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How To Give Regular Feedback And Still Get Work Done

Performance reviews twice a year do little to help people improve. Here’s how to give constant feedback and and still get things done.

How To Give Regular Feedback And Still Get Work Done
[Photo: Flickr user Jonathan Wilson]

It’s been printed in enough management articles that it’s probably implanted in your brain: Millennials want constant feedback.

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But if you’re already busy, feeding this appetite can feel like one more task on your list. So what should you do?

I put this question to several business leaders recently, and the short answer was this: get over it.

“Every manager should be giving feedback to everybody,” says Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente. “They shouldn’t have to ask. It’s how you let someone know if he’s hitting the mark and what to do to become more effective.” The Millennial appetite is a huge opportunity for business. “Millennials are after feedback because they’re trying to get better at what they’re interested in doing.”

Almost all organizations have some sort of formal review process. Such reviews have their place, but also their drawbacks. First, accumulated feedback is overwhelming. “It’s unfair to unload 10 things on someone,” says Andrew Glincher, managing partner and CEO of Nixon Peabody, the law firm. “You put that on a person, I don’t care how good a communicator you are, you put that person on the defensive.”

Second, the infrequency becomes a huge missed opportunity. “You’re missing months or even a whole year of potential learning,” says Maggie Chan Jones, the chief marketing officer at SAP.

Here’s how to give constant feedback without draining your energy.

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Do it in real time

Jones says, “I learned early on in my career to give feedback on the spot. When you do that, people know what you’re referring to.” Just as a sports coach would, give people pointers as they come on and off the court (or in and out of meetings, as the case may be). Jones says that every time she comes out of a critical meeting with SAP leadership, she grabs her team and “we get into a conference room, or on a conference call, and I give feedback directly.”

Make yourself available

Give people an easy way to get on your calendar. Set aside a few “office hours” where people can either drop by or, if you think demand will be high, sign up for 15 minutes. You can also work opportunities for feedback into other activities like running out for coffee. “I love Starbucks,” Jones says. “Having coffee is the best way to spend time with me.”

Tyson likewise schedules coffees regularly with “up-and-coming individuals throughout the organization who I want to spend 15-30 minutes with over a cup of coffee, offering them advice, and making sure I understand what their aspirations are.”

You can even just walk around. “It could be an informal discussion in the hallways. It often is,” Glincher says. “I tend to walk around and just drop by offices.”

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Give people access to multiple leaders

The more senior people an employee interacts with, the more feedback and advice they’ll get. Glincher makes sure that younger lawyers are involved in major decisions on strategy, office locations, and other matters. “It’s basically getting them in the mix and making them part of the team,” he says.

Ask questions

You can save a lot of time and mental effort by asking people exactly what kind of feedback they want. Jones will ask, “Are you liking your job? What can I do to help you grow?”

You can also encourage people to produce their own feedback by posing open-ended questions. Tyson likes to ask, “Do you feel that was the best approach for the output you got?” There isn’t a right answer: “It’s not taken as, ‘You did something right or wrong,’ it’s just, ‘Here’s a moment to reflect.’”

Emphasize the positive

This is not always easy. “We always like to look at the negative,” says Glincher. “Part of this is how you’re trained as a lawyer. You’re trained to find the problem. But it’s the wrong way to look at business, and it’s the wrong way to look at life.”

No one can be good at everything, so smart career guidance will help people play to their strengths. Some of the most effective feedback you can give is pointing out what people do particularly well, and then encouraging them to take on new responsibilities. Strong writing skills, for instance, can lead to articles in industry publications.

Forget the feedback sandwich

Not all feedback will be positive. But sticking critical feedback in the middle of halfhearted compliments doesn’t help anyone. If something needs to change, say what it is, and work on a plan to make it happen. It’s even more important to ask questions as part of this feedback; poor performance may stem from disorganization somewhere else in the hierarchy that you should know about. Be straightforward, but deliver critical feedback from a place of caring about someone’s development.

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Solicit your own feedback

For starters, we can all improve. “We all see ourselves a certain way, and sometimes that’s not how the rest of the world sees us,” says Glincher.

But most importantly, it establishes a culture in which everyone tries to find what’s working and not working, and changes what they can as a result. “I try as much as possible to role model what we’d like to see disseminated across the organization,” Tyson says. When you ask for feedback from your team, they get in the habit of giving it, which means they’re more likely to give it to others, too.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at www.lauravanderkam.com.

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