be a difficult conversation, plan for it by gathering all the necessary information and rehearsing what you want to communicate. If you go into a feedback session ready to yell at someone, he or she is just going to get defensive. Keep the energy in the room positive and you will see a much better response.

  3. Focus on specifics
    When sharing feedback, focus on specific situations and behavior, rather than delving into psychoanalysis. Talk to your direct report or co-worker about how his or her decisions affect other people and how his or her actions affect business results.

  4. Show your appreciation
    Yes, employees are adults who are paid to do a job, but never underestimate the importance of praise. Let people know you value their time as well as their willingness to listen to your feedback.

  5. Confront nonperformance
    If an employee isn’t performing the tasks required by his or her job, don’t wait for the yearly review to tackle the issue. Nonperformance is something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Get the person to discuss what steps he or she will take in order to improve performance. Agree on outcomes and timelines and lay out specific consequences if these goals are not met.

  6. Remember: it’s a dialogue, not a monologue
    Ask questions, then listen attentively to the answers. Offer suggestions and support. Jointly consider options. Pay attention to the unique talents of the person to whom you’re giving feedback and, if possible, frame solutions that leverage their strengths.

  7. Encourage and energize
    Get excited about the ways your direct reports can become more productive and more fulfilled. Give them examples of how they can improve and show that you’re supportive of them. Set a date for a follow-up meeting so that you can provide ongoing encouragement and positive reinforcement of improvements.

Not all of your feedback discussions will be fun or even pleasant. But if managed skillfully, the majority of feedback conversations can leave people feeling fired up, rather than beaten up. “The worst harm you can do,” writes Jack Welch in his book Winning, “is not to be candid with someone else.”