Giving someone performance feedback effectively is one of the most frequent topics that comes up in my leadership coaching. Many leaders struggle to say what they want, and need, to say.
What gets in the way?
Friendly relationships with the people who report to us
Pre-conditioning to be conflict avoiders
We haven’t learned the skill of giving feedback
We don’t understand how each person best learns from feedback
Below are two practical steps for giving effective feedback. First, set the scene so people know to expect feedback. Second, have the courage to challenge directly, and do it.
Set the scene for giving feedback
In a kick-off 1:1 with a new person reporting to me, I say the following:
“I believe feedback is a gift. As your manager, it would be remiss of me to not give you feedback that will help you in your career here and wherever else you go."
So, I’m going to give you feedback. How best do you learn from feedback?”
Some people tell me to give it to them straight, and don’t sugar coat it. Others tell me they learn best with a written example, and they would prefer a day or two to process before we discuss.
What is important here is that people understand WHY you are giving them feedback. That you are on their side, supporting their career growth and performance. They are less likely to get defensive and worry when you then do bring up necessary feedback.
Deliver the feedback: care personally AND challenge directly
When you are actually in the conversation, it helps to focus the feedback on:
The fact, not the story
The behaviour, not the person
For example, if I said “you’re unreliable”, that is a story. We can dispute it. If I said “this is the third day in a row that you’ve been late for our morning team huddle”, that is a fact.
Stories get our defensive walls up as we try to protect ourselves and our egos. Facts are much more effective in helping someone objectively see what the feedback is.
Radical Candor is a powerful concept for delivering feedback (even if it was mocked by the show Silicon Valley).
Pioneered by author Kim Scott, it's involves both criticism and praise. If you care personally and challenge directly, you are using radical candor, and supporting your people as best as possible.
When you challenge without caring it’s obnoxious aggression; when you care without challenging it’s ruinous empathy. When you do neither it’s manipulative insincerity.
Many leaders actually live in the top-left quadrant, aptly called Ruinous Empathy. This is where you care personally, but you do not challenge directly. And it hurts people.
I let someone down, and hurt their career, by living in Ruinous Empathy. They were an entry-level engineer reporting to me. I should have had the courage to tell them where they were failing to live up to standards. Instead, I focused on all the trivial things they did well, and ignored the areas where they were lacking.
A year went by and it became time to do a round of internal promotions. This engineer was not promoted. When they asked me why, the real answer was that I let them down. I didn’t highlight where they needed to be better, and how to get there. I focused too much on positive (trivial) things.
Failing to challenge people directly lets them down. It is often better to help them see the truth of their performance and help them develop their skills.
Seeing that my approach was letting people down gave me the courage to face the truth, and give difficult feedback with tact. When you care personally about people, you don’t want to let them down.
If you’re letting people down, stop it. Start by setting the scene and expectation that you will give feedback, and why. Then deliver the feedback with courage, in a way that resonates with how they like to get feedback.
That's how you give feedback effectively as a leader.