When it comes to getting employee performance to improve, feedback can be key. But what you say, and how, can be the difference between helping and challenging them to grow, and leaving them with no clarity or plan of action. Whether you’re getting ready to do annual reviews or seeking ways to offer feedback in the day-to-day, here are some ways to do it better.
1. Focus on growth.
Creating a growth mindset for you and your employees fosters learning and improvement. It means employees will be more open to feedback and use it to work harder and push themselves to meet challenges.
2. Ask questions.
This encourages reflection, exploration, and experimentation. Marcus Buckingham, head of people and performance research at ADP Research Institute, and Ashley Goodall, senior VP of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco Systems, suggest looking at the present, past, and future — in that order. If your employee has an issue, ask them what’s working right now, how they successfully tackled a similar problem in the past, and what they know they need to do to resolve it. Focus more on “what” rather than “why” to help them find the answer on their own.
3. Be specific.
Rather than telling someone they’re “great” or “not a good employee,” focus on their actions and point out patterns in behavior instead of just one particular event.
4. Tell it like it is.
Michael Schaerer, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Singapore Management University, and Roderick Swaab, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, found that many managers unintentionally fall under the cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency. It’s when we’re so focused on our own feelings and intentions that we overestimate the clarity of our communication.
In their research, most managers thought they were clearer than they had been. This sugarcoating does more damage than good to both individual careers and companies as a whole. To avoid it, use clear language, stay away from vague phrases, and ask employees to paraphrase what you said to make sure they understood what you meant. You can also ask them to evaluate their own performance and pose open-ended questions such as, “What am I overlooking?”
5. Choose your words carefully.
Buckingham and Goodall note that how you frame things can push employees to excel. For example, instead of “Here’s what you should do,” try “Here’s what I would do.” Or rather than “Can I give you some feedback?” try “Here’s my reaction.” And instead of telling someone “That didn’t really work,” frame it as “When you did x, I felt y, or I didn’t get that.”
6. Keep yourself out of it.
While you may be using your reactions as a way to point out issues, as noted above, that doesn’t mean feedback is about you. According to Jennifer Porter, managing partner of the leadership and team development firm The Boda Group, it’s best to focus on your organization’s values and priorities and base comments on facts rather than your own interpretation.
7. Suggest improvements.
Research* has shown that those who get unfavorable ratings tend to improve their performance more than others. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) also found that threats like being demoted or having to fire employees are a key driver in the development of successful executives.
Ignoring weaknesses is bad for employees and organizations. The former believe they don’t need to improve while the latter suffer because teams aren’t focused on development. When someone does fall short, tell them what they can do differently next time. If you avoid giving feedback because an employee doesn’t react well (they walk out, for example), then that’s where your feedback should begin.
8. Criticize constructively.
Delivering negative feedback can be tricky. Too much negativity, delivered without enough respect or care, can lead to defensiveness and unmotivated employees. The best way to be heard is to present feedback that’s not judgmental, generalized, or an analysis of why the person behaved how they did.
The CCL developed its own method, Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI), to make it easier. When it comes to a specific behavior, present the employee with the time and place that it happened, and then describe what you saw and heard. Finally, explain the impact that behavior had on your thoughts, feelings, or actions.
9. Show them where they shine.
Letting employees know where they excel is just as important as telling them how they can improve. According to Buckingham and Goodall, people are more likely to improve if they know what excellence looks like for them personally. This means not only noticing when an employee does something right but pointing it out at the moment and describing how it made you feel. By doing so, you’ll let the person recognize what they did well so they’ll be able to recreate and refine it in the future.
10. Up your frequency.
Annual reviews shouldn’t be the only time you connect with the individuals on your team. According to Schaerer and Swaab, ongoing training and structured weekly or monthly check-ins can help make your feedback more accurate and reinforce your message.
While every organization may have its own approach to the review process, feedback can be the key to seeing growth, improvement, and change in your employees. Offering balanced, fair, and factual observations, fostering a learning environment, asking questions, and learning how to frame feedback in the right way can set your employees, and your organization, up for success.
Article authored by and containing the opinions of Starr Wright USA. This article is offered solely for informational purposes. Starr Wright USA is a marketing name for Starr Wright Insurance Agency, Inc. and its affiliate(s). Starr Wright USA is an insurance agency specializing in insurance solutions for federal employees and federal contractors. For more information, visit wrightusa.com. Starr Wright USA is a division of Starr Insurance Companies, which is a marketing name for the operating insurance and travel assistance companies and subsidiaries of Starr International Company, Inc. and for the investment business of C.V. Starr & Co., Inc.