Give it to me straight
My first job after university was at a large, traditionally run company. I was bursting with enthusiasm and I really wanted to prove myself. They told me that I would get a performance review every six months where I would get feedback on how I was doing. I jumped into the job with gusto, got assigned all kinds of interesting work, and received many positive signals that I was doing well. Imagine my surprise, at my first six-month review, when I was confronted with serious concerns – concerns that had been raised with my boss by some of my co-workers. One of the concerns was that I was too pushy and not considerate enough of other people when requesting help and input from them. This feedback was very effective in one sense because there were specific documented examples and I could easily see that the concerns were real. The big down side was that no one had talked to me about this yet! I was mortified that I repeated the behaviour so many times and yet my boss hadn’t spoken to me about it. I felt like I had been hung out to dry. This negative feedback was the focus of the review and I was told that I needed to improve to move ahead in the company.
The next day, I came back to my boss and expressed my concern about the negative feedback. Did I have any future with this company? Much to my surprise, and quite contrary to previous feedback, he went on at length about my strengths and what a bright future he saw for me. I left his office confused and demotivated.
Gallup has found that actively engaged employees almost always agree strongly with the statement: “In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.” What’s funny, though, is that agreement with this statement does not correlate well with whether the company has performance reviews every six months. Other research shows that the way many performance evaluations are conducted, it would be better for employee morale not have performance evaluations at all.
Three tips for effective staff feedback:
- Spend time with each of your direct reports, getting to know them and creating a casual conversational dynamic. Working with them, having lunch together, or going for a walk are the best times, not just to get to know the person, but also to provide feedback. This is when they are the most open and you are the most authentic.
- Give frequent feedback (outside of any six- or 12-month review requirement) helping staff understand where they are strong and where they are weak. Research shows that we are very poor judges of our own strengths and, especially, our weaknesses. Basically, people need their bosses’ help to establish a clear vision of their performance and how it is perceived by others. Every six months is not frequent enough for this to happen.
- Focus on strengths. Yes, help people recognize where they struggle and help them either reach some level of acceptable performance in these areas, or eliminate the weak areas from their role altogether. But spend far more time and effort on their strengths. Provide lots of examples and encouragement in the areas where they shine.
There is a huge amount of research that shows how focusing on strengths – both by providing feedback on strengths and by moving staff towards roles where they use their strengths more and their weaknesses less – can significantly increase engagement and the amount of effort the person will put into their work.
There should be no surprises in the formal performance evaluation. If your people do not know where they stand before the meeting, the problem is not theirs. It is you who has created a problem, one that’s perhaps bigger than any actual performance issues. If coaching is done as suggested above, there should not be any drama left and your formal evaluations will be a breeze.
I just wish my boss back then had known and practised all this!
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