Nobody likes unpleasant and uncomfortable conversations. What an absolute shocker, right? 🙀
Sadly, for people managers, there's hardly a way around those. But feedback, no matter how tough, doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience at all. Quite the opposite. If shared in an insightful and supportive way, it can impact those around you in all sorts of meaningful ways. Here I'll share my four biggest learnings concerning feedback that I've accrued over the years of my leadership experience.
Let's talk real-life examples, shall we? I'll paint you a picture:
- It’s feedback time of the year. Whether you practice continuous feedback (recommended) or annual appraisals (still better than no feedback at all), there is probably a point in time where you are required to evaluate one's results in the context of their goals, career level and compensation;
- You have a team of excellent engineers, however, one of your team members is falling behind some of the expectations of their level, and mistakes are starting to show;
- Some context-specific circumstances might have impacted their results. They might have shuffled between teams, managers, and projects over the past year. Their previous manager might have left the company on a short notice without a proper handover. Or you simply haven't had enough time to spend in one-on-ones and provide them with the much necessary support.
It's your job to share constructive feedback to help them improve and get back on track. So, what can you do? Where do you start?
☝️ First And Foremost, Seek To Understand
It's important to try to learn as much as you can about the other person's perspective before jumping into any conclusions or evaluations. You could ask them to fill in a Start, Stop & Continue self-evaluation form. This will help you keep the conversation focused on specific situations and understand what they observe as their positive contributions (Continue) and where they see opportunities to improve (Start & Stop).
Don’t be shy to ask why they believe those things are important, and why they behaved (or didn't behave) in a certain way. Delve deep into their motivations to really understand where they are coming from and find out how you can best support them.
Make sure to understand the expectations that were previously communicated to them. You'd be surprised as to how many times, where there are issues in performance, the actual problem boils down to misalignment on expectations, or the lack of thereof.
Reflect on the things that were expected of them and that you believe were under their control—those are the things you'll want to focus your feedback on. It doesn’t make sense to feedback on things that weren't asked of them, or those that they had little influence over. I'd feel quite puzzled to get feedback on my coding skills as I don't code as much anymore, and to my knowledge, I'm not expected to spend a bulk of my time coding. I would disagree and dismiss that feedback.
Have you collected enough context to be able to provide constructive feedback? See if you can answer these guiding questions:
- Am I aware of all the factors that have contributed to this person's performance?
- Is there clarity and alignment around the expectations of this job?
- Do I have a complete picture of their contributions?
- What could they have done differently to improve their work results?
✌️ Reflect On The Job Expectations
Whatever management style you might be energising, you won't get far without providing clear expectations on what's required from every individual on your team. It must be clear from the start how your people will be evaluated. Even if the how is open to interpretation—depending on your team's level of seniority—you absolutely need a specific and mutual understanding of the what.
Job requirements are as fluid as anything else in the dynamic work environment of today. They need to be frequently re-evaluated if you want to provide clear direction and guidance to your team.
We won't go as deep into expectations setting as it's quite a subject in and of its own, but I will say that clarity in expectations will serve you well in pretty much any relationship, at work and in life.
🤟 Balance The Good And The Not So Good
Striking the right balance between positive feedback and constructive criticism is a skill you'll want to master. Too much focus on the negatives will leave your people feeling discouraged, defensive and self-conscious about their abilities. Use every opportunity you get to recognise their accomplishments and successes. Share what you've observed as key strengths and talents they can tap into. If you're not able to find a number of positive things about this person, then it might just be too late for performance improvement.
You might want to consider which of the development areas you've just identified (question No.4 ☝️) will be relevant in the context of the job expectations. If there are quite a few areas you believe can be improved, it could be wise to draw their focus to the ones that will help them successfully meet their future objectives.
Go an extra mile and come up with a support plan for areas where you forsee they might experience difficulties. Let them know that they can count on you in overcoming challenges that come their way. You could offer your advice, but do ask for their input on how they would like to be supported. After all, they are the masters of their own development.
Think you're ready for that conversation? Consider the following guiding questions:
- Has anything changed since the last review in terms of the job expectations?
- What can this person Start/Stop/Continue to do in order to meet these expectations?
- [Continue] What have I observed as their key strengths and how can those be of help?
- [Start & Stop] Where do I see potential challenges and how can I best support them in overcoming those challenges?
🖖 Build a Feedback Friendly Culture
What can be of help on your mission to make feedback a more pleasant and valuable experience for everyone is a solid feedback process—as in running a regular cadence of feedback and performance talks throughout the year—and a reliable tool that supports multi perspective feedback and helps you build feedback habits across your team.
Exchanging feedback enables individuals and teams to align and define their own standards of successful performance. We might not know what excellence is in its essence, and it likely spells out differently for every individual, but we can come to an agreement on what we collectively perceive as excellent, valuable, important—but also inadequate, unacceptable or lacking. Aligning on these shared norms and standards is what makes feedback so important.
A few flash wisdoms before we bring this to a close:
- Giving feedback should target behaviours (never the person behind those behaviours) and the impact they have on results, projects and progress.
- When it gets uncomfortable, keep your positive intent top of mind.
- Stick to the facts, be honest, be direct and keep it simple.
The bottom line is: feedback is king. 👑 It is the absolute prerequisite of any personal or professional development. And feedback-sharing is a skill that anyone can master. I hope my learnings will come in handy the next time you find yourself dwelling over delivering some improvement feedback to your team.
Did you find this insightful? Let us know at email@example.com.
I'm Frank is a fast, simple and fun feedback app that helps your team share real-time development feedback and praise without ever having to leave Slack!