Let's cut to the chase: If the only feedback your employees get from you is in the form of a 6- or 12-month performance review, it’s time to change your approach to feedback. Dropping bombs on employees once or twice a year only serves to build up pressure and make feedback sessions feel like indictments. And most importantly, it does little to alter behavior and improve performance and productivity, which should be your goal.
For feedback to be effective, it can’t be a special occasion, says Bruce Tulgan, author of It's Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need.  “My view is that feedback is much too often given when things are going wrong. I call that ‘bad-news management’ because every time they hear from you, it means something’s gone wrong. You should always give feedback when things are going wrong, but you should also give feedback when things are going right, when things are going average.”
So instead of waiting for the obligatory performance reviews to come around, you should have a built-in feedback loop with your reports. “The best approach is to be giving people feedback on an ongoing basis about how their performance is lining up with expectations, and giving them guidance, support, and helping them make adjustments,” says Tulgan.
With this kind of ongoing dialogue, and by encouraging transparency and candid truth-telling company-wide, everyone stands to benefit through improved performance and enhanced working relationships.
Up Your Frequency
There are a litany of reasons managers give for why they don’t provide feedback more frequently, says Tulgan. They don’t have the time. They think that empowering people means letting them figure everything out for themselves, including what they’re doing right and wrong. Some feel they aren’t any good at coaching, while others are conflict avoidant or afraid of spoiling the collegial work culture. “All of these things contribute to managers being either unwilling or unable to engage in sufficiently detailed and consistent dialogue with their people,” says Tulgan.
The problem is that when conversations providing feedback happen infrequently, they have a tendency to cause more harm than good. Tulgan makes an analogy to working out: If you go out and try to do a five-mile run without working out regularly, that’s when injuries occur. “Part of why the ongoing dialogue works so well is it lowers the stakes in each of the conversations. Think about what happens in the 6- and 12-month reviews. You’re talking to people about stuff they did 6 or 12 months ago, for one thing. And they’re like, ‘Wow, I wish you would have told me that at the time.’”
Not that performance reviews should be tossed out altogether. But instead of bringing new feedback to the table, they should summarize the ongoing dialogue and how the employee can take his performance to the next level. Big picture stuff. Meanwhile, the ongoing discussions should provide clear goals, concrete expectations, a timeline, and requirements within which to meet agreed upon goals.
Get Your Motives & Your Facts Straight
Much of the work that goes into providing effective feedback should actually take place well before you sit down with an employee. Having clear intentions for the conversation will help set an appropriate tone, says Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High . If you come from a place of anger or revenge, it will hamper progress. “We know that coming at people with that kind of motivation is going to shut them down,” says Grenny. “They’re going to get defensive, they’re not going to be interested.”
Before offering feedback, Grenny suggests asking yourself three questions: What do I want for me? What do I want for the other person? What do I want for the relationship? “The people that are really good at creating a non-defensive, open conversation with people tend to talk to people from a perspective of, ‘I care about you and I want you to be able to achieve the results that are important to you, and I want to be able to get my results.’ When you are coming from that place, people sense it and it colors the entire conversation.”
The other homework you need to do before a feedback session is gather facts so you can provide substantive evidence of the points you want to make. “You need to write down what conclusions you want to share with this person about their performance and what supporting facts you have to dredge up to help illustrate the points you’re trying to make,” says Grenny. “You have to do that work. If you don’t, what you’re going to be having is an abusive conversation where you insult somebody without informing them.”
Stay On Track
It’s important to make sure the feedback sessions stay on track, both in terms of the topic at hand, as well as the emotional balance. “You need to be clear on the points you’re trying to make and if people are moving off topic, you’ve got to be good at bringing it back to the central point,” says Grenny.
The emotional aspect of a conversation can be a bit more difficult to negotiate. “Oftentimes, if someone is getting loud or argumentative or defensive we think “Oh boy, they can’t handle this,” so we start being apologetic and watering down our message, and sugar coating it.”
This is the wrong approach. The way to handle defensiveness is not to minimize your message, but to make the person feel safe, says Grenny. So when you sense someone starting to bristle, set aside the feedback for a moment, and show them that you have their best interest at heart. “The first thing you have to say is, ‘Look, I want you to know that I want you to win here. I’m not giving you this feedback because I’m trying to tear you down. In fact, I need to talk with you about this because I think you got potential here and I want to make sure you achieve your potential.’”
Create a Candid Culture
Many organizations suffer from a dearth of candor, says Grenny. He suggests creating a culture where most performance issues aren’t handled by you as the boss, but by the person’s peers. “Let’s be honest, in today’s world we don’t interact with our bosses the way we used to when they were standing there with a clipboard on the factory floor observing us.”
Grenny says it’s key to empower peers to provide each other with feedback and teach them the skills to do so effectively so performance problems are handled on the spot and between the people with which they occur. “You need to be actively teaching skills they ought to use for delivering feedback and sharing things because people don’t come into your organization with these types of soft skills. If leaders aren’t fostering the kinds of competencies needed to a create a positive cultural operating system, then what you’re getting is the path of least resistance, and that’s obfuscating, that’s politicking, it’s gunnysacking, it’s withholding, it’s all of that negative stuff that creates cancer.”
Feedback as Transparency
To that point, encouraging feedback has its operational benefits, but it also contributes to an overall healthy, open culture. Rand Fishkin, founder of SEO software firm SEOmoz , has a notorious proclivity for transparency. He’s blogged about the company’s ups and downs: the trials and tribulations of venture funding , his own performance, and an insider’s view of mistakes the company has made. “It’s expected when you say that your company believes in transparency, that what you really mean is ‘We will write about things we do well and we’ll share when we’ve been successful.’ And it’s actually far more interesting and far more challenging, but also much more authentic when you write about failure.”
Transparency and authenticity have already been written into SEOmoz’s core values--which Fishkin takes very seriously--but his outward transparency has also been a good model for internal culture, says Fishkin. “That’s definitely something that over the years, I’ve become conscious of. And it’s very refreshing. I think it takes a little while for someone who’s new to the company to get into that mode of thinking.”
Fishkin continues, “In much of the corporate world, what I hear is that a lot of people have this fear around sharing their insecurities or sharing things that have gone badly. At SEOmoz, we’re working very hard to make it the opposite.”
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[Image: Flickr user Eric ]