Performance improvement feedback doesn’t happen nearly enough – or at all in many cases. As I stated in Part 1, it is a very similar pattern as seen when people don’t communicate challenges with projects to their leadership teams. If you had a room full of professionals (at any level) and asked them if they would like more feedback – I can assure you they would generally say they would want more. This isn’t typically a case of people not getting enough and wanting more, but rather that people aren’t getting any at all. What’s stranger is that leaders at all levels generally believe it is important and part of their routine. So…if employees generally want more feedback (or any feedback) and at the same time leaders believe it is important and think they do it, what is the disconnect? Seriously?
I’m going to dig into the detail of why there is a disconnect and more importantly – how to implement feedback to be effective. Immediately.
Quality feedback is performance feedback based on behaviors that drive results.
What is not-feedback
First, let’s break down what exactly feedback is and what it is not. When I use the word ‘feedback’ I’m referring to performance improvement feedback based on behaviors that drive results.
Consider this situation: You had an important presentation to your boss, skip-level boss, and her peers. After the presentation is over, your boss shares with you that you did a great job and keep up the great work. Your boss thinks he is giving you feedback and you appreciate the recognition, but your boss hasn’t really given you feedback. You really don’t know what you did well. Was it the format of the presentation? The visuals, the organization of the deck, the words you said as you presented the information, your tone, or how you incorporated examples? Do you see where this is going? You can’t effectively take action on “you did a good job, great presentation”. That’s not feedback. Maybe you did do all those things exceptionally well – or likely – one element wasn’t awesome. All you heard is you did a good job and will probably do a great job the next time – except that one element – again. Unfortunately for you, minor deficiencies stand out amongst otherwise outstanding work. Your boss might not feel comfortable sharing that one minor element amongst a fantastic job. With good intentions, he probably doesn’t want to discourage you or point out the one small problem with an otherwise exceptional presentation. Your presentation that’s otherwise perfect that has a slide with confusing graphics will continue to be used since your boss said it was great work. That’s a mistake that hurts you since nobody else has a job to give you feedback.
The disconnect and three levels of not-feedback
What’s going on here? Your boss thinks he gave you great feedback and you actually didn’t get any. Again, quality feedback is performance feedback based on behaviors that drive results. This is the root of the problem, but it doesn’t stop there. It actually gets worse….much much worse. There are three levels of the “pit of despair that is not-feedback”
The first level is ‘feel good’ or critical statements which is not feedback – but are often thought of as feedback by leaders include:
That was great (or bad, etc.)!
I expected better.
This was awesome (terrible, fun, exciting, etc.)!
This missed the mark.
Your message was confusing.
Keep doing what you are doing!
Worse than the examples above is the second level that I call the “evil Oreo”. Instead of tasty creme in the middle – you get a bite of nasty in-between two feel-good statements. It usually sounds something like, “That was a great presentation. You could have spent more time on slide 2, but overall I really liked the presentation”. This pattern is so common, people often hear positive statements from their boss and just wait for the bad news. Furthermore, there are lots of people swearing it’s an excellent tool to improve performance. I’m guessing if you are reading this, you have either had this type of feedback, given it, or both. If you think this is a great tool – ask yourself how you reacted when you heard it last. Better yet, go back and think about the last time you used this format with your direct. Did it actually sustainably get the results you were hoping for? Probably not. Also – while it might work in some cases, there is a better method that has a much higher success rate.
The worst is the third level and I just call it the ‘instant disengagement discussion’. This is plain punishment. This is typically when leaders talk to directs about what happened and only focus on what was wrong and how bad it was. An example is, “I told you to….” or “Your mistake was…” There are many bad examples of when and how this plays out, but generally, if you treat your team with respect and adults this probably is not an issue. However, if you are finding yourself having to relax or ‘find your calm’ after giving what you think is feedback — you are probably punishing your directs and not aware of it.
What is feedback and how do I do it?
Quality feedback is performance feedback based on behaviors that drive results. Giving that feedback is actually super easy. I’m told the hard part is paying attention to your team and helping them improve their performance.
There are three simple steps:
Ask your direct if you can give them feedback.
I’m amazed at how uncommon this is. Leaders reject this notion after never trying it and those that do try (at least a few times) – swear by it. Larry Senn’s, The Mood Elevator is a piece of genius and was adopted by FedEx as part of the culture. I won’t attempt to recap it here, but before you attempt to give any feedback to your directs – you should make sure they are in a mental place where they can listen. If they are busy trying to get a deliverable finished soon, had a personal challenge, need to leave to get a child, or anything that has them focused on something else – don’t give feedback. It would be a waste of time for you and a waste of time for them. They won’t hear you. You can wait till they are ready to listen. The only way to find out is to ask. The easiest way to ask is to simply say, Can I give you feedback? If you think your directs will shut down or disengage – you have work to do in building a relationship with your directs. Most importantly, if they say ‘no’ – respect the answer and wait for another day.
Give specific feedback.
Tell them specifically what was done that was awesome that they should continue to do or what they could do differently in the future. If they start to tell you why they did it – stop them. This isn’t punishment. Share that you know they had good intentions and that the feedback isn’t about what happened – that’s in the past – you can’t fix it. If a direct is explaining their actions, this is typically a reaction to punishment. Good feedback is explicit behaviors that lead to good results. You may need to give them guidance on how to resolve the situation if needed. Feedback should be some behavior tied to a result. For example, “The good pacing in your presentation made it easier to follow. It didn’t feel rushed and when you realized that you had 15 minutes less to present, you skipped presenting the information that could be read later on their own rather than trying to cram it all in and talking faster.”
If you get stuck, follow a template like, “When you xxxxxxxx it had xxxxxxxx outcome.” or “This went well. You did xxxxxxxx which caused xxxxxxxx to happen and was fantastic – please keep it up!”
Ask them to take action.
Close the loop by asking them to keep doing that specific behavior, or ask them to do it better next time. Close with asking for action. Don’t merely say that a behavior led to a good (or bad) result. Rather, go the next step and ask for them to keep it up or improve.
It is essential to know where you are on your mood elevator. If you are angry or upset – don’t give feedback. Your direct will notice and they will walk away just thinking that you don’t like them or dismiss the feedback as you being angry. If you are upset, wait till you can easily give feedback with a smile. Don’t forget that feedback isn’t about what happened, but rather it is about future behavior and results.
I know this works because I have done it plenty of wrong ways and learned the simple approach above. It is effective and will actually improve the performance of your team. Try it out and your team will thank you.