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Performance management: how to give effective feedback

How to make sure feedback doesn't flop

Providing effective feedback is imperative to performance management at work. Here are 9 tips to ensure constructive criticism and feedback doesn’t flop.

Gallup says just 26% of employees strongly agree they find feedback helpful in terms of delivering better work. It speculates that in the complex world of decentralised, matrixed workplaces, traditional top-down feedback just doesn’t cut it.

It’s no longer a simple case of what’s right and wrong. Work is multi-faceted, requiring countless creative solves. That means performance management is equally complicated and feedback is more of a two-way coaching conversation.

Gallup stresses constructive feedback needs to be an ‘open, honest dialogue’, that encourages strengthened decision-making and autonomy. That means managers must be more adept at having conversations that count. This comes down to listening and adopting a mentorship approach.

Bianca Solomon, Human Capital Manager at the University of Stellenbosch Business School - Executive Development and USB-ED says that coaching conversations should centre on a person’s strengths.

“Focus on the employee’s top traits and shift gears to be future-focused. Ask ‘why’ a lot to get the individual to really interrogate their decisions and motives. Build a positive framework around the person’s potential, especially when asking them to step up to specific challenges.”

Shameemah Fayker, Senior Manager of Group Human Resources at Sanlam – a USB-ED key client, says that the leading insurer has made feedback a business priority, “We have multiple platforms and processes (including an engagement survey which answers questions relating to our Employment Value Proposition) facilitating feedback. Two-way feedback mechanisms are built into all our leadership programmes.

We also ensure we implement the initiatives our staff members suggest, so people feel valued and heard. Additionally, we have a group recognition programme to enable peer-to-peer recognition for those who live our behavioural core competencies. We have formalised our feedback processes to relate to performance management, with career and growth discussions linked to learning development.”

Fayker says that Sanlam prioritises feedback as it’s one of the best ways that managers can help foster ongoing development for their team members. “Continuous feedback clarifies expectations, assists people to learn from their mistakes and builds confidence. It’s important to make space for one-on-one conversations to create a culture of openness where employees nurture and support each other.”

Based on Fayker’s insights, here are 9 tips for effective feedback at work:

  • It’s about the behaviour not the person:

First Round Review did a summary of insights from Patty McCord – the creator of Netflix’s mythical culture doc and a big advocate of ‘radical honesty’. McCord believes that rule number one is that feedback should address a behaviour, not someone’s character. It also needs to be actionable.

What’s the issue and what steps can the person take to turn it around? First Round cites this example: ‘You’re not getting enough done’ versus ‘you’re working hard, but I’ve noticed there are some things you are spending too much time on’.Option B opens the dialogue around how to constructively prioritise tasks to win more time. McCord makes the point that most humans appreciate insights into their own behaviour – the trick is to make sure the delivery isn’t emotional or condescending.

  • Effective managers take all the responsibility for bad

Another McCord insight is that managers do their reports a disservice when they don’t speak up in the right way. Often, high-potential team members end up underperforming and being managed out when a timely intervention could have kept them on course.

The manager is 100% responsible for driving feedback conversations. The onus is on you to create a foundation of trust to facilitate the honesty required. That involves understanding the power dynamics at play and setting the tone for a relationship that encourages two-way dialogue.

McCord says managers should never hold back on feedback because it puts pressure on you to pick up the slack and robs your report from the opportunity to improve.

  • Create a culture where ongoing performance appraisal is expected:

A final word from McCord is that practice is the best way to get better at giving feedback. You want feedback to become a habitual, valued, in-demand part of the culture.

That means ensuring it’s a continuous conversation rather than a once-a-year performance evaluation. It means opening channels of communication and encouraging people to ‘take up space’, voice opinions and own what they’re good at.

  • Practice, practice, practice:

Managers need to practice giving feedback. Often, one manager will rant to another about a report’s poor performance and bad habits.

McCord asks: if you’d be brave enough to say that to the person’s face? If not, how can you remove the emotion and reframe the conversation to actually add value? As feedback is a two-way street, both reports and managers need to practice giving and receiving it.

  • Look ahead, even when looking back:

Gallup suggests keeping conversations future focused. An effective manager is consistently seeking ways to bolster a business’ ability to stay relevant and exceed expectations. That means grooming a report to think in the same way.

Coaching conversations involve observing and listening to someone and then feeding off their feedback in real-time. This means helping the person create a vision for the future and a plan to get there.

First Round talks about how crucial it is to give people perspective. When you’re close to your work, the bigger picture can be lost. A manager should help a report ‘zoom out’ and see his or her contribution in context. Then it’s important to zoom into the granular details of the day-to-day to see if all tasks amount to a purpose-led plan.

  • Follow the LinkedIn formula:

LinkedIn suggests feedback should be specific, timely and purposeful. For example, address a specific behavioural issue immediately, in the context of someone’s development goals.

‘I want to help you achieve your sales target. I believe making this adjustment will help you to get there faster’.

  • Be tactful but don’t sugar-coat:

Another LinkedIn tip is to be mindful with how feedback is delivered. This comes back to practice.

LinkedIn suggests starting sentences with ‘I’ not ‘you’ – ‘I observed you with the client today and was concerned by your tone’ versus ‘you were too abrupt’. It also reiterates the need to take the emotion out of the conversation.

Pick the place where you deliver feedback carefully – ideally, it should be a private conversation. And use examples of your own experience to demonstrate your understanding.

  • Ask questions and try not to give the answers all the time:

Effective leadership often involves letting someone talk and asking probing questions to help them reach the answer. Keep asking ‘why?’

  • Invest in feedback training:

Making ongoing, two-way constructive criticism an integral part of organisational culture can be a tough task. It can be extremely beneficial to send a whole team on a course on how to give and receive feedback for optimal results. Or to do a series of workshops in-house.

Management training is also an excellent idea. It takes a significant degree of self-awareness in order to master interactions with others – including how to have coaching conversations. So, a management programme specialising in self-mastery could make all the difference. Ultimately, people tend to learn best by observing individuals they admire. Leaders should always aspire to take criticism as well as they provide it.

Conclusion:

The key takeout for any manager should be to equip yourself with the necessary skills to garner the best results from your team. Courses such as the USB-ED Management Development programmes provide you with some of the insights required to make performance management meaningful.  

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