How would you rate your company (and yourself) on giving feedback to employees? Many leaders struggle in this area. Sometimes we’re so busy with day-to-day responsibilities we feel we don’t have time to give feedback. In other cases, we may lack confidence in our ability to give feedback and we put it off. Either way, in the absence of helpful feedback, people coast along on autopilot, making the same mistakes over and over and never improving or growing.
This article echoes what I have always observed: most people truly want to do a good job, to know how they’re performing, and to get better. (Millennials, in particular, put a very high premium on development.) And when people don’t get feedback, they don’t get better—which hurts company performance, creates a culture of mediocrity rather than learning and growth, and drives talented people away.
Being able to give productive feedback is a leadership fundamental. As a leader, you need to know how to give it impactfully, tactfully, and in a way that you’re sure to be heard. Also (and this is what I’d most like to focus on today), there needs to be a good mechanism in place to make sure it happens regularly. A well-designed, well-executed performance evaluation system—based on clear goals and objective metrics and held in conjunction with ongoing, all-year-long feedback—can have amazing benefits.
A strong evaluation system is a cornerstone of a culture in which people expect to receive (and give) helpful feedback. Such a system shows you who is doing well and who needs more training. It keeps the team aligned and focused on company goals. It spotlights ownership and accountability. It helps employee performance get better and better, which keeps people engaged and motivated. All of this will help attract and retain the best talent.
Choose an evaluation tool that uses objective measures, not subjective ones. Many organizations evaluate employees using measures like exceeds expectations, meets expectations, does not meet expectations. But what do these words really mean? It’s open to interpretation. Far better to evaluate employees on objective metrics, whether it’s the number of sales made, the amount of revenue brought in, the number of items produced, Net Promoter Scores, etc.
Make sure reviews are based on clear, measurable, timely goals. People need to know exactly what they’re being judged on. They also need to know the consequences if goals aren’t met. This motivates people to perform and encourages accountability at every level. And when you have a system of continuous feedback in place (more on this later), people will know if they’ve met their goals or are at least on track to meet them. There will be no surprises during the annual review.
Connect individual goals to larger organizational goals. It’s surprising how few companies structure performance reviews this way, but they should—it gets everyone aligned and working toward the same outcomes. It’s also a good idea to get employees involved in setting and shaping organizational goals and be transparent about progress toward them. When you do these things, employees are more likely to buy into the goals and be motivated to work toward them.
Don’t just meet once a year. Meet (at least) four times a year. The “official” annual performance review should be the culmination of several smaller meetings that came before. This makes far more sense than ignoring performance all year and then suddenly springing a “grade” on employees. A quarterly review system will force leaders to coach employees and keep track of their progress all year long (rather than noticing what they’re doing right before the annual review).
This is a great relationship builder. It also makes reflection and striving for improvement and growth an ongoing part of the employees’ work-life rather than a once-a-year effort that quickly falls to the wayside when things get back to normal.
During all of these conversations, take a different approach for each level of performer.
High performers: Praise them, thank them, let them know you want to keep them. Share your goals for the company and ask for suggestions. What can you do to make their job or life better?
Mid-level performers: Tell them why you value them. Alleviate their anxiety by talking about their good qualities. Explain what they can do better (usually just one item so as not to overwhelm the employee) and enlist them in a conversation on what they can do to improve and develop.
Poor performers: Explain exactly how the employee is not meeting expectations. (Document specifics so you can give hard examples of what you mean, including dates and outcomes.) Tell them exactly what needs to be done to improve and spell out consequences to occur if they don’t.
If a poorly performing employee does not improve over several quarterly reviews (at most), you will have a tough decision to make. Do not let them stick around too long. They will end up draining all your energy and taking up valuable time you should be spending in more positive ways.
Don’t sugarcoat, but do make reviews more positive than negative. Especially with high- and mid-level performers, spend more time talking about strengths, positive achievements, and growth opportunities than negative aspects. Remember the 3-to-1 ratio: it takes three positives to one negative for an employee to feel good about the messenger. You want employees to feel positive about you and the organization as positivity is inherently connected to engagement and performance.
Get in the habit of giving on-the-spot feedback all year long. When someone has made a mistake it’s better to tell them in the moment rather than waiting a year or even a quarter. The same is true of rewarding and recognizing and saying thank you. That’s why the most effective leaders practice rounding, which means intentionally holding structured conversations with employees aimed at getting to know them and making sure they have what they need to do their best work.
Giving frequent feedback sets a productive context for quarterly and yearly performance reviews. Many issues will have been raised and addressed earlier, leaving deeper, more meaningful subjects to be addressed during the reviews.
Finally, make it clear that feedback is a two-way street. You want employees to give feedback and input. Think conversation, not confrontation. You’re not handing down a sentence, you’re having a meaningful adult conversation that strengthens your relationship and leads to growth and improvement on both sides.
It should be normal and expected that people give feedback to each other as well as to leaders. Explain to staff that you need to hear from them, especially direct reports, anytime they feel you are off track and/or there may be consequences you are missing. Frequently ask questions like “What am I missing? What am I not thinking of?” Say “Please speak up, don’t let us go down the wrong track.” Narrate that employees are closest to the problems and see solutions you may not be able to see.
Feedback is rocket fuel for improvement and growth. When we’re willing to give it and receive it enthusiastically and often, we set employees up to succeed—and we set our company up to thrive, both now and in the future.
Check-in next week for another blog post on our series about feedback in the workplace.