Mind your language: how to give effective performance feedback

Performance feedback – it’s a phrase almost guaranteed to fill managers and employees alike with a sense of dread.

That’s disturbing, but hardly surprising when you consider the negative way in which most feedback in the workplace is delivered.

As a learning and development professional who passionately believes in quality performance conversations, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of effective feedback. It is, after all, essential to individual and organisational growth.

Giving effective feedback

People often ask me how to give constructive feedback to staff.

It can be a minefield, so here are two illustrations that highlight the often subtle differences between a negative and positive approach, based on two conversations I had earlier in my career as a facilitator.

Both conversations were similar, but the approach was totally different – and so were the results.

Here’s how each conversation started:

Conversation 1:

Manager: Hi Nicole, have you got a minute to come into my office?

Me: Sure.

Manager: I wanted to ask you about the workshop you delivered last week. How did it go

Me: Well, as you know, there were some last minute changes to the content of the workshop, and some of the material was brand new to me, so I wasn’t feeling as confident as I would have liked. There were a few sections that weren’t as smooth as I would have liked, but overall I thought it went ok.

Manager: Well, I’ve received a complaint from the client.

Conversation 2:

Manager: Hi Nicole, have you got a minute to chat?

Me: Sure.

Manager: I’ve had some feedback from the client about the workshop you ran last week. I feel a bit uncomfortable raising this with you, but I thought I would share the feedback with you and then hear your perspective.  Is that ok?

Me: I guess so.

Both managers went on to provide useful and valuable feedback from the clients about my energy and interaction levels in workshops. (As an introvert, one of the challenges I’ve had to overcome in my career as a facilitator is keeping my energy levels up during workshops.)

But there were three significant differences in the impact of those conversations.

1. How I felt about receiving the feedback 

The first conversation left me feeling defensive and frustrated. I felt like I had been ambushed; I’d given my perspective on the training before being told there was an issue, and then made to feel like I’d been covering something up.

In the second conversation, I still felt nervous when told there was some feedback on its way. But I appreciated that my manager was clear she was open to considering that the client’s perspective was not the only one. And because of her desire to hear my perspective, we were able to have a really valuable discussion around the feedback and what I might be able to change in future.

2. How I felt about my manager

After the first conversation, my trust in my manager and his management skills declined. I was always a little nervous that he was going to spring another surprise on me.

After the second conversation, our relationship actually improved because of the way we had both been so transparent with each other. It created an opportunity to share ideas and concerns without fear of judgment.

3. What I did in response to the feedback 

Most importantly, even though both feedback conversations were about the same issue, I did almost nothing to change my behaviour after the first conversation.

Because of the way the feedback had been delivered, I reacted defensively and pushed it to the back of my mind. I decided that the feedback was around my personality, and that I couldn’t do much to change this.

However, when the feedback was delivered in a more positive way, I was able to unpack it, process it and think about what I could change.

While I couldn’t change my personality, I could make some small behavioural changes (like smiling more and using more eye contact) to lift my energy and build better connections with my audience.

What managers can learn about the importance of effective feedback Joint Effort

While some coaching frameworks encourage managers to begin feedback conversations by asking their team member to reflect on their own performance, this isn’t always appropriate.

When specific feedback needs to be addressed, it can be useful to:

  • Share your perspective first: Avoid a sense of ambush by sharing any information that is relevant to the conversation. Make it clear from the start that the feedback is just one perspective and you are open to hearing the other person’s perspective.
  • Break it down: When sharing complex or emotionally challenging information, start with the facts (data, observations, events). This tends to be the least controversial aspect of the conversation and can be an opportunity to make sure you have the full story yourself. Once the facts are established, you can start to explore the facts in relation to the issue at hand.
  • Explore their perspective: Give the other person an opportunity to explain how they see things.
  • Focus on the future: Once both perspectives have been explored, you can move into a collaborative conversation on what changes can be made. Focus on how you can solve the problem instead of spending time attributing blame for what has happened in the past.

Have you ever had a particularly difficult feedback conversation? What lessons did you learn on how to give feedback more effectively?

To learn more about giving and/or receiving feedback, you can read, Thanks for the Feedback

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